In contrast to the avenue’s larger businesses, its informal economy represents a different kind of entrepreneur who works on the pavement, looking desperately at the fast-moving traffic as a means to glean a livelihood.
Among the three hair-cutting stations in the shade of large trees in front of the Balfour Alexandra Football Club, a barber wearing a Highlands Park football jersey and yellow MTN cap wields a buzzing razor with skill as he shaves a customer’s head.
A few minutes later, Chucks Odigbo lifts a shard of mirror from a table stocked with a bottle of methylated spirits, combs, oil and razors that run on a large rechargeable battery.
Regular customer Sipho Mhlangu looks into the mirror to appraise his bald head and neatly clipped moustache. He blows a kiss in the air and exclaims: “This guy is cutting like mwah!”
Odigbo, who used to play for the nearby Balfour Park Football Club, has spent the past 16 years surviving as a barber on the pavement of Louis Botha Avenue in Johannesburg.
The barber, who is from Nigeria, grooms men and women and charges customers between R20 and R40, depending on the style of the cut and the labour involved.
“Because of the difficulty in this modern time, we make it so that the price will not push you away from looking the way you want to look,” says Odigbo.
Although it might seem strange that Odigbo positions his business so close to other barbers, he explains that they gather together to create competition.
“When we are three or four, it makes me take my business seriously,” he says.
Odigbo is one of many informal traders who rely on the pedestrian traffic of Louis Botha for their means of survival.
Scraping for money as an underdog of the economy
According to a Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) 2017 survey of employers and the self-employed, such informal traders are classified as workers not registered for tax, who generally work in small enterprises. They include street traders who are individuals that sell goods or services on a public road, as stated in City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality street-trading bylaws.
Dave Fisher, city councillor for Ward 74, which covers Orchards, Highlands North and Bramley, says that with the change of political dispensation he has noticed more informal traders on Louis Botha Avenue.
“In apartheid days it was a white street,” says Fisher. “If you did not have a [permit in your] passbook, you were not allowed to be there.”
He emphasises that the sector is still relevant, in contrast to the wealthier suburbs that surround the 9,2km-long street.
“They might not make a contribution to the fiscus of the country, but those people are putting food on tables, they are educating children, they are clothing children,” he says.
Outside a storage unit, Cash 4 Scrap, a 40-year-old man sits on the pavement. He is wearing a crumpled grey and white striped shirt and cream trousers smeared with grease marks from the morning’s work. Amid the smells of metal and oil, mobile mechanic Justice Motaung has his ears tuned to the blasting hooters of the cars and combis speeding past on the busy street.
“If people are driving their own cars and they won’t start, then sometimes I can help them and get something in return from them,” says Motaung.
He relies on Louis Botha’s notorious motor traffic to provide his client base, although many of his customers, from areas including Orange Grove, Norwood and Houghton, hail from his 12 years of employment at an alarm-fitting car company, Car Fanatics.
Since the company closed down four years ago, Motaung has been working on the street, practising the trade he learned at home in the Free State from his grandfather and father, both of whom were mechanics.
Motaung says he found himself attracted to Louis Botha Avenue in 2004 by its bustle, after he had failed to find work in the Free State.
Considering that he has no car, customers or friends often have to fetch him from the scrapyard for his services.
Depending on the amount of labour and what car parts he must buy, Motaung’s fees vary, but his base charge is R350 or more.
“I do not have the money to buy myself the tools,” says the mechanic. “If I am short of some tools, I have to borrow from the 24/7 pawn shop.”
While Motaung makes about R3 500 to R4 000 a month, he is not able to save because his money goes to the running costs of his business, rent for his cottage room and his 13-year-old daughter, who stays with his ex-wife in the Free State.
Nonetheless, Motaung earns more than Stats SA’s 2019 lower-boundary poverty line of R810, which measures the income needed for minimum daily food and some household items.
Small incomes lead to savvy saving
Back at Balfour Park, Odigbo earns roughly the same as Motaung at about R4 000 a month. Almost two thirds of this goes towards renting a room in Kew as well as business costs that include charging his battery daily and buying methylated spirits every two to three days and oil for his equipment once a month. Since he also supports a 15-year-old daughter, Odigbo is lucky if he can save R500 a month. He has learned to strategise his spending based on his daily profit.
“If I need to buy bread today and I know it will last me three days, then I will buy the bread today and tomorrow I will buy sugar,” says the barber.
In Orange Grove a shoe repairman, Etward Lenkwale, is no different in being savvy with his money.
Lenkwale works on the parking lot of a closed-down art gallery, The PurpleDragonfly, where his only advertisement is a white sign reading “Shoe repairs done here”, and his name and contact number. Those who require his services will find him, from Monday to Saturday, sitting beside lilac walls that are bedecked with wild ivy. A mound of footwear including broken sandals, takkies and a pair of golf shoes is piled up at his feet while he works on fixing a grey and orange boot.
Besides the R500 that Lenkwale gives to his family, the rest of his R4 000-R5 000 monthly income goes on expenses such as 250MB of data for R10 and food throughout the week, including half a loaf of bread for R7.
Lenkwale saves on rent because he shares a one-room shack in Protea South, Soweto, with his Aunt Dibuseng Senthebane and his sister, Lineo. He spends R68 on transport and often stays inside the closed art gallery throughout the week to save time.
He charges for repairs according to what needs to be fixed. A foot sole costs R170, whereas a helium sole costs R140. His prices fluctuate because to fix the shoes he has to buy material and tools, including cotton, needles and soles, in town.
While he was previously employed in Norwood and Soweto, in 2017 Lenkwale chose to come to Louis Botha Avenue and start repairing shoes on his own, with the motivation to earn more money.
“Here I am happy because this work is too much money. In Lesotho there is no money, no nothing,” says the shoe repairer, who was persuaded by his aunt to move to South Africa in 2007.
Like Lenkwale, many migrants have tried to find better means of survival on the swarming street.
Migrant traders: Is the grass greener on the other side?
Odigbo came to South Africa in 2002 “to look for a greener pasture”, but he faced reality. “Then it was like survival of the fittest when you did not have an ID,” says the barber, who resorted to cutting hair when he could not find a job.
In Bramley another Nigerian migrant, Felix Okeke, found himself in burned pastures when his clothing merchandise was looted during the xenophobic attacks in Alexandra in August. Although Okeke still resides in Alexandra, he is now afraid to run his business in the shop that belongs to his brother, Uche.
Instead he sits on a broken, red-upholstered chair alongside what is left of his business: a single overflowing rack and a bag of clothes in front of his brother’s tyre shop on Louis Botha. The over-packed rack and overflowing bag make it difficult to discern each clothing item, however, although a light blue pair of shorts and a grey suit with an H&M label stand out.
Although Okeke has set prices for his clothing, he will give a discount if a customer cannot afford the full price.
“I will tell the customer, those jeans or trousers are R60. They will say they have only R40, and I will sell just to make a living,” he says.
Okeke orders stock twice a month from his cousin, Abuchi, who lives in London. The cost equates to Okeke’s monthly income of R8 000, so he pays his cousin only half so that he has enough money for his own expenses.
Okeke’s rent is R2 500 and he sends R500 to his six-year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Witbank, Mpumalanga. The rest of his money goes to groceries and his account in Nigeria.
He hopes to return to Nigeria in the near future. “I am not happy here; it is not my home,” he says.
On the street’s corner with Short Road, a 46-year-old man has called Louis Botha home since 2013. Amadeus Ncube, who is impossible to miss in his royal blue construction jacket, sits beside a large sheet of wood held up by empty crates. One of the black crates conceals the brown heel lift Ncube wears on his right foot as a result of being born with one leg shorter than the other. Plastic-wrapped potatoes and tomatoes and bunches of bananas, which Ncube buys from the Johannesburg City Deep market for R1 500 on a weekly basis, lie atop the wooden sheet.
Ncube wants to earn enough to feed his family in Zimbabwe and his wife, Fortunate, who is a domestic worker. Considering he makes a profit of only about R1 000 a month by selling vegetables, however, the former construction worker also relies on carpentry jobs and his wife’s income to get by.
Keeping faith while facing challenges
Aside from struggling to survive on small profits, informal traders risk police raids if they do not adhere to the Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality’s street trading bylaws. Prohibitions include trading on government property, next to ATMs or in spaces that could block traffic.
Motaung has had tools confiscated and customers’ cars towed away by the Metro Police, because he often works directly on the street, potentially obstructing oncoming vehicles.
Ward councillor Fisher raises environmental concerns. “Oil gets spilled on the road and goes into the water drains, and it clogs up with dust in the sand,” he says. “Part of the challenge is how to preserve the entrepreneurial side, yet provide the right facilities.”
Fisher says the City of Johannesburg has tried to address this by developing centres such as the Alexandra Automotive Hub, where facilities are provided for mechanics.
Odigbo, Okeke and Ncube have all suffered fines and impoundment by Metro Police who allege they are trading in prohibited areas.
Johannesburg Metro Police Department spokesperson Wayne Minnaar says informal traders will not be arrested. Instead, traders’ goods will be confiscated and they will receive receipts indicating what has been taken. To get their goods back, traders have to go to the Metro Police Department and pay a fine of R3 130 for non-perishables or about R1 000 for perishable goods.
“Sometimes we find street traders cross the line by selling illegal goods such as drugs,” says Minnaar. “They will be arrested for possession of the drugs.”
Despite these challenges, the informal workers of Louis Botha Avenue still dream of better days ahead.
“I will leave once I can get together enough money to open a shop,” says Motaung, who has not lost hope of returning to the Free State.
Similarly, Lenkwale gives his sister money to save so that one day he can open his own shoe repair shop.
Odigbo, though, has higher aspirations: “You never know! If one of my clients becomes a president, he will employ me and then I will be working under the presidency,” he says. He grins in the shade of his work station, razor ready, waiting for his next customer.
FEATURED IMAGE: Mobile mechanic checking a vehicle. Photo: Supplied
There has recently been a new addition to the haunted Louis Botha death bend, bringing to the community a whole new array of bright colours and strong opinions.
“Dumela,” greets 23-year-old Mahlatse Sachane as he climbs into the taxi and settles into his favourite window seat directly behind the driver.
Knowing that most of the passengers will probably get off soon, the young man from Alexandra anticipates a slow commute to Johannesburg while the driver hunts for more customers.
After checking the time on his phone, the professional ballet dancer retrieves a book from his rucksack and makes himself comfortable. Then the door to the taxi slams shut and the journey along one of Johannesburg’s most famous transport corridors begins.
The business street of Louis Botha Avenue, which connects the residential area of Alexandra to the Johannesburg CBD, originated almost 150 years ago as a wagon trail. Since then it has, however, been paved, albeit poorly maintained, and now hosts a constant surge of bustling vehicles on their commute to and from the City of Gold.
Like many other residents of Johannesburg, travelling along Louis Botha Avenue is Sachane’s week-day morning ritual. On his daily commute to work, he usually finds himself absent-mindedly observing the endless stream of hooting taxis as they drift across the faded road markings, passing decorative traffic lights along the way. At other times he would rather read his book than wonder about the various pedestrians weaving between the Louis Botha street vendors, who have set up shop on the broken sidewalk.
A breath of fresh air
Recently there has, however, been a shiny new addition to the sidewalk of Louis Botha Avenue, creating a divide in opinions among members of the community. As of 2019 a majestic wall reaching 8,5m in height now borders the bustling street, running along the extent of the infamous Louis Botha S-bend, also colloquially referred to as “death bend” for its high accident rate, which has caused countless fatalities among drivers and pedestrians over the years.
Measuring 451 metres in length, this “urban monstrosity” (as some label it) successfully separates the properties of prestigious Upper Houghton from Louis Botha Avenue and adjacent Bellevue, subsequently improving the resale value of those Upper Houghton properties. In an effort to disguise the so-called blatant intrusion commissioned by the City of Johannesburg’s Department of Transport, the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) contracted Trinity Session, an art organisation responsible for the #ArtMyJozi project, to complete a mural art work on the wall’s bleak 2 800m² concrete surface.
#ArtMyJozi is a project responsible for enhancing recently upgraded areas through art that represents the communities residing in those spaces. Likewise, in creating the Louis Botha S-bend mural, Trinity Session did their best to involve the public in the planning and execution of the project.
“The brief for us was to implement an art work that was painted, and to tell a story of the evolution of the city and suburban Johannesburg,” said co-director of Trinity Session and coordinator of #ArtMyJozi, Stephen Hobbs. He added, “The wall was receiving a lot of criticism from the public for being this very offensive urban form, so the idea was for a large-scale mural to uplift the face of that concrete wall, and if the narrative could speak to the broader issue of Johannesburg, then it might have relevance to the public.”
Leading up to actually painting the wall, multiple open meetings were held at Spark! Gallery, just 3km down the road from the S-bend. At these meetings, members of the public were encouraged to discuss ideas and sketch their own designs. Then a makeshift wall was curated and the designs were further revised ‒ ten times over.
About six months later, two artists started sketching the final design on the wall’s surface, after which the wall was primed and a team of about 15 artists and various assistants spent three weeks bringing the sketches to life, starting at the top of the S-bend hill and telling the story of Johannesburg in chronological order as they went down the hill.
“As soon as people started putting art on the wall, it gave (the wall) a completely different feeling,” said Sachane, who has been riding along Louis Botha almost every day since 2012. He added, “The art took it from being a wall that divided people to a wall that symbolises hope — it gives me hope at least because it is so gorgeous.”
The big reveal
With the main theme of the art work being transportation, the Louis Botha S-bend mural was unveiled on October 1, 2019 in celebration of Transport Month, and it has since become a landmark for the avenue and its cultural heritage.
Despite the work’s representation of blissful unity and shared culture, however, the S-bend wall is arguably more of a divider than it is a medium for public expression and communication.
“I am generally opposed to walls,” said Norwood Oaklands Residents’ Association chairperson Brett McDougall, who went on to say that building a wall, in his opinion, went against the City of Johannesburg’s vision of knitting together communities through the Corridors of Freedom, an initiative that aims to transform the city by overcoming entrenched spatial issues created during the years of apartheid.
To achieve this, the city has responded to the challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment by identifying Johannesburg’s main transit corridors and upgrading them to improve public transport services, provide housing along these routes and create further work opportunities. In doing so, the aim is to alleviate the distances between jobs and houses for most people living in Johannesburg, who spend an average of two hours a day commuting.
Among these is the Louis Botha Development Corridor, which has been identified as one of Johannesburg’s main transport routes.
In troubled waters
That being said, the avenue has its very own musical ensemble of screeching brakes, rumbling trucks and hooting taxis, creating an atmosphere entirely unique to Louis Botha’s sidewalks. But if you listen very carefully, you may also hear the splashing of water as the local recycling guys, who can be seen dragging their trollies weighing up to 250kg up the hill every Wednesday, take a dip in the Sandspruit along the road to cool off before continuing on their trek.
Given that the spruit flows mainly underground from its source in Bellevue, it only briefly appears above ground next to the Louis Botha sidewalk before ducking under the road and forming the Orange Grove Waterfall on the opposite side. The waterfall is, however, very well hidden in the corner of the derelict Police Reservist property in Upper Houghton.
“It is unfortunate (that all this money had to be spent on building a wall), when these millions could have perhaps been better deployed in restoring the Orange Grove Waterfall and working with stakeholders to create a public open space for local residents,” said McDougall, who is also the former chairman of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and frequently hosts guided walks along parts of Louis Botha and its surrounding areas, including a visit to the waterfall.
The silver lining
Despite robbing the waterfall of its much needed restoration, the S-bend mural seems to have also brought a sense of renewed hope to this drab area.
“I find the wall fascinating because it captures South Africa as a whole,” said Sachane, who especially likes the vibrant colours and versatility of the images.
Even nine-year-old Zac Segal, who attends King Edward VII School, located just one block from the start of the S-bend mural, was intrigued by the art on the wall.
As he sat in the back seat of his mother’s air-conditioned car, he stared intently out of the window until he found his (current) favourite painting of a man holding an orange to symbolise the area’s history as an orange farm. Upon spotting it, he rolled down the electric window and excitedly called to his mother to look at the painting.
“I am glad it’s not an orange farm anymore,” said the grade three scholar when he found out that the surrounding area, including his home in Fairwood, used to be farm land. “I wouldn’t want to eat oranges for the rest of my life.”
Zac’s mother, Anya Segal, said he and his 11-year-old brother, Skye, often point out and discuss the art on their way home from school. “Every day they spot something new,” laughed the 44-year-old. “Personally, I love the art work because it’s done so well and it brightens up Louis Botha, which is quite a drab area as it is.”
When Segal arrived home from fetching Zac, her domestic worker, 37-year-old Tobeka Notyowe, was there to greet them and help carry the groceries inside. When asked about the mural, Notyowe, who walks past the wall every day on her way home to Soweto, said, “It’s quite catchy. When you walk past, you just cannot miss it.” With a smile, she added, “There is a message there and that is what I like most of all, because it tells the story of our history.”
Similarly, Suku Ncube, a domestic worker in Bellevue, said, “I see myself in these paintings, especially in those pictures of the ladies carrying things on their heads, because that is what African women do.
“I do it all the time,” added the 30-year-old, explaining that she can carry a 20-litre bucket of water on her head without using her hands.
Thirteen-year-old Bianca Kambaji, who had just hopped out of a taxi and was on her way to school, seemed more interested in the representations of South Africa’s more recent history.
“I like the art work at the bottom of the hill most of all, because it sort of speaks about me as an individual. I love music, so the lady listening to music and the man making music are my favourites because music is something we all listen to.”
A great divider
While most people seem to have responded positively to the art on the S-bend, the wall itself has created a major divide within the community.
“We were not aware that there would be a ceremony to unveil (the mural), nor were we invited,” said chairperson and treasurer of the Upper Houghton Residents’ Association, David van Heerden. “We were not involved in the project at all.”
The COO of a manufacturing company and resident of Houghton, Tereza Martins, said, “I think the whole idea of having a mural along that wall is great, although personally I find the colours quite heavy and dark in some places.” She went on to say, “There is so much doom and gloom in daily life, so I think they should have rather done a more happy and vibrant-looking mural.”
Martins said her husband would have preferred a plain white wall to the graffiti-style art, because he thinks it encourages defacing of property in the area. “We live in Houghton and one thinks that Houghton should have a more professional look,” she said. “But in saying that, I tend to disagree because this mural is about Louis Botha, not Houghton.”
On the other hand, the manager of Sasol Houghton, Jeru Eric Leutwetse, was very pleased with the new wall and its art. “The wall has changed the image of the street in a good way,” said the 37-year- old, who added with a chuckle, “I like it too much, I almost wish they had made it longer.”
The corridor to freedom
Despite the controversies surrounding the wall and its commissioned art, the Louis Botha community seems to agree on one thing: that the area needs to be uplifted. For many, the Louis Botha Avenue region has become a place to be avoided because of its badly maintained roads and high crime rates.
For some, Louis Botha Avenue might simply be the fastest route home, but for someone like Sachane, the avenue is much more than just a grimy corridor of urban decay and irresponsible driving. For this young man from Alex it symbolises a journey from his humble beginnings as a boy living in the township to a man with a promising career as a professional ballet dancer in the big city. For Sachane, Louis Botha Avenue represents his corridor to freedom - and the mural is simply a reminder of that.
FEATURED IMAGE: ABOVE: These broken sidewalks have, however, recently been revamped, bringing a splash of coulour and new life to this busting Johannesburg transport corridor formerly characterised by its urban decay and illegal businesses. Photo: Stephanie Schaffrath
“So then, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.” – Ephesians 2:19
“Fire! Fire! Fire!” screams the congregation after the man of God tells them to curse the demons out to get them.
“No altar having my name, having my picture, created to ruin me shall prosper!”
The three-story structure trembles with the shrill sounds of praise, and the creaking of wooden floors is audible as the pastor urges the congregation to stamp on the devil on a serene Sunday morning.
Nestled in industrial Wynberg, just a stone’s throw from the township of Alexandra, the words “Christ the Solution Ministries International”, written in bold blue letters against a white background, can be seen from miles away.
“The way to the church is through that door and up the stairs. It’s a bit dark, but do not be scared: this is the house of the Lord,” said the man in a navy blue uniform with his ‘SECURITY’ cap cocked to one side.
As I entered through the narrow door I saw my reflection to my right, a shock at first, but the mirror commands you to look at yourself, to practise introspection. A gentle pat on my shoulder urged me to continue into the blood-walled foyer and up the stairs. The steep climb to the church on the third floor evoked the imagery of climbing up to Heaven, and a mix of Igbo hymnals and the singing of “Jesus loves me, this I know” filled the narrow stairway.
The second floor houses the Sunday school, which doubles up as a crèche on week days. The third floor, a brightly coloured room with high windows almost the antithesis of the route to the church, is where the service is held.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” – Matthew 25:35
“Let us pray together-oo [Asithandaze ndawonye], everyone say your own prayer [wonke umuntu asho umthandazo wakhe]. The battles you are fighting-oo [lezimpi uzilwayo], you will overcome [uzozinqoba].
“Think of today’s scripture [cabanga isifundo sanamuhla]. You are Lazarus [nguwena uLazaru] and you shall rise again [uzovuka futhi],” preached the pastor, who was dressed in a navy three-piece suit with a red tie and brown shoes. The mixture of Nigerian pidgin and Igbo seemed so befitting that the isiZulu translation stood out.
Since the late 1980s there has been a global wave of Nigerian migration, with an estimated 100 000 currently living in South Africa. It is therefore not uncommon to find a Nigerian church at the migrant hub of Johannesburg’s Louis Botha Avenue. The uniqueness of this particular church, however, is that in this migrant hub there exists a church that shows the cosmopolitan nature of the road. The church not only resembles a cauldron of melting, interconnecting and morphing culture, it is also a microcosm of the greater Johannesburg area.
A slight metallic swoosh could be heard in the tightly packed, 100-person place of worship. Now and again I could feel a cool breeze fan my face as the congregant next to me was kneeling and praying intently.
“My father! My God! I exalt you! Please deliver me from my situation,” she murmured, seemingly aware that I was listening.
To my left, a man dressed in a matching green isiagu top and trousers, with the vigour of a lion, had his eyes tightly shut, his hands balled into fists while he walked up and down muttering unintelligible sounds.
At the back were three women whose knees seemed to graciously kiss the carpeted floor, who were praying silently as if to keep the prayer in their circle.
This free display of religion, faith and praise created an air of oneness and understanding and this was of course aided by the occasional “Tell your neighbour that God is good” and “He will work out everything in your favour.”
A programme launched by the National Council of Provinces and Gauteng Provincial Legislature in 2018 looking at the effects of migration on service delivery in Gauteng found that 47% of international migrants settle in the Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipal area.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Nigerians are a population with a high record of migration.
Most migrations in Africa are intra-continental; that is why countries that have stronger economies, such as South Africa and Egypt, have a high number of immigrants.
Church as family
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” – Psalm 133:1
The cry of a hungry child signalled the length of the four-hour long service. The pastor prayed quickly over the offering basket before closing the service.
After the service the pastor led me to a door on which was written “Pastor’s Office”. I sank into the couch that took up most of the space in the bijou office. Behind the couch was a mountain of bags of rice.
“We donate these to church members who are less fortunate. Congregants contribute what they can and we divide it among those in need,” said Pastor Pascal Nwachukwu.
“As much as this church has heavy Nigerian influence, we do not see ourselves as a Nigerian church; instead we put emphasis on community, especially when someone comes into a new environment without having next of kin. They often find themselves in the church and that becomes their new family. We have some church members who are from and live in Alex but choose to worship with us.
“It was also these members who defended us during the [xenophobic] attacks, in as much as this church was not heavily affected,” said the 45-year-old preacher.
Nthabiseng Mooko a 27-year-old choir member who lives in Alex, said although her father is a pastor of a Catholic church, she still prefers to worship at Christ the Solution Ministries International.
“The vibe here is different,” she said. “We call it club church because it gives us the space to praise the way in which we want to, as the youth. My father’s church is very traditional and I had to be put together, but here I feel more at home than I have ever felt anywhere else.
“The fact that this church is a walk away from my house is a bonus. I really feel at home here. I feel included. I am even learning a bit of Igbo because of the songs,” Nthabiseng said.
Wednesdays are jam-packed, the pews filled with churchgoers waiting to consult the pastor on a first come, first served basis.
“A family that prays together, stays together”
Wednesdays are jam-packed, the pews filled with churchgoers waiting to consult the pastor on a first come, first served basis.
“I need to hurry back to work, please put me in na,” said a panting churchgoer to the caretaker, Sunday Solomon, who was monitoring who went next in seeing the revered prophet.
“These people annoy me. They take leave for everything else but cannot prioritise seeing a man who will help them with their life. Now they come in here and want to jump in,” said the caretaker.
He is a tall man of a towering structure. He looks almost like a bouncer of the church.
“I joined this church back in 2009 and I have been an active member ever since,” says Sunday.
“See, I had come to one of these counselling sessions and the prophet shared something with me. I had just moved to South Africa and my brother passed away back home, leaving children that I financially had to take care of, and for reasons I wish not to disclose I could not go back home. I was drinking and very depressed. This church saved me. At a time I was feeling at my lowest, Christ the Solution became my support system,” said the 36-year-old.
As we were conversing, sitting on plastic chairs in the crèche and with children singing their ABCs in the background, facing the door so that Sunday could regulate who went next for counselling, a woman with a baby on her back walked in and handed him a R100 note. He excused himself and went into the pastor’s office, then walked out again holding a small 100ml spray bottle with golden liquid inside.
“Do you not have a bigger bottle? This small one runs out quickly,” the woman asked.
In an earlier conversation, Sunday told me that besides being a caretaker he sold perfume imported from Dubai for a living, so I assumed the exchange was for that scented product.
“You can buy your own and bring it here and we bless it for you,” Sunday replied to the woman.
Then I realised it was not perfume they were talking about.
“It is anointing oil. R50 a bottle,” he announced proudly after seeing the puzzled look on my face.
He went on to explain the uses of the oil, while quoting an unfamiliar Bible verse. He said it could be added to bath water for a proper cleansing, sprayed over pillows to ward off bad dreams and sprayed on door and window frames to repel evil spirits.
The unwilling prophet
It was finally my turn to meet the much talked-about prophet, Amope Ekene. I was met with an unwelcoming reception. Perhaps the soothsayer sensed something I was not aware of. The muscular man, of short stature, seemed weary and unrelenting, but eased up once the conversation became more about him.
“As a young boy growing up in Nigeria, Lagos, I always knew I had the calling but I did not know what to do with it,” he said. “My father was a builder and my earliest memory was of when I was playing with cement and I built a cross and hung it on a tree. I was about six years old then.
“I moved to South Africa in 2002 and I used to gather the men at the commune I lived in to pray every night. Those are my brothers, and from there my congregation grew and now we are here,” said the 45-year-old, apparently chuffed with himself.
He proceeded to tell me more about the church and its different outreach programmes.
“People are important to us in this church,” he said. “We try to help out in any way we can. The point of moving to this space in 2009 from Berea was to realise all of the goals we have reached.
“Take the crèche as an example: Many of our congregants are unemployed or have informal employment, so need a safe place to ensure the safety of their children. We offer not only a safe but a godly environment that parents can trust. Most of the children you see in that room do not pay fees,” said the prophet.
I could hear the growing agitation outside, as I was taking longer than the average person would during counselling.
“We try to help out people as much as we can in this church. We are a family in Christ. For example, with family counselling: The family I just saw before you walked in are in trouble. The husband was on the streets and the wife is upset and cannot forgive him. She is now even withholding things a wife should give to a husband. I had to advise her not to do this because that will further drive him away, because what a man cannot get at home he finds on the streets,” he said.
“The anointing oil is honestly to build confidence and faith in our congregants. When people have a ritual they tend to be unwavering in their faith. Manifestation works and that is what we believe in,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, the children at the crèche continued to sing their lungs out, with their parents coming in to consult the prophet.
“A for apple, B for banana, C for cat,” could be heard from across the street.
FEATURED IMAGE: The exterior of a church. Photo: Supplied
Hustlers Corner Shop is a barber’s where relationships are formed, advice is given and a brotherhood has developed. It represents the community and the many cultures that thrive on Louis Botha Avenue.
For the past three years Professor Nkomo has left his home in Orange Grove at 8am, placed a batch of energy drinks he sells in his barber’s shop into the boot of his rusty old white Toyota Corolla, and then made his way to work on Louis Botha avenue. On arrival, like every other day, Nkomo lights a cigarette and unfolds the garage door that secures his barber’s shop, where he then cleans his tools for the day and prepares for what he calls a busy day of the week, Friday.
It is 9am and no customers have arrived yet. Nkomo leaves the shop open and gets into his car, which he has parked just outside, and awaits the arrival of his brother, with whom he runs the barber’s. On many days there will be no customers and he will only be visited during their lunch breaks by people who work around Louis Botha Avenue.
Brother Eric arrives and starts shifting furniture around to sweep up the piles of hair on the floor. Nkomo keeps himself busy and starts scratching in a compartment outside his shop, where he stores unique-looking mannequin heads. “Eita mf’ethu, what are you doing?” a passer-by asks him. “I am practicing a different style of cutting hair, my brother,” says Nkomo.
A barber’s shop that bridges the gap between black and white
He takes up one of three mannequin that resemble white men and have hair and beard textures similar to those of white people. The three heads have a fair skin tone, like most mannequins, but they stick out not just because of that, but because of the condition they are in. The heads have suffered quite a few bruises and dents. Strands of hair fall from the mannequin heads as you handle them, because Nkomo utilizes them quite a lot.
“I bought these mannequins so that I can teach myself how to cut white people’s hair. A lot of white people come here and struggle to find a salon that caters for them. I am trying to bridge that gap and make this place more accommodating for everyone who lives here,” explains the owner of the Hustlers Corner Shop.
Nkomo named his barber’s shop “Hustlers Corner” because he regards himself as a hustler. A hustler has many definitions, but for him it is someone who is hard-working and able to make something out of nothing.
The 37-year-old came to South Africa in 2004 to escape poverty.“I had to leave Zimbabwe so that I could better my life and provide for my family, and that is why I chose to come to Orange Groove to try and make something of myself,” he said. Louis Botha Avenue has, over the years, become a place of refuge for many of the African migrants who are now residents of the area.
The influx of migrants caused a shift as the first residents of Louis Botha Avenue, mostly white, moved out, leaving the area to cater more for the African newcomers. Louis Botha became the perfect place to establish his shop. Nkomo says it was difficult to start elsewhere because here “I know a lot of people that come from Zimbabwe, which made me feel like Louis Botha is a home away from home”.
Louis Botha Avenue: ‘a home away from home’
From the Zimbabwean mechanic, hairdresser and tailor to store owners, Louis Botha Avenue has provided a number of people like Nkomo the opportunity to build a life supported and protected by fellow countrymen in another country. These Zimbabwean-built businesses survive thanks to the people of Louis Botha Avenue and the sense of community they provide, making life easier for Zimbabweans in the area.
“I am very comfortable here because the area and people are very accommodating.” The barber explains that everyone supports each other, despite the competition for customers, and everyone is willing to help you. Nkomo feels part of the many barber’s shops that occupy Louis Botha, but time and competition from many other foreign hair salons have forced him to come up with new ideas so that his doors remain open.
Louis Botha has undergone many changes since the time it was home to notorious gangsters, Jews and Italians. Many of the businesses on Louis Botha were owned and run by Italians or Jews, such as Nussbaum’s Kosher Butchery, Ital Machinery and Super Sconto, an Italian diner that still exists in the area. Many of Louis Botha’s old residents moved away from the area and foreign nationals have since moved in to establish themselves in an area whose locals share a similar culture.
Hustlers Corner Shop, embodies the art of hustling
The avenue is largely a business street, with Nkomo’s shop being surrounded by a number of hair salons, tailors, internet cafes, convenience shops and places of worship, to name a few. After the many changes that Louis Botha Avenue has undergone, there are more than 15 salons, restaurants and churches in the area.
Stepping into the barber’s, there is a constant stream of noise, taxis honk their horns every minute, and cars speed by only to get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic due to the development of Rea Vaya, a form of public transport, and roadworks. The barber’s shop is painted yellow and blue, and the inside is so tiny it can accommodate only one customer at a time. When you enter, the first thing you hear is loud music blasting from a dusty old PC used as a music player.
In a corner of the shop you will find a bar fridge stocked with Dragon energy drinks and alcohol; but this is no ordinary alcohol. It comes in sachets and is mixed with whiskey. Nkomo sells it as a “side hustle”, he said.When he opened his barbershop he also used to sell vintage clothing and plates of food. “When I first started cutting hair I would sell bales of clothing at cheap prices so I could make extra money and support my family,” he said.
Music has become a recollection of culture
As the music plays in the background, Nkomo describes his love of music and how some of the songs he plays remind him of his home in Zimbabwe. There is a large collection of CDs on his desk and he said he used to be “in that industry”. Not only did he sell clothes on the side, but also pirated CDs and DVDs to anyone who was willing to buy them. He later stopped when he realised it could get him into trouble.
Nkomo’s brother, Eric, is also passionate about barbering, but communicating is a struggle for him since he was hit by a truck in childhood, which caused mental damage that later affected his speech. Eric managed, however, to express that he enjoyed the work, picking up hair clippers and muttering “nice” as he smiled at them. Hustlers Corner Shop opened its doors in 2016, but the 37-year-old had already started barbering in 2011.
It is 1pm and a red vehicle parks in front of the store. A middle-aged man wearing a brightly coloured t-shirt steps out and shouts “Professor!” Nkomo rushes out of the store and I ask him who this man is. He says, “this is Innocent Skhosana, a regular customer at Hustlers Corner Shop and a friend of mine.”’ “Sawubona sisi,” Skhosana greets. His energy fills up the room as everyone gravitates to him. “Would you like a beer?” asks Skhosana. I decline his offer politely and ask him about his visit to the barber’s and if he lives on Louis Botha Avenue. Skhosana explains how the barber’s shops form part of the Louis Botha community. “The Hustlers Corner Shop is one of the few places I feel comfortable at, not only to get my hair cut but to chill with friends and catch up on what has been happening in their lives,” he said.
A brotherhood within the barber’s shop
Over the five years that Skhosana has been Nkomo’s customer, they have developed a brotherhood. There was a time when Skhosana was so broke, he went to Nkomo and was offered a place to sleep by the barber. “Hustlers Corner Shop is where I found my family, even though I left my family in Zim,” he said. Barber’s shops on Louis Botha Avenue are home to many foreign nationals who come not only for a cut and shave but also for advice, support and overall to be a brotherhood.
Since the turn of the 19th century, beauty salons and barber shops have served as special places for Africans. According to an article in New Republic, the barber’s shop has become a place where men gather and spend time with other men, form close relationships, seek out advice and as a place to escape their problems. They have been places where black people could be vulnerable and talk about issues of importance to the community. Customers discuss local gossip, politics and community affairs. Original residents moved away from Louis Botha due to increased crime, house invasions, illegal businesses and never-ending road works in the path of urban decay. African migrants did not care about the socio-political pressures. They just wanted a place where they could live without fear of being attacked as foreigners.
As the day progressed and Hustlers Corner Shop got busier, Nkomo was on his fifth customer of the day. He gushed with excitement when a middle-aged man who looked like a regular greeted him and asked if he could go next, for an “English cut”. Nkomo explained that the English cut was part of his Zimbabwean culture and there is a specific way it is done, hence he is happy when people ask for it as it gives him an opportunity to let his culture shine through. The customer’s name is David Ncube and he is a regular customer. He explained that the first time he saw the English cut was at Nkomo’s shop. He liked it and wanted the exact same style. “I have seen that cut many times before, but there is something in the way Prof does it that makes me like it even more,” he said.
The future is bright for Nkomo
According to a journal article titled Fading, Twisting and Weaving: An interpretive ethnography of the black barbershop as a cultural space, the barber’s shop is an institution of social exchange where culture and community play an influential role. It is a cultural space that allows the exchange of ideas and discussion among barbers and customers. Hustlers Corner Shop operates from 9am to 9pm and makes on average between R400 and R600 a day. Louis Botha has provided Nkomo with the opportunity to support his wife, Forget Nkomo, and their three kids.
Nkomo met his wife in Zimbabwe and came with her to South Africa, where they could build a better life and future for their South African-born children. Nkomo says South Africa is a place of opportunity, and if he had stayed in Zimbabwe he would still be struggling to provide for himself, let alone his family. “This place gave me security. When xenophobia took place we looked out for each other and that just proved to me that when I am here I have a family,” he said. Nkomo sat down on one of the shaky chairs in his salon as he cleaned his barbershop tools for the last time for the day. He then stepped out of the salon to pack away the mannequin heads that were to bring him white customers, although none came. Looking into the distance, he said one day he hopes to own a number of barber’s shops around the African continent as a means “to celebrate the many different cultures and expand the business”.
FEATURED IMAGE: An image of a barbershop. Photo: Supplied
Three migrant tailors play tug-of-war with the unrelenting Chinese clothing industry to assert their own economic dominance on a snoozing avenue they call home.
Seated in his dark shop that bears his name, Daniel “Legend” Osakwe, a tailor anchored on the corner of Louis Botha Avenue and 2nd Street in Johannesburg, let out a defeated sigh. It was 9am and load-shedding had hit, drawing the life from his electric sewing machine.
“Obviously my work flow is now affected,” said Osakwe, pushing the coral silk cloth he was working on to the side of his large metal workspace. It cascaded onto the adjacent table, which held a colourful pool of fabric cuttings swimming together.
Parts of the avenue surrounding him were also in a slump. The steely sound from the nearby motor repair shop, synonymous with the Hillbrow-Sandton corridor, had ground to a halt. Trudging cars honked as if trying to will the dead traffic lights to come alive again.
Although visibly annoyed, Osakwe exuberantly greeted everyone who passed his shop. His liveliness mirrored the energy of his active wear. Osakwe wore grey sweatpants and, over a blue t-shirt, a black gym jacket. His camouflage cap almost covered his eyes, drawing attention to his white-speckled beard which gave away his 44 years of age.
A sleeping avenue smothered by the Sleeping Giant
Louis Botha Avenue sleeps – even when it is powered by Eskom. The economy is in need of a revival, due to plodding construction projects, the changing demographics of the area and the scourge of crime, which has driven many traders to safer, more prosperous areas. For those who choose to stay, such as Osakwe, it is a fight for survival.
“I named myself Daniel Legend back home in Nigeria when I started designing clothes. I loved John Legend’s music, so I also gave myself that name,” he said.
Osakwe moved to South Africa over 18 years ago and opened Daniel Legend in 2004.
In his shop, Europe rubs against Africa through the beaded lace outfits hanging next to the bold Ankara wax-print garments. Ankara is batik-inspired material with Indonesian roots adopted in West African fashion, giving the colourful material a hard, glossy finish which disappears after the first wash.
“The material mostly comes from China,” Osakwe said, with a hint of exasperation.
China’s clothing and textile industry slyly provides tailors with quality material to make outfits, but beats them to the customer line with its own clothing production.
“Compare Chinese export data to that of local customs revenue import data. There is a huge gap,” Eppel said.
In 2017 almost half of all South African imported textiles and clothes came from China and was valued at more than R19 billion, said a report released by Cotton South Africa, a cotton industry organisation.
Osakwe said business plummeted in 2010 when the Chinese clothing industry caught up with Afrocentric fashion trends.
“Before then, only a few South African design houses such as Sun Goddess had commercialised traditional prints,” Osakwe said, adding that he would sew about 15 garments a week.
When he got multiple orders, he would hire help to meet his customers’ desired outfit deadlines.
“Nowadays I sometimes see about five customers. Sometimes no one comes through my doors for a whole week.
“Now I am not just fighting the Chinese market for African designs, I am competing against tailors who have popped up on the avenue as a result of the demand,” Osakwe said.
A thirteen-minute walk down Louis Botha Avenue from Osakwe’s shop sat another tailor, Paul Mphando, carefully hemming a side of a voile curtain. He was tucked up in Adom Clothing, close to 8th Street, a shop with a variety of clothes, many of which were light and semi-transparent, with fraying threads visible on closer inspection.
Mphando spoke with measured precision, his speech squeezed out of his stiff, clean-shaved face. His small eyes, however, opened wide while speaking about his garment making journey.
“My time as a tailor has been number one. My customers come here from all over, including Spruitview and Pretoria,” Mphando, a Malawian migrant, said.
Mphando said he was inspired to seek greener pastures in a foreign country by his now late stepfather, a tailor working in Botswana several years ago.
“Louis Botha Avenue was the first place I arrived in South Africa when I came in 2013,” he said, adding that his brothers who lived on 14th Street pushed him to migrate to Johannesburg.
Mphando said he was in the “right place”, but admitted his location gave him unwanted competition with cheap clothing.
“That dress is R250. I sell my dresses for R600. If a customer walks in, which one are they more likely to buy?” Mphando asked, pointing at a blue dress hanging from the open entrance security door.
A stifling crime blanket covers the Hillbrow to Sandton corridor
While China has a vice grip on the tailors of Louis Botha Avenue, the avenue’s own socio-economic fabric also threatens to suffocate the livelihood of the corridor’s businesses.
Osakwe keeps his wrought-iron gate closed as a precautionary measure against the lawlessness that exists in the area.
“People are afraid to park their cars to come into my shop, so they rather just drive past me every day.
“There are a lot of street boys who mug people of their possessions and spend their time smoking dope,” he said.
Osakwe, an Orange Grove resident, said many street boys live along Louis Botha Avenue, a high-density housing area lined with high-rise apartments.
Osakwe and Mphando are part of the community of African migrants who moved into the area. About 25% of the flat dwellers in the area are migrants, according to a research paper by Wits University spatial analysis and city planning researcher Alexandra Appelbaum.
Appelbaum said this had been an ongoing effect of the decline in the Johannesburg inner city which began in the 1970s. As a result, rental prices became more affordable for African people to move into neighbourhoods along Louis Botha Avenue close to the city centre, such as Orange Grove.
Back at Daniel Legend, Osakwe rocked slightly in a maroon mesh-covered chair while looking out into the street through his barred entrance.
“You know, whenever African people move in, the white people move out,” Osakwe said, marking white cotton fabric with a pencil. He would regularly slot it behind his left ear as he smoothed the material with his hands.
Osakwe said he shops around Amalgam’s China Mall and the Johannesburg CBD for fabric for good deals to make sure he gets a third profit off a garment sewn.
When quoting a customer, he includes a return taxi trip to the Johannesburg CBD from Orange Grove, which costs him R22.
“To make a lady’s top, I can buy material and other necessities for about R190, and in the end sell the garment for R300,” Osakwe said.
Mphando, on the other hand, said he makes sure of 50% profit on every garment. He said he buys from cross-border traders who bring back material from other countries.
“I can get it as cheap as R150 for 6m of material,” Mphando said. To maximise even further, he often resells the material he would have bought with a R100 mark-up for himself.
While China exports cheaper fabric, Osakwe said he would never compromise on buying poor quality fabric to lower costs.
“When people see my work, it must show my excellent workmanship,” he said.
Customer service: The personal assistance not even the smartest robot could offer
As Osakwe sat alone in his shop, a petite woman seemingly appeared out of nowhere. She stood outside the entrance, next to a mannequin of similar stature. The life-sized doll was dressed in a Ndebele print-inspired A-line dress sneakily adjusted with a wooden peg at its back to hide the garment’s actual size. The visitor’s body was motionless, eyes moving slightly, as if unsure whether she could window-shop through the wrought iron bars.
Osakwe quickly welcomed her in with a sense of familiarity. Felicia Mlangeni had paid him a visit to potentially get a dress sewn.
“It is for my sister’s umembeso. She is getting married next month,” Mlangeni said, perched over Osakwe’s shoulder as she showed him the dress she had in mind on her phone. “Do you have your own material?” Osakwe asked. Mlangeni took a moment to ponder, as if asked a trick question, before sheepishly shaking her head in response. While giving her a quick look at and feel of the fabric options available to her, Osakwe explained that a cotton and polyester mix dress would cost her R600, while if she opted for a pure cotton outfit he would charge her R850 for the design and material.
What started as an awkward business encounter turned into a friendly chat between Osakwe and Mlangeni, as if they were old friends.
“If you are going to be dancing, wear a low heel. What will you do with your hair?” Osakwe asked as Mlangeni bounced off her tippy toes, as if wearing imaginary stilettos.
Clothing alterations: A way to bite back and feed off the Chinese clothing industry
Next door to the shop Mphando was stationed in sat Misheck Mponda in Heartland Boutique, entertaining friends. He was formally dressed with the top button of his blue shirt open, spreading his collar over the white tape measure hanging from his neck like a loose tie.
An elderly man popped his head through the open glass door and shouted “How much?”
His right index and middle fingers mimicked a pair of scissors snipping through the baggy lower left sleeve of his stiff blue overalls.
“R30,” Mponda responded to the man’s price inquiry about alteration. The man disappeared quickly after he heard the figure.
Unbothered by the man’s abrupt departure, Mponda kept his eyes on the darting needle before him.
“People always shop for the best deal,” the 34-year-old said. Mponda, who had been a Louis Botha Avenue tailor for five years, said he thought he had offered the “old man” a good price for alteration.
“For you,” he said, pausing his work to let his eyes run over my face, “I would say R40”.
Mponda said he had no fixed price for altering or sewing garments and would often form a price by judging a customer’s appearance.
“But it is not a problem, they can reduce the price,” he said, adding that he was open to price negotiation, a competitive small business element that allows entrepreneurs to rope in customers by adjusting prices.
Mponda said altering people’s clothing was a “good” source of income for him, as customers came out of boutiques having bought incorrectly sized clothes.
“Chinese clothes are sometimes too big or too small. When people buy clothing from the shop which they can’t fit into, they come to me,” Mponda said, highlighting his satisfaction with working on the avenue.
“I am just a blind man; God will be my eyes,”
Osakwe, a husband and father-of-two, said he sometimes wishes he could leave Louis Botha Avenue completely.
When he set up shop on the avenue he had hoped the transport node would expose him to many potential customers.
“I just don’t have enough resources to move to places like Sandton,” he said, resting both his hands on the work station in front of him.
Osakwe said he had often been at the mercy of his landlord, struggling to meet the R3 000 rent and utility bills for his shop.
A red bible peeked through folded material near his hands, belonging amid his clutter just as much as the spools of thread and pairs of scissors scattered over the table.
“Living as an immigrant in a country so far away, I need to have strong faith and ambition,” he said.
Far back in his shop hung a painting of White Jesus, draped in red cloth, straddling a lamb while his fair bare feet led a flock of sheep through the wilderness.
“I am just a blind man; God will be my eyes,” Osakwe said, his hands briefly held open in surrender as if reaching to heaven to shine its light on him.
FEATURED IMAGE:Garment-making on Louis Botha Avenue is an unpredictable business and tailors have to measure their steps to stay ahead in an upside down economy. Photo: Ntombi Mkandhla
Louis Botha Avenue is a street in transition where small businesses that once thrived are battling to attract customers, but with the prospect of revival there lies hope for the future in a declining economy.
PERCHED on an oil-stained wooden table, a bicycle wheel spins and wheezes. Each spin reflects the light from a headlamp worn by a slender, spectacled man whose hands are blackened from the greasy wrench he wields to loosen and tighten wheel spokes.
“There is no school that will teach you how to fix bikes or learn the industry. I had to learn from grassroots level,” says Vimal Daya, who runs Bhanis, a bicycle shop on Louis Botha Avenue in Orange Grove, Johannesburg.
“It’s been tough, as I had to learn things from scratch, but over the years I have managed to teach myself.”
The dark room is filled with bicycle parts and wheels, making it a minefield for the clumsy. Daya runs Bhanis with his older sister, Jyoti “Judy” Daya. The shop, tucked away on Louis Botha, has been operating since 1982.
“I’ve become good enough at repairing and fixing bicycles. I think I am more mechanically proficient than academically proficient,” says Daya. He laughs in the flickering half-light, the result of a power cut caused by yet another bout of load-shedding. But these are dark times for the once thriving business.
“It has been terribly tough. We are basically just surviving,” says Daya, shrugging as he searches for a tool in the jumble of his shop.
A once thriving street which has fallen prey to ‘lawlessness’
Louis Botha was once a bustling street, but it has been battered by a troubled South African economy with problems ranging from high unemployment to crime, poverty and increasing competition from Johannesburg’s many malls.
The origin of the street dates back to 1876, just after the discovery of gold in Johannesburg. It has since become a vital thoroughfare that runs for more than 9km from the edge of Hillbrow to the border of Sandton.
The stretch of Louis Botha in Orange Grove has fallen victim to urban decay, with many businesses now characterised by informal trading, shebeens, churches and cash-for-scrap shops that have car parts spilling onto the pavement.
There is some hope for Louis Botha, though, because of Johannesburg’s “Corridors of Freedom” project, which partly intends to revive its economy.
“The ‘Corridors of Freedom’ are one of the ways in which the City will transform entrenched settlement patterns that have kept many marginalised communities at the outskirts of the City, away from economic opportunities and access to jobs and growth,” according to the South African Jewish Report.
The development plan can revive Louis Botha’s economy “if it is done right”, says Noel Hutton, the director of NPC, a non-profit corporation that works closely with the Louis Botha community.
“Louis Botha is a very narrow road … to get everything envisaged and planned is impossible,” says Hutton, adding: “There will be no place for pedestrians; there are so many issues to do with that particular corridor before you get outside of it.”
Roger Chadwick, NPC senior project manager, says “physical mobility in Louis Botha is nil. It is dangerous to walk in.”
Chadwick, who has lived in the area since 1995, says the lack of security has affected the economy.
“Louis Botha is a river of crime. You can’t divorce economics from the social fabric. There are a lot of forces that are having a negative effect on business. Why would I want to trade on Louis Botha Avenue if there is no law, order and enforcement?”
City of Johannesburg PR councillor Strike Rambani agrees that the underlying problem in Louis Botha is “lawlessness”.
“If the social issues can be improved, then we can improve our economy,” says Rambani, who has lived on Louis Botha for 20 years.
“We are getting upgrades in Orange Grove, but it is going to be a long process,” says Chadwick.
The “Corridors of Freedom” will redevelop an “effective public transport system”, Rea Vaya, which will increase foot traffic as more people travel through Louis Botha and residential developments, “which will stimulate opportunities for small-scale operators.”
But for Vimal Daya the prospect of thriving in today’s economy is a distant dream.
“For the past three years the biggest challenge in the business has been surviving, because of this whole economic crisis our country is going through right now,” says the 45-year old bike enthusiast.
His rent is roughly R15 000 a month: “To meet the rental obligations has been a challenge,” he says, “especially in winter, as it is not a good period for the cycling business.
“Things get tight, you can’t meet some of your payment obligations and we’ve run into trouble, where suppliers have stopped supplying us because we have taken too long to pay them off.”
The business has not been making a profit for the past three years.
Daya employs one person, who helps to repair bicycles.
“It is not viable to employ people because business is so bad, it doesn’t pay me. Each month the expenses tend to increase and we need to have the money to meet those expenses,” says Daya, adding that “things like going on holiday and going to the movies, the extra things you deserve in life, we had to make major cutbacks on.”
But Bhanis is not alone in its struggle to survive and thrive as a small business.
The shop is stocked with new bicycles which can be mistaken for second-hand since the wrappings have peeled and punctured tyres sit in the shop, collecting dust.
“Customers won’t buy new bicycles, but rather fix their old ones, which is more affordable,” Daya says. If a customer wants a bicycle he will show an image of the one he wants and will order it. “My stock size has shrunk,” he says.
“A good bicycle in the 1990s would cost you R800,” says Daya. “Today the same quality bicycle will cost you R2 500, which is a huge jump. Back then things were cheaper and people could afford them,” he says with a fleeting smile.
Marian Laserson, 83, community activist and architect who has lived in the area for most of her life, remembers Orange Grove as a thriving, energetic neighbourhood.
“We had an excellent bus service so people could go do their shopping,” she says. “When crime started to escalate, people started using their cars more and wouldn’t come to Louis Botha because there is no parking. Louis Botha started to die.”
The ‘nineteen-ninetines’, when it went downhill
Daya says during the 90s all four major banks were a quick walk away from his shop. When the banks and major stores such as Markham’s and Foschini closed down it had a negative impact on his business.
Chadwick also remembers the banks’ pull-out as a big blow to business on the street.
“When Standard Bank moved out we threw our toys out; then FNB followed. We said no, you are killing Louis Botha,” he says.
Despite the declining economy, Bhanis is still well supported by regular customers.
Ilan Guest, a coach at Mandeville Wheelchair Rugby Club, uses Bhanis for fixing punctures, fitting tyres, buying tubes and replacing bearings on wheelchairs.
The service is “good value for money”, says Guest. “He is very cheap; too cheap in my opinion.”
Even with no customers, Daya remains busy fixing bicycles, arranging stock and attending to finances and administration.
He is philosophical about his circumstances, believing it is better to face challenges in life than to abandon all hope and walk away from them.
The business is his only source of income, and walking away will escalate his “personal problems”.
Daya hopes his business will improve, and although he is sceptical, “we remain positive and try to survive”.
The good old days
Next door to Bhanis Bicycle Shop is Yogi’s Den, an old-school clothing store stocked with classic brands such as Dickies, a vintage work-wear brand fashionable in the 90s, and Umbro, an 80s athletics brand which has since made a comeback.
The shop is dark, cramped and piled with pants, sports t-shirts and men’s formal shoes.
Sifting through the morning newspapers, Narendra Daya, balding but athletic-looking, wearing a Levi t-shirt, bracelet and a wooden beaded necklace, is taking a break from the day’s business.
He runs his fingers along each page of a newspaper, occasionally leaning forward to watch the passing foot traffic.
“When it’s dark nobody wants to come in, so all I do is sit and wait,” says Narendra.
The 60-year old is the owner of Yogi’s Den, which was founded by his older brother, Yogi, and has been running on Louis Botha Avenue since 1977 after moving from the centre of Johannesburg.
Yogi’s Den is overcrowded with unsold clothes.
“Business is not good and all we are trying to do is survive,” says Narendra. “When we first opened, the rent was R200; now it is R10 000. We manage to make the rent, but it is tough. Business was good in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but by mid-2000 it wasn’t so good.”
Narendra remembers the days when customers would stream into the store, especially on weekends. “We couldn’t just sit and talk like this,” he says. “People would be saying give me this, give me that!” He points to the rows of clothing covering the shop.
“I remember back in the day when Yogi’s Den was the place to go to get deals” says Noel Hutton, who was a regular customer in his university days. “I still have some of the clothes I bought from there 120 years ago,” he says with a laugh.
When Hutton lived in Sandringham he would use the bus to go to Louis Botha.
“It was vibrant, there was a lot going on, it was a hangout place. Saturday nights, that’s where you would start your jols.”
Revival in a declining economy
Down the street from Bhanis and Yogi’s is a shop with a pink, black and blue store front and a cherry logo.
Inside there is an overpowering smell that brings candy to mind. Welcome to Taboo, a shop that sells sex toys and adult DVDs. Behind the counter is an array of pills, herbal plants and “puffs” – herbs crushed and rolled into joints.
The owner of the shop, a cordial man wearing glasses and a Superdry t-shirt, introduces himself as Mark. He asks that his surname not be used, as some members of his family do not approve of the nature of his business.
“I would not be able to survive solely on the sex stuff,” says Mark, who once worked in the corporate world and “will never work for anybody again”.
Taboo sells “flavoured herbal mixtures” that do not contain THC, the psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, and are therefore legal according to current South African law.
The “puffs”, as Mark explains, come in various flavours such as coconut, cherry and mint. They cost R55 each and the rolled herbal mixture is R20.
Taboo has been operating on Louis Botha since 2012. Mark says the business is doing relatively well, thanks mostly to the pills, puffs and herbal mixtures.
He looks up to greet a customer. The man, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, asks for a cherry-flavoured puff. He is disappointed to learn the flavour is out of stock.
“I brushed my teeth this morning only to get here and find the cherry is not available,” he laughs.
Mark says that being friendly and welcoming is part of his business philosophy. He has found a niche in the market and has made the most of it.
Outside Bhanis, a man walks in with a blue and green child’s bicycle. He leaves it on the floor for repairs and rushes out to his parked car. Daya thanks him and waves him goodbye. As long as there are customers on Louis Botha, as long as there are people to serve them, the street and its businesses will survive.
FEATURED IMAGE: Vimal Daya, runs Bhanis Bicycle shop with his sister Jyoti ‘Judy’ Daya. The 45-year old began working at the shop in 1992. Photo; Lwazi Maseko
A courageous Malawian woman making big life changes to ensure her own happiness, she first left her country of birth to attain financial freedom and then her husband, who tried to rape his stepdaughter. A mother, friend, mentor and sister, she lives in Orange Grove and works in a fruit and vegetable store on Louis Botha Avenue.
UPON entering a store selling luscious fruits and vegetables on a sunny weekday, I find a young- looking woman engaged in telling a story to a man leaning close to her, with both his hands clasped tightly on his lap. From the deep stare in his eyes, I am curious to find out what this tale entails. The petite woman with brown, fuzzy hair puts her story on hold and welcomes me with a warm smile, kindly asking what assistance she can provide. I am pleased with the service, retrospectively comparing it with a recent misfortune of a cashier who scanned my products without even looking at me once, refusing to end the conversation I found her having with the cashier opposite us.
The woman, with the body and height of a 20-year-old, takes me through the different price ranges of her mouth-watering products, and instead of the weather small talk we get straight into the hardships of working and living on Louis Botha Avenue. Just like that, I was let in on the life of a single mother, abandoned by her spouse, who migrated for survival.
The planting of the seed
Mtsunge Katola is a Malawian mother who works at a fruit and vegetable store on the west side of Louis Botha Avenue and 7th street. She lives only two streets away from where she works to make a living. There are numerous walk-ins on an hourly basis on the right hand side of her store, where *Salem Kuran, a Pakistani man, owns a supermarket, allowing more people to pass by the fruit and vegetables on display outside her own store.
On the left hand side, a pot-bellied, one eyed Malawian man sells home appliances. A stray black-and-white cat keeps him company through the day as hardly any customers come into the store. Always found outside, he stares and smiles, rocking backwards and forward, and just when I think he will finally utter a word when I look back at him, he shyly walks into his store, only to come out a few minutes later to continue watching us.
Somewhere in the suburbs of Johannesburg lies one of the longest streets joining opposite ends of the city, with a century-long history. We find Louis Botha Avenue, a road that could be north of Pretoria and south of Bloemfontein.
The Groove of Louis Botha Avenue
With a plethora of churches, businesses and eateries, Louis Botha in Orange Grove, Johannesburg, is a place where work and home can easily co-exist. With some describing it as “little Africa”, many have migrated to make a living for themselves.
This is the same for David Leckison, a 27-year-old man who works at another fruit and vegetable store on Louis Botha Avenue and 6th Street. Almost always found just outside his store, with his pants sagging as he stands, an automatic bounce accompanies his walk. He looks left and right before entering, as if talking outdoors is taboo.
The Malawian-born man relocated to South Africa in 2015 to seek employment and better his family situation. Leckison is the second of three children of Joseph Leckison and Jennifer Izeck, who are back in Malawi surviving on the money sent by their children. “When we first moved to South Africa my brothers and I stayed in Pretoria CBD, but because John and I were not making money we had to move to a place where we could make money”, says Leckison as he refers to Louis Botha Avenue.
Mtsunge Katola is a fruit and vegetable store owner on Louis Botha Avenue who has found a home away from home. She takes us through a journey of her life in Orange Grove and her workplace in Louis Botha Avenue. Video: Jabulile Mbatha
Handshakes and a half embrace take place between Leckison and a tall man, who I hear say, “I really look forward to working with you, my man.” As I find the conversation ending, Leckison folds his arms, revealing a faded tattoo and simultaneously putting his chin up, eyeing me and standing with his legs far apart from each other as he says “Mhh” as a way of greeting back, as he always does.
The friend is known as Dexter Ndlovu , a resident of Orange Grove who shops regularly on Louis Botha Avenue. His relationship with Leckison began on credit. “I regard David as my own brother,” says Ndlovu. “When I did not have enough money, he would allow me to take things on credit; he never expected the money to be paid back. I knew he had a good heart.”
Orange Grove is an economic hub with a multiplicity of activities within what is a residential area. Although it experienced a decline in development in the late 1900s, people still find a way to make it work. There is a vast variety of nationalities, races, religions and incomes in the area. It shows even in the infrastructure, from the exclusively Ethiopian churches to the Christian schools, to the Italian eatery and through to the newly developed apartments opposite ancient, shabby ones. The streets are loud with chatter from residents walking from place to place, and from the engines of BMWs and Porsche Cayennes.
A culture of getting sloshed
One late evening in Louis Botha, streets are filled with passers-by rushing back home and many hand signs are flashed in the air by those waiting for almost broken-down taxis to take them back home. A number of uniformed old women slowly drag their feet to wherever home is, walking in silence, too tired to even speak to each other after a day of scrubbing the kitchen floors of their sir and madam.
The taverns fill up with sweaty men in safety boots and tattered PPE clothing wanting to grab one for the road, leaving behind those who have been there since the sun came up.
On a buzzing night just like any other, on the corner of Louis Botha Avenue and 7th Street, Stanley Maseko and Susan Mkhize are among numerous others drinking inpublic, with some still in uniform from their respective work places. The drenching smell of a brewery is detected from a mile away and one of the men sitting in a line shouts to me as I ask what the occasion is.
“Hey sister, this is Louis Botha and we drink for a living!”
A severely scarred face approaches me with a smile of broken teeth and with deep, sad eyes. This resident of over 20 years shares that his late mother used to work at Hospice Wits and now that she is gone, he is left all alone. “I have made my fair share of mistakes in this lifetime and I do not want to blame it on being motherless, but I do think I wouldn’t have done some of the things I have done if I had a family.” In the crowd of public drinkers, Mkhize interjects, cursing Louis Botha Avenue for being rotten. “There are no jobs here,” she says. “What is the point of having family if we are going to live in poverty? I would rather be alone like you, Stanley.” She explains that Orange Grove hardly has running water, let alone electricity.
I discover that the electricity crisis is true after several visits to Katola’s store, which becomes as dark as the night when the sun has set. Katola is almost never alone in her store. A man who seems to be fixing wires in the back peeps out to see who has come in as she stands to hug and welcome me. She apologises because her little shop is lit with a single candle, and asks that we sit close to the door so we can use the street light to see each other clearly.
The man, who is constantly emerging from the back of the store, is *Thulani Khumalo. “I have stayed with ‘Mama wa Ishmael’ for years now. I am always in the store because I live in the back, guarding her store during the night. I do this because she saved my life. I can say God blessed me with another mother,” Khumalo says. Many refer to Katola as the mother of her children’s names, as a way of showing respect. She earned this respect by giving Khumalo a chance from a life of homelessness and drug use, by distracting him with maintenance work at the store and the task of guarding it at night.
With the sun setting much later in the evening, and the warm air putting people into shorts and sleeveless shirts, the fruit and vegetable business does better since the season has changed.
Although there are a number of fruit and vegetable stores along Louis Botha Avenue, each one caters to a different part of the city, from Orange Grove to Alexandra. Louis Botha Avenue has the potential to generate economic growth as it did in the past; the city of Johannesburg is working on developmental programmes such as the Transit- Oriented Development Programme to alleviate inequalities in this high-density area.
Captured by the storytelling, assisted by continuous hand movements, a mother and her son pick up and analyse the vegetables, almost as if lifting weights. They bring our conversation to a halt. Katola Mtsunge stands up with her warm smile, saying, “How can I help you mama?” It may be this hospitality that makes her more than just a woman selling veggies. When the woman cannot find the last of her needs, she is referred to one of the other stores across the road. Like a mind reader, Katola takes one look at me and answers, “We help each other out. When I don’t have something in store, I refer my customers to someone else who might have it, because after all we are all trying to make a living.”
With the notion that life is better in South Africa, Katola left a country with an unemployment rate of 5.40% for a struggling South Africa with a high jobless rate of 29% to date. “The education in Malawi is good, I must admit, but after I completed high school I struggled to find employment so I moved up here in 2008.”
Xenophobia is defined as “fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers; it is embodied in discriminatory attitudes and behaviour and often culminates in violence, abuses of all types and exhibitions of hate”.
Having lived in Pretoria at first as a domestic worker earning only R800 a month, a place rife with xenophobic attacks, she moved to Louis Botha Avenue feeling underpaid and afraid for her own life. With a breaking voice, Katola says, “I watched my friend being burned to death in Pretoria, knowing there was nothing I could do to help her because I am a foreign national too. The only solution was to move.”
FEATURED IMAGE: A woman selling at an informal stall. Photo: Supplied
Family, for some, is not written into the branches of ancestor charts but lies in the interlocking characters whose lives flow into each other daily. One unlikely family, whose lineage can be traced to the plot of land they share in Savoy Estate at the corner of Louis Botha and Grenville avenues, are a hodgepodge of characters from South Africa, Zimbabwe, West Africa and Bangladesh.
The parking lot on the service road at the intersection of Louis Botha and Grenville avenues in Savoy Estate is crammed with cars stationed in tight spaces between designated white lines. Late Thursday afternoon traffic is moving swiftly across Louis Botha Avenue as minibus taxis careen between motorists to beat the changing of traffic lights.
Steven Marks (47) lets out a resigned sigh which creases his pink face, still weary from the heat. His stomach is stretched tight against the polyester mesh of his metallic blue t-shirt; the glistening silver chain around his neck leaves sweaty diamond imprints on his fevered skin.
Marks watches the fast-moving picture show before him from where he stands outside his apartment building. He nervously surveys the scene to his right.
A group of about 10 African men in their thirties and forties occupy the pavement outside Savoy Supermarket. Five of them are huddled together, their heads bent intently over a card game. Each man takes a turn to swig from bottles of lager beer and trade money between themselves. The toot-tooting of taxis whizzing past becomes background noise against interrupted guffaws from the men.
One of the men breaks away, stumbling his way through broken bottles, sewage and dirt to the edge of the pavement. He unzips his pants and the sound of urine hitting the pavement is muffled slightly against the din of traffic on Louis Botha.
“Yissis, Louis Botha is something else,” remarks Marks. “I’d rather move to Congo or Nigeria. It’s probably safer there.”
Marks rents an apartment at Pearl Harbour on Louis Botha. Pristine tiled walls on the outside of the building reflect passing men and women. Turnstiles and a security pad hinder access to anyone who is not a resident.
“They make a mess. It’s all types of things,” Marks says about the men. “Over the years things change. They don’t stay the same. You either join ’em or you go against them. We don’t bother them and they don’t bother us. Living in Jo’burg, you get used to it.”
Away from home
The building at the corner of Louis Botha and Grenville avenues, which is subdivided between Pearl Harbour, Atlas Finance, Savoy Supermarket, Liqui Moly (a company that specialises in car care) and Pirates Motor Spares, is owned by Bekehal Trust, which purchased the premises in 2011 and rents out 28 apartment units at Pearl Harbour.
Marks, previously a resident in Fairland for 15 years, has been at Pearl Harbour for four years. Struggling to keep his rubble removal business afloat and foot the bill, he moved south-west to Savoy after being forced to downsize from his three-bedroom townhouse.
He takes care of his aging parents, with whom he shares a two-bedroom apartment – a claustrophobic living space of one bathroom, no living room and a kitchen the size of a shoebox.
Marks notes a big difference in the change in face on Louis Botha.
“There are a lot more foreigners now, but the Jewish community sticks together,” he says. “They [Bekehal Trust] will not let foreign nationals into the building. The Jewish and other communities that have been around [Orange Grove] are not around anymore, because everyone has emigrated. Lots of black people have taken over those houses and bought up the area. These guys don’t live here.”
“These guys”, Godfrey Dlamini (33) and James Kustavo (32), are part of the group of men who occupy the pavement.
The next Tuesday, Kustavo and his colleagues share a breakfast of beer bought from Savoy Liquor Store on the opposite corner. Every day the men check in at eight o’clock to offer their auto repair services to potential customers passing by.
“I like it because I am surviving. I don’t steal things from people,” says Dlamini. He toys with a plastic rosary hanging around his neck. “I manage to pay the rent and eat. I send my mum something, but it’s not easy to get a real job.”
Dlamini, who describes his education as “bumper to bumper”, completed his schooling only up to grade 10. The Zimbabwean-born mechanic moved to South Africa in 1992 with his father, who taught him the trade.
Dlamini says the police often chase him and the other men away because they are not supposed to be occupying the pavement without a permit from the city council.
The City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality street trading by-laws states that street trading is the supplying of goods or services for profit on a public road. As informal traders, the men need to comply with the by-laws to ensure certain conduct is maintained.
The men are in violation of multiple legislations, namely: “Create a nuisance; damage or deface the surface of any public road; or create a health hazard.” Penalties for non-compliance include a R50 fine or, in default of payment, imprisonment of six months.
Five feet away from Dlamini a police car sits idly in the last parking bay on the parking lot. The police officer speaks to one of the men, who is working on a car next to them.
“Some of them are my friends,” Dlamini says, referring to the men on the pavement. “In the street you have to fight for customers.
“If he gets the customer, he gets the job,” he says of his colleague, “but if he doesn’t give me the job then I moer the guy.”
Malawian Kustavo disagrees with Dlamini’s approach. “I don’t like to fight. Just to approach and talk to customers is enough.”
Kustavo moved to South Africa in 2010. He lives in Alexandra but walks 5.3km to repair cars on Louis Botha.
Sometimes he does not go home but remains on the pavement as night settles and more money from the day’s earnings is passed between the hands of the men who drunkenly keep watch over their strip of pavement.
Gavin Freedman, a resident of Pearl Harbour, says the men create noise only when they drink.
Forty-eight-year-old Freedman lived in Orange Grove before he moved to Savoy in September 2018. Although the move was a short distance, he laments the current state of Louis Botha – buildings hanging tentatively on the skeletal frames of 1950s architecture.
Mike Mosselson, an estate agent for Pam Golding, has worked in Savoy and surrounds for 19 years. He says many Jews who had been living in Orange Grove upgraded and moved on.
“Historically, Orange Grove is an older area. Many residents have retired and moved to old age homes … It has become more commercial. There are very few, limited residential homes.”
Mosselson notes that the houses in Orange Grove are approximately 495m², compared to Savoy where properties are between 1 500 and 1 800m². In 2012 rent prices were between R6 000 and R7 000, whereas now they range between R8 000 and R10 000.
“Have you seen what Orange Grove looks like? That is why I decided to move,” says Freedman. “But it is no better living here [in Savoy Estate].”
He says that for the past 10 days there has been no water and electricity, which he blames on the City of Johannesburg. Although he also says there is too much noise, he stays at Pearl Harbour because he cannot afford to move elsewhere.
The migrant and his brothers
Bangladeshi-born *Hossain Abir (28), who leases Savoy Supermarket with two men whom he considers his brothers, *Uazi Heron and *Farkul Islam, is also bound by circumstances to a country he wants to be free from.
When Abir arrived in South Africa in 2014, one of his first stops was Home Affairs to apply for a permanent residence permit. Waiting in line, he met Heron whom he recognised delightedly as his neighbour from Bangladesh.
The two men exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch. The men live alone in South Africa. Their only link to home is each other.
“We came to do good things, to do better things in our lives. We can support our family, friends and community.”
Abir has been saving money to send home for his 22-year-old sister, who is getting married in the coming months.
“But since I came here, each and every day is too hard. When the black people here [African migrants] come to us they talk like we are not human beings. They think they are human but we are not. They talk like rubbish, like we are shit,” he says.
His words fall broken and jagged from a tongue that is unfamiliar with the English language. He struggles for a second, then continues to talk.
He says the men have stolen from the supermarket twice and force him to give them credit.
“They come with fake money and force themselves to the front of the queue.”
When Abir and Heron do not serve them fast enough, he says, the men swear obscenities at them.
“The people call it xenophobia: the looting, the complaining of foreigners doing this and that,” Abir says. “They think we are Pakistani, but I am not. So why are they looting us? They say this is a freedom country, but we are not free.”
Abir’s pain, located within the circumstances of his life in South Africa, mirrors Dlamini’s and Kustavo’s. The men, who greet motorists who stop in the parking lot with charm and charisma, have targets marked squarely on their backs by disgruntled locals who see foreigners as the enemy. All three men have no real place to call home in South Africa and a yearning that tugs at their heartstrings for their birthplaces, but they stay because they are their families’ sources of income.
A refuge or a prison sentence?
Five young women stroll into the supermarket. They make a beeline for the checkout counter, where Heron trades sleek, elongated bottles of wine and unpackaged cigarettes with the women.
The women round the corner of Pearl Harbour, their sandals slapping against the pavement. They light up and the smell of nicotine and perfume cocoon them like their figure-hugging dresses, which cling like a second skin.
“Our lives are hectic. Today we were like, ‘Let’s just take a walk’. Not that we are prostitutes, but cars must stop and give us money just for walking out. We made R300,” boasts 18-year-old Asive Myataza.
“At certain times – like half past twelve and half past two at lunch break – we walk out. Nothing much. No strings attached,” she explains.
The matric student moved to Manhattan Place on Louis Botha, which is an apartment complex directly opposite Pearl Harbour, in 2018 when her single mother ushered her and her three younger siblings from Lyndhurst to an area she thought safer.
“There were too many robberies at night. We would hear someone got robbed or shot and killed,” says Myataza. “[Savoy] is much safer. I haven’t heard of any robberies.”
Abir disagrees. He says the noise does not add to his safety.
“All people are not the same. Some people are bad, some people are good. We must trust people and help people who are helpless,” says Abir. “When people come to us crying we must help them, but [black people] kill us mentally.”
When asked where he lives in South Africa, Abir rolls his eyes and raises his voice to stay on topic.
“They give me headaches. It is not good for your brain. I can’t sleep at night,” he says. “Whole day they give me headache and I tolerate it, but when I try to sleep in my bed the headache is killing me. I feel hurt.”
The three groups of men who share the pavement might not like each other or even call each other friends, but they have become a dysfunctional family forced together by fate. The lives of Marks and Freedman, Dlamini and Kustavo, Abir and Heron are a spider’s web, the strands so tightly woven across time and place that at some crosspoint they have intersected, yet they are too caught up in their daily hardships to see how similar they are, while driven further apart by their differences.
*Not their real names.
FEATURED IMAGE: A mechanic working on a car. Photo: Supplied
If we were to draw inspiration from spiritual books, we would learn that the hand that gives is more blessed than the hand that receives. On Louis Botha A venue, however, sometimes it is giving inspired by experience, yet without expectation, which contributes to changing lives.
Second-hand shops along Louis Botha Avenue are not uncommon, yet there is one that stands out from the rest. Situated on the west side of the avenue, the Hospice Wits shop does more than sell pre-owned items at a fraction of the price. The shop is an epitome of the saying, ‘One man’s trash is another one’s treasure’. The sales of this said treasure contribute towards sustaining an organisation that ensures that those suffering from terminal illnesses are as comfortable as possible in their final days.
Hospice Wits is a child’s paradise of fun and entertainment, a reader’s central hub of information and, judging by the rose-scented incense burning in the furniture department, a home owner’s one-stop shop for basic essentials.
Merely describing those who shop there as customers may even seem like down-play, especially considering the role they play towards giving back to the community, abiding by the motto, ‘No end to caring’ as displayed boldly on the corridors of the shop.
The Hospice Wits shop forms part of a series of charity shops in the Johannesburg region aimed at raising funds for Hospice Wits, a facility in Houghton that provides palliative care to terminally ill patients.
‘The aim is to make the lives of terminally ill people as comfortable as possible before they pass on. In some cases a patient may not want to move into the hospice itself, so there is a team of nurses that visit the patient’s home to check on them,’ said 34-year-old Lebogang Thelele, head of the furniture, toys and clothing department.
According to the Hospice Wits website, ‘The Hospice Association of the Witwatersrand was started in September 1979 by a Johannesburg couple, Stan and Sherley Henen, who first responded to a need in their community for hospice care.
‘The Gordon Waddell House on 2nd avenue was donated to Hospice Wits, and in 1983 the property on 1st Avenue was purchased. It became known as Greendale House and was converted into a six-bed in-patient unit.’
The facility has since grown to provide services to a greater number of patients, and today it has more than 125 full-time staff members including doctors, nurses, social workers and psychologists.
But how does a charity shop manage to occupy an entire block of land?
According to a document released, titled Spacial Transformations and Identities in New Immigrant Spaces, by Wits University’s School of Architecture and Planning, ‘Orange Grove and Norwood developed in the early 20th century. Economic and demographic shifts in the CBD in the 1970s and 1980s affected Louis Botha Avenue and Orange Grove experienced a decline.
‘The decline of the area around Louis Botha Avenue during the 1980s made rental affordable for black South Africans, foreign residents and business owners.’
Jeffery Shabala, who has been managing the shop for the past three years, said that the Hospice, which has been in existence on Louis Botha for about 20 years, is run independently.
‘We don’t pay rent because we own this block. Before moving here, the hospice was located close to where the [Inland] pharmacy was. This block was occupied by a liquor store, I think it was called Liquor Boys, a dry cleaners, and there was also a car park,’ he said.
The decline not only made it easier to purchase property in those days, it has also permeated the current state of the area around Louis Botha.
This could be seen in protests that erupted there in April this year. According to a news report by the SABC, residents of Orange Grove took to the streets of Louis Botha, demanding that outgoing Joburg Mayor Herman Mashaba address issues of poor service delivery, provide housing for poor families and convert unused government buildings into accommodation.
Despite not having to pay rent, the charity shop still needs to be able to pay creditors, employees and maintenance.
Shabalala said, ‘Besides selling the items to the public, we also engage in donor drives to generate income. We have also leased some of the space within the shops.’
One of these leased spaces is occupied by a nail bar owned by 35-year-old Xoli Nkosi.
‘I enjoy working in this space,’ she said. ‘Even though I am renting, I have a good relationship with the people who work here.’ Among those to whom Nkosi refers are Busisiwe Mavondo, Faheema Essop and Princess Nonjiji.
Collectively, these three women are described as the pillars that keep the shop running, going beyond the call of duty to ensure unity among colleagues.
Sitting inside the coffee shop at 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon, Mavondo adjusts her spectacles, keeping an eye on the boutique store located directly opposite. She single-handedly manages the boutique.
‘I have been working inside the Hospice Wits shop for six years. I first heard about the shop when I came here as a customer.
‘I started out as a volunteer, since I was a housewife and had a lot of time on my hands. Since then I have been able to work in every one of these shops, except the bookstore,’ she said.
Listening to the top-of-the-hour news on 702, Mavondo says helping the less fortunate had always been something she wanted to do. She hopes to one day go to her home town of Nkandla, Kwa-Zulu Natal, to start her own charity shop there.
‘I currently stay in Bramley. Sometimes when I am here at work I see an item that may help one of my neighbours. I then buy it for them, because working here has given me the power to help.
‘I once heard about an initiative that helps young girls with dresses in time for their matric dance and thought it would be a great idea if I did this for my community back home.
‘In the past, things such as a matric dance were not that important, but they are today. If I can start a boutique similar to this one, I can help young girls enjoy their matric dance. All I need is funding,’ she said.
The boutique contains various racks on which clothes ranging from wedding dresses to formal dresses are displayed, as well as jewellery.
‘Sometimes people come here and buy from the boutique in bulk. We have filmmakers coming here to buy clothes as costumes.
‘We do not get involved in what the customer does with the items once they own them, but I believe in extending a helping hand, so it would be interesting if the items were donated after being used,’ she said.
Mavondo’s 30-year-old son also works in the retail sector.
‘I raised my children to help others when they can. My son collects second-hand clothing and sells it for a living.
‘Sometimes he comes here and donates the items he collected. He even comes to buy clothes for himself,’ she said.
According to an article by Susan Horne titled The Charity Shop: Purpose and Change, General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, wrote in his book, ‘There was a large amount of wastage of goods in “well-to-do” homes that could be channeled into supplying the “submerged” with employment.
‘Category 1 covers those charity shops that sell only donated goods. Category 2 comprises shops that, in addition to selling donated goods, sell a percentage of new bought-in goods. Category 3 shops sell only bought-in, new goods’.
Situated west of Louis Botha, the Hospice Wits shop could be classified as category 2, since some of the items sold inside are new.
Before it hits the shelves
Everything that comes through to the shop has to first pass by the eyes of Faheema Essop.
Essop, 34, has been working at the shop for the past nine years.
‘I came to know about the hospice itself when my grandmother was ill. During her last days, nurses from the hospice came to our house to check on her and make sure she was as comfortable as possible.‘
Seeing the nurses care for my grandmother made me see that there are people out there who are willing to help others, even during the final chapters of their lives. That is what inspired me to come here,’ she said.
Essop works in the donations section of the shop, where people drop off goods or where the goods are delivered after being collected from donors.
‘We have different people coming in regularly to donate clothes. Not everything we get is usable, but we never turn people away because they have good intentions.
‘I would describe this place [the hospice] as my first home. I spend more time with my colleagues than I do with my family. I am here from eight o’ clock in the morning until around five in the afternoon, from Monday to Saturday.
‘Our work goes beyond collecting items. If one of our colleagues needs help with something, we try to assist them in the best possible way. We not only make it easy for strangers to give to our organisation, we also help each other out as colleagues,’ said Essop.
The force being long-standing relations
Nonjiji has been employed at Hospice Wits for 13 years and is one of the employees who have been there longest.
The 53-year-old retail assistant is described as peaceful, straightforward and respectful by her colleague, Trevor Makwesa, who is one of the heads of department.
‘I know everyone who works in this shop because I have been here for so long. It’s not easy when everyone comes to you asking for help.
‘Sometimes my colleagues have disagreements and come to me for advice,’ said Nonjiji. ‘The toughest thing is that people have different personalities, so I have to solve the problem and make sure that the two work well together in the future.’
Despite this, she said these were not the only challenges.
‘Over the years, the amount of donations we have been receiving has gone down. In the past this whole corridor [pointing outside] used to be filled with clothes and toys, but it’s not the same anymore.
‘We also used to get donations from big companies, but not anymore. I think that maybe people are selling their things on the internet and getting money for them instead of donating them for free, I can’t say for sure. But I can tell you that it is not the same as it was,’ she said.
Despite Nonjiji’s concern that the shop is not generating enough donations and support as it did in the past, there are some customers that frequently visit and have formed relationships with the staff.
One of them is Lydia Daka, a 46-year-old woman from Berea who has been visiting the shop since 2005.
‘In the beginning I used to come here to buy chairs and tables,’ says Daka, ‘but these days I either come here to read or buy books when I have money. ‘I know most of the people who work here and they are always willing to help. At least when I am buying from this shop I know I am contributing to a good cause,’ she says, holding up a copy of Right Body For Your Health.
The library feel of the bookstore lies not only in the setup, but also in the musty scent of old pieces of paper piled up together. Hospice Wits on Louis Botha tells a story that goes beyond donations and fundraising.
It tells the story of people who witnessed transformation and decay over the years, where factors such as poverty lurk in the corners.
Mavondo, Nonjiji and Essop’s involvement is not only inspired by previous experience within the family, but the three women also instill in their colleagues the notion of healthy working relationships that benefit the greater community, proving that the concept of family may sometimes go beyond blood relations.
FEATURED IMAGE: A graphic showing people and the word Charity, Photo: Supplied
In a bar and grill on Louis Botha Avenue there sits a tale of how a man and his family came to own a heritage site honoured by the City of Johannesburg.
A cheerful man wearing a blue-striped shirt walks into the Radium Beer Hall on the corner of Louis Botha Avenue and 9th Street in Orange Grove, Johannesburg. He makes his way to three men seated at the bar and pats on the back one of them in a green shirt. The three say simultaneously: ‘Hey Manny!’ They all share a few words and then Manny leaves them to greet more patrons sitting at tables near the entrance.
It is a Saturday afternoon at the Radium. Proprietor Manny Cabeleira (65) speaks to the bartenders and waiters, ensuring that the venue is running right on track for the night. As the sun begins to set, rain starts to shower the street. The heavy downpour outside, on Louis Botha Avenue, is masked by the loud music played by a band, Black Harbour, as they perform for the crowd.
A white-haired woman sitting in the dining area swings her hips and raises her hands in the air to the beat of dark blues. Despite the band’s loud music, a few men at the bar have their eyes glued to a soccer match on TV. At midnight the laughter and music fade away at the Radium as the night comes to an end.
The night’s crowd has long disappeared when the Radium’s atmosphere eases into the silence of a Sunday morning. A white bakkie pulls up alongside the venue. It belongs to Miguel Cabeleira, the Radium’s manager, who steps out of it. A young boy and a woman emerge from a small sedan parked in front of the bakkie. The woman, wearing black leggings and a pink tank top, hands Miguel a blue school bag and a gym bag. He and the woman slowly make their way to the Radium as the boy runs, excited, to the entrance of the bar.
“Dad, can I help you open up the bar today?”
“Yes of course you can, my boy,” Miguel answers.
Sunday afternoon winds down while four men fill the Radium with jazz.
On Wednesday a noticeable aroma of burning incense billows out of Yogi’s Den, a clothing store that neighbours the bar and grill, welcoming the bar’s patrons just before they enter the Radium.
A loud voice pierces the room as Manny greets a bartender, two waiters and a customer propping up the bar.
“Good morning, everyone. We need to start bringing in more beautiful looking people to brighten up this place,” he jokes as he strokes his round belly.
The Radium does begin to brighten up when a waiter switches on the lights.
Seated at a sticky table, Manny tells the tale of how he came to own the Radium, and of the adventures his family has experienced over the past three decades.
An institution enriched with history
The Radium Beer Hall was passed down from family to family after its establishment in the 1920s. The Khalil family primarily ran the place as a tea room in 1929, and at night it doubled as an illicit shebeen catering to black customers.
“After the Radium obtained a malt and liquor licence, a Slovenian football player, Joe Barbarovich, and his brother came to own the bar in 1944,” Manny says as we sit in the dining area which was once a ladies’ section during Barbarovich’s ownership.
In 1971 Manny, at the age of 17, walked into the Radium for the first time one night with his friends, ordered a few beers and enjoyed the evening. Little did the Portuguese teen know he would later come to own the Radium.
“Years later I came to know Joe through my brother-in-law, and we then built up a friendship,” he says.
Having sold his fish-and-chips restaurant on Bree Street, Newtown in Johannesburg, Manny was looking for a new venture.
“Joe, who had early onset Alzheimer’s, was telling me how he wanted to sell the Radium. I told him, ‘Why don’t you sell it to me?’ Then he asked, ‘What do you want to do with the Radium?’ Then I said, ‘How long have you been here?’ Joe said 40 years, then I told him I wanted to be here for the next 40.”
In February 1986 Manny became the proud owner of the Radium. With arms stretched wide, one finger pointing to the many provocative newspaper headlines covering the bar’s stage while his other hand gestures to the bar counter that once belonged to the demolished Ferreirastown Hotel, Manny shows me the Radium that he built.
Meet the Cabeleiras
Emigrants from Madeira, an island located off Portugal, Manny’s family – with him aged five years old – arrived in South Africa.
“The first school I went to was Yeoville Boys. I could not speak a word of English, and I learned it very quickly,” says Manny.
“The transition from Portugal did not really affect me at all. I grew up here, went to school here, got married here, had all my children here and I have not left,” says Lina Cabeleira, who immigrated to South Africa when she was four years old.
Raising three children while owning a bar put a strain on the Cabeleira family.
“The hours were hard. It did take a lot of strain and the lifestyle was pretty difficult. I had to do everything on my own, take the kids to school and take care of them. Manny was a good dad and he was visible – but not enough,” she says with a shrug and a sigh while looking out of the window across the bar counter.
“We got divorced after 25 years, because I went off the rails,” says an apologetic Manny as he looks at Lina, who is seated at the corner end of the bar. “It was an amicable thing; not that she did anything wrong. We are still the best of friends and she is the mother of my kids, all throughout.”
Looking back at the drugs he took and the infidelity that cost him his marriage, Manny explains the dangerous lifestyle the Radium brought to his family as they grew older. He spoke about his brief drug use and the effect it had on his life.
“Miguel took my place as manager 10 years ago after I had cancer, and helps Lina to look after the place,” Manny says as he lifts up his shirt and points to a scar running horizontally across his abdomen and ending where his belly button used to be.
Manny now runs a bed-and-breakfast, where he also lives, located behind the Radium.
“After my health took a hit, I decided to take things slower,” he says. Manny comes into the Radium from time to time to check up on the bar’s progress. Lina says Manny still calls the shots, regardless of his unstable health.
The Cabeleira children had a family-oriented life, growing up in Glenhazel, Johannesburg. Their mother often took them to visit her family in Kyalami and they grew up with their cousins and other extended family members.
Now in their mid-30s, Marco and Miguel have kids of their own, except for the last born, Deniz. Miguel is the only one among his brothers who decided to go into the family business.
What life was like growing up in a bar
“I was just one year old when my father acquired the Radium. This place has become second nature to me,” says Miguel as he sips on a bottle of beer before starting his shift on a Tuesday evening.
The first memory that comes to Miguel’s mind whenever he thinks of the Radium is the smell of smoke.
“I remember whenever you would walk in here, even if it was just for five minutes, you would walk out smelling like cigarettes,” Miguel says as he looks up at the ceiling, which was once green but is now dark grey due to the smoke interacting with the paint.
The Radium’s walls are covered with memorabilia that resembles a proud family’s living room: From newspaper clippings to old photographs of the Radium’s past, to the dusty beer bottles on the shelf by the bar. The Radium looks like a time capsule of the memories the Cabeleiras made with various people who have come and gone at the Radium.
Growing up, the Cabeleira children were never known as “the kids with a bar”. It was when Miguel was in grade five that he and his brothers grew popular at Glenhazel Primary School.
“A number of the Savannah ads were shot at the Radium, and that is when people started to recognise us,” he says.
“The people at the Radium are truly part of
Owning the Radium for roughly 33 years, the Cabeleira family could not help but make an extended family of their own there.
Chef Charles “Charlie” Mbamba, whom Miguel considers his “second father”, has worked with the family since 1994.
The Mpumalanga-born man worked as a driver in Mpumalanga, transporting vegetables, before he met the Cabeleiras.
“My older brother, Mario, in fact was very good friends with Manny. That is how I came to know them,” the 57-year-old said.
“Mario and Manny worked together at the fish-and-chips restaurant Manny owned in Bree Street, Newtown, and then they came to Louis Botha Avenue in the 1980s where Mario owned a store next to the Radium,” Mbamba tells me.
After acquiring the Radium, Manny added a few touches of his Portuguese heritage to the menu, Madeiran cuisine such as espetada and prego rolls are still served at the Radium.
“When I started working at the Radium I did not know how to cook, let alone cook Portuguese food,” the old man chuckled.
Manny taught Mbamba how to cook Portuguese food, thus creating a long friendship.
“I truly feel at home when I am at the Radium,” says Mbamba, who lives in Pretoria with his own family.
“He is like my second father. He would pick me up from school and even scold me whenever I got in trouble,” says Miguel as he embraces and laughs with Charlie.
The Cabeleira family have tried to cater to the ever-changing Louis Botha Avenue community, through the Radium.
“We try to serve the community by making this place as welcoming as we can. We want this place to make people forget the troubles of the world once they enter the door, and a place of friendship once they exit the door,” says Lina Cabeleira.
Yet the Radium’s staff members are the only representation of Louis Botha reflected inside the bar.
The legacy of the Radium
Like his father, Miguel has moved back to Orange Grove to be closer to his six-year-old son.
“My son gets so excited when he comes to the Radium, he even wants to be the boss one day,” says Miguel.
The lifestyle of owning a bar is not something Miguel wants for his son, however. Growing up, he barely saw his father and would not want the same fate for his son’s future children.
“I do have great memories here at the Radium, but it consumes all your time,” Miguel says.
Although Miguel and his son’s mother are not together, the 36-year-old does his best to make time for his son. Picking him up from school and spending time with him during the day before his shift starts are moments Miguel cherishes.
After owning the Radium for 33 years, The Cabeleiras are undecided on the future of the Radium Beer Hall.
“Who knows if we will be here for the next five days, let alone the next five years?” says Lina. Despite Louis Botha’s economic decline, Manny and Miguel remain hopeful of the Radium’s future.
As she sits at the corner of the bar, a spot always occupied by her husband, Manny, when he managed the venue and by her son, Miguel, who manages the bar alongside her, Lina takes a moment and says: “If I were to do it all over again [owning the Radium], yes, yes I would. I would not trade anything.”
FEATURED IMAGE: Manny Cabeleira, the owner of the Radium Beer Hall, a place honoured by the city of Johannesburg, says “the reason why I welcomed blacks into the Radium is that it was the right thing to do”. Photo: Tumelo Modiba.
Amid Louis Botha Avenue’s shift in demographics, a few businesses stand out as relics of the former Italian migrant community that made the area home.
When you hear “Buongiorno!” from Samson Muvhali, you know you have arrived in Johannesburg’s slice of what was once dubbed “Little Italy”.
For many years, Italian immigrants made Louis Botha Avenue the hub to meet, shop, dine and reminisce about their motherland. Now a Tshivenḓa-speaking security guard’s workplace, Super Sconto, is among the few reminders of the area’s “Little Italy” accolade.
Super Sconto, which translates as “super discount”, sits on the bustling thoroughfare that extends from Hillbrow to the edge of Sandton. Instead of functioning as another food store it acts as a time capsule of a bygone era, filled with an importer’s paradise of goods.
A boom in migration sparks a community
Like many Italians in the area, the store’s general manager, Roberto Casti (66), has an immigration story of his own. The man, wearing a red Lacoste shirt and watch with a strap to match, explains that he was born from Neapolitan and Sicilian parents into an Italian colony in Eritrea, northeast Africa, after which he ventured down to South Africa in 1980 to look for greener pastures.
“The only place that could give us an opportunity was South Africa; that is why I came here,” Casti says, carrying an Italian accent untouched by his life in Africa.
Louis Botha was flooded with Italian immigrants when a dynamite factory in Avigliana, a town north of Italy, hit dire straits in 1894 and subsequently closed down. Dr Anita Virga, an Italian lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, says the closure, coupled with the later effects of World War II and severe unemployment, led to many skilled workers being transferred to the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory on the Pretoria Main Road.
“The first person usually arrives and calls the others, saying ‘Come here, there is an opportunity’,” she says.
Virga, who moved to Johannesburg from Turin, Italy, six years ago, explains that after the war Italy remained physically and psychologically destroyed, forcing Italian citizens to venture out and find work.
A four-minute walk southeast of Super Sconto takes you to Marco Pecci (MP) Mirror & Glass. The owner and namesake ended up in the area due to similar circumstances.
Pecci tells the story of his parents who were forced to leave Marche, Italy, in the Sixties when employment in their home country hit a dismal low. Following the numerous success stories of fellow Italians they migrated to Johannesburg, eventually establishing their glass workshop on Louis Botha in 1991.
This being said, the same influx of Italian influence in the form of delicatessens, shoe shops and jewellery stores which lined the avenue has since vanished. Now Super Sconto and MP Mirror & Glass are among the only Italian-owned work spaces left on Louis Botha.
Bringing ‘Little Italy’ back to Louis Botha
A mechanical engineer by trade, general manager Casti did not realise his heritage would play such a major role in his future until he met Franco Pisapia, who established Super Sconto in 1996.
Over the past 23 years Super Sconto has changed almost as much as the avenue it calls home. The store had humble beginnings, operated by only four staff members including Casti himself. The food centre functioned humbly on a single floor, juggling a deli, coffee bar and kitchen all within an arm’s length of each other.
“We were also renting part of our premises to Standard Bank. When their lease expired, we took over and 12 years ago we revamped,” Casti says.
It is Monday morning at Super Sconto and for the general manager breakfast consists of cappuccino and small talk before the real bustle begins. He does his rounds in what still looks like a newly renovated store, passing between aisles of imported products and racks of liquor on the ground floor.
A tiled staircase separates the two storeys and leads him into the spacious restaurant, complete with a designated smoking area and a deli stacked with fresh meats.
“It’s nothing fancy. It’s all very simple, like old Italian tradition. We start with the sauces early in the morning and whatever is on the blackboard is the menu of the day,” says Casti.
Come lunchtime the restaurant is packed, but a hush settles over customers who delve into their meals, engrossed in Italian goodness.
The only thing breaking the silence is muffled conversation from downstairs, starting with questions such as “Quanto costa?” meaning “How much is it?” rising from the ground floor. Upon further inspection these questions are directed not only at the staff of Italian descent, but also at the African workers like Muvhali (49) who have picked up on Italian lingo since working at Super Sconto.
“I have worked there since 2010 … so I learn new words from customers every day,” the security guard says.
A traditional component of the store that remains unchanged is its family element. Pisapia’s daughter, Chiara (20), who has left Johannesburg to pursue her studies in financial sciences, finds herself being drawn back to Super Sconto on a weekly basis. The vibrant yellow pasta and strong smell of espresso in the air do wonders to jog her memory of a place that has become more of a home than a business.
Fetching one of these recollections, a dark-haired and jovial Chiara says, “I would always sit on Roberto’s lap while he would offload the container, and once all the products were offloaded we would all play hide-and-seek in the basement between the high boxes and tins of products.”
Back at Pecci’s house of glass the space is not ideal for child’s play. At first glance the store seems empty of human presence, until the lean and grey-haired 47-year-old pops up from behind a desk crowded with tools and newspapers.
The self-proclaimed “one man show” explains that many Italian businesses on Louis Botha closed down because they were dependent on the same community that left “Little Italy”.
Peering into his workshop, it is difficult to avoid your reflection. Mirrors lean against almost every inch of the inner store walls, making space for a giant glass-cutting table that dominates the space.
Pecci disregards the idea of following fellow Italians out of the area.
“There were also many banks here, and when they closed due to crime many people moved, but I am pretty happy where I am. I am really not worried about the crime because I do not have anything people want to steal,” he says.
Looking at his store from the outside, it is clear that he means what he says. While others choose to plaster their transparent walls with newspapers, barricading their contents from passers-by, Pecci’s glass store acts as a glorified window into his work space and life.
While the entrances of neighbouring stores like Pecci’s sit tightly on the pavement bordering the avenue, Super Sconto is fenced off, with an adequate amount of parking to accommodate customers who no longer reside in and around Louis Botha.
Today the Italian food centre acts as a drawcard, bringing customers back into an area they have since forgotten about, but the attraction is not limited to the Italian community. The current members of Louis Botha often indulge in what the last of “Little Italy” has to offer.
Felix Mpofu, a Louis Botha worker and resident, towers above his colleagues at Skyblue Security Systems, situated conveniently next door to Super Sconto. They all huddle to share their experience of the store.
“It’s fantastic and the service is good. Everyone is always friendly, and they have so many different items. I really cannot complain because I am more than welcome when I am there,” Mpofu says.
According to its website, by 2019 and 27 staff members later, Super Sconto has grown to be the biggest Italian retail store in South Africa.
“We’ve got customers in Cape Town and Durban. Some of the retailers shop here. We’ve got restaurants that we are supplying too,” Casti says.
This being said, there is a wealth of Italian stores that failed to adapt to the avenue’s shift in economy and demographics.
A mark that remains
On 226 Louis Botha Avenue, what is now a vacant building was once Ponte Vecchio Jewellers, owned by Annarita Ravenna (75). A keen Ravenna explains that in 1951 her family moved from Florence, Italy, to South Africa when her father was offered a job at what was then Iscor, a steel company now known as Mittal Steel South Africa.
The Ravenna family used the only trade they knew to start a business on Louis Botha and make a living.
“My father’s brothers were jewellers from Florence, but he was a fitter and turner and the wish of having a jewellery shop was always within him.
“We chose Orange Grove because of its Italian community. Even the Italian Consulate moved to Houghton to be closer to the community,” says Ravenna, who helped to establish Ponte Vecchio Jewellers in 1968.
The jewellery store prided itself on manufacturing, remodelling, repairing and importing jewellery from Italy, employing many locals to add their charm to the store before it closed its doors in 1996.
“Some Italians moved away, but I think it was because their offspring married and moved away, mainly to Bedfordview because of the Italian Club being there. I don’t think that there is another ‘Little Italy’ anywhere else in Johannesburg,” says Ravenna, who has since moved back to Italy.
Wilson Mapheto (68) worked at the Italian jewellery store and now runs a jewellery workshop of his own on the south-east end of Louis Botha, hidden from view by a chipped white wall and two drooping trees.
“Believe it or not, Ponte Vecchio Jewellers brought me to where I am today. Even now I am still part of the Ponte Vecchio family,” says Mapheto.
Today the once glamorous home for gold, silver and pearls looks more like the garage of an abandoned house where the flashy window decorations have been traded in for random strokes of graffiti.
Thomas Mpfuni (64), another Louis Botha resident, now uses the pavement in front of the defaced building to make a living in his own way, selling an assortment of chips and popcorn.
The mute man, referred to as “uncle” by customers and passers-by, greets you with a smile as warm as the sultry Monday afternoon sun. He sits modestly, with nothing but one chair and several boxes as a makeshift table. Mpfuni packs his goods out neatly, grouping the same products together and laying them out in solitaire fashion.
The man who proudly dons his Zion Christian Church hat and badge has been sitting at his unofficial spot every day since 2010. Mpfuni provides for his family, who live next door in the equally dilapidated Margaret Court apartment block.
He is a popular stop for many on their way to work. Those who buy from Mpfuni know how to communicate with him, often using hand gestures to make small talk and establish a price for a desired product.
The same history of determination to make a living runs rampant along the avenue through the likes of Casti, Pecci and Mpfuni too. It is this determination that brings a strange attraction to the area.
When a store becomes a personal landmark
Now, instead of functioning as a makeshift country or vessel to an Italian motherland, Louis Botha and its surrounding areas operate more as a point of reference for those who are hungry for days gone by.
“Many Italians still go to places like [Super Sconto] to have lunch … When I really need something that reminds me of Italy, then I go there, so it is more a sentimental attachment than really a need,” Virga says.
As the sliding doors open for the last customer to exit, you are sent off with a final shout of “Arrivederci!” from Muvhali, as the deafening commotion of Louis Botha consumes the solace and air-conditioning that came with entering Super Sconto.
By leaving the store, the area’s “Little Italy” is reduced once more, only now instead of four walls it is confined to a plastic bag, ready to be taken with you to the place you call home.
FEATURED IMAGE: A women rolling dough for baking. Photo: Supplied
Over a long period of time, Louis Botha Avenue has undergone a drastic turn in many aspects from what it used to look like a century ago. Commerce there has had its highs and lows, with several businesses coming and going. Places such as the iconic Victory Theatre recently changed into a church venue, and the Doll House roadhouse, which was a notable pub in the 1930s, has closed down – but like a few other places, the Orange Grove Veterinary Hospital has managed to maintain its authentic nature while improving its services to fit into the modern world.
I was standing in front of this yellow building. From afar could be heard the hooting of cars rushing up and down the avenue. As I walked in, I could not help but notice the mesmerizing sound of three beautiful birds of varying hues – white, light blue and yellow – chirping as they flew from side to side of a cage hanging in the reception room.
Inside the waiting area there was pets’ food, chains, tags and toys of different colours all around the room, and clients sitting with their backs to each other on benches placed in the middle.
Despite there being an increase of pet services in Johannesburg, the Orange Grove Veterinary Hospital remains the oldest and biggest vets’ hospital in the north-eastern part of Johannesburg, with customers coming from the inner parts of Johannesburg and others travelling all the way from Pretoria.
How Orange Grove suburb came to existance
Along Louis Botha Avenue in the Orange Grove suburb, two buildings away from the old Victory Theatre at Number 119, is the seemingly forever standing pet hospital where there was once a small house surrounded by restaurants and other residences. The place is now surrounded by shebeens, churches and offices.
“Orange Grove was established in 1902. It was then called Lemoen Plaas [orange farm],” according to the Your Neighbourhood website. The place was known for its orange plantation, hence the name.
The OGVH was established as a veterinary practice in 1947. The practice was part of the Sundown Veterinary Hospital owned by Jack Boswell, one of the first private practitioners in South Africa.
Louis Botha Avenue was considered the main road connecting Johannesburg and Pretoria and all the areas in between. The area was also considered a hub for people from different areas going to work or just coming there to have fun, and this made it a suitable place for this business.
“When the practice first started, the main population groups here were Italians and Portuguese who settled here in the early 1950s. In those days [Louis Botha Avenue] was the busiest arterial route in the whole of Africa,” said Dr David Moore, the co-owner of OGVH.
Renovation of the Orange Grove Veterinary Hospital
The area is still a hub for migrants, although the races have changed as the area is now occupied by many Africans.
The marketing manager, Candice Segal, arrived for the hospital tour and together we headed downstairs, where most workers spend their time during the first half of the day.
The renovation that took place in 1970, the 1980s and 2006 gave this historical veterinary hospital a modern look. The workplace downstairs is divided into six clean rooms.
These consist of the x-ray room; the theatre and the isolation room for pets with illnesses that have not yet been identified; a parlour with a grooming area, bathing area and pet cages for some of the pets that must sleep in or are left for a period of time; the storage room; and lastly an open area at the middle for ultrasonography (these are images produced during an ultrasound), dental care and preparation for the theatre.
Different services offered at the vet
Usually the hospital is packed on Monday mornings and the waiting area becomes tightly occupied as clients begin bringing in their sick pets after the weekend, or coming to consult.
I went into the theatre room with Segal, where Dr Keith MacWilliams was conducting a spaying operation (surgery to sterilise a female dog) with nurse Vanessa Anderson assisting during the process. One rule in the theatre is ‘DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING’, Segal reminded me.
A warm pad was placed under the dog, which was laying on the surgery table with its stomach facing the roof. A pipe connected to a breathing machine monitored its state during the surgery. Half of its body was covered by gold-tinted foil to keep the dog warm, as I am told temperatures tend to drop during surgery.
In the open area, Dr Lara Frampton was conducting a dental cleaning for a dog that had two lumps on its front-right limb and was to go in for surgery soon after the spay was done.
Upstairs in the waiting room a big cage holds a beautiful green, yellow and lime parrot quietly looking at every person entering the room.
The parrot belongs to a client who is currently on vacation. Whenever the room gets a bit too quiet, the parrot says repeatedly, ‘eema (EE-muh), eema’ – a Hebrew word for “mother”, referring to its owner.
“Is this your parrot?” An old lady asked. “No,” I said as she joined in admiring its beauty.
In 1963 Dr Gordon Beverley bought the practice and was later joined by Dr Moore in 1968. Moore and Dr Romberg took over the practice in 1970 after Beverley left. In 1970 the practice was turned into a hospital, which has been growing ever since. The hospital is currently owned by three doctors: Moore, Williams and Romberg.
The veterinary practice not only transformed its ownership, but also its services and technology. In 1970 the practice became a hospital. Although there were no computers then, everything was clearly recorded in books.
“They used to have those old x-ray machines – the ones where you put the plate in water – and now they have computers,” said Johannes Mdzimba.
Mdzimba (56) has been working at the hospital for 38 years, making him the oldest doctor’s assistant after the sudden passing of Michael Mpofu in October from a head tumour. Mpofu had spent 39 years working at the hospital.
Steadily the vets have been able to grow and increase their services. In 2006 the Pampered Pet Parlour started at the hospital as there was a high demand from customers who wanted to groom their pets but had to take them to other places. Gift Nare has been grooming at the parlour since it was started, 13 years ago.
“When you groom a dog for the first time it is difficult: A biting dog cannot look you straight in the eyes. I have been bitten by dogs several times,” Nare said, pointing out a few recent scratches.
Not only do customers enjoy the services, workers also enjoy working there, as Nare explained: “Here they trust us. Where I used to work, they used to follow us everywhere, but here they trust we can do our job properly.”
The hospital has also become an academic hospital for veterinary students.
Niven Pillay, a final-year diploma in veterinary nursing student from the University of Pretoria who was at the hospital for his field work, said he enjoyed the hospital’s ways of operating. He said some of the methods differed from other hospitals he had been to, “from how they endorse animals to the general practice management”.
Stories and histories
Sally Gallagher is 80 years old and a full-time employee at Paramount Group (a company dealing with armoured weapons). She told old stories about different experiences she and other people had with the hospital, leaving both of us cracking into laughter.
“My dog had diabetes… We went down to the vet… she ran to the entrance [and] went up straight to the back room where they administer injections. Her tail was wagging and she was perfectly happy. This was in 1985,” Gallagher said, laughing.
One way to keep customers is by providing them with quality service. Gallagher has been a loyal customer of OGVH for the past 56 years. On the other hand, Daniel Forsthofer’s family is the third generation using the same vet his grandparents used.
The hospital has a few memorable cases that still stand today. Apart from the cats, dogs and birds, the famous stripper and snake dancer Glenda Kemp used to take her snakes to the vet in the1970s before going up onto the stage.
“We used to see some snakes belonging to Glenda Kemp, who was a stripper. She used to have pythons, one of them an opus,” said Dr Moore. Segal laughed in the background as she heard the story for the first time.
“We used to have to certify the pythons as healthy because she used to travel to – in those days – Rhodesia, Mozambique and South West Africa.” Dr Moore told the story with a smile on his face while looking at his wristwatch as the clock was ticking.
The avenue is said to have changed a lot compared to how it was between the 1960s and the 1980s. The crime rates are rising day in day out. Moore said there had been two armed robberies at the hospital over the past decade.
“Security was better during apartheid,” he said.
Moore is not the only one who agrees about the rise of crime in the area. There are others who also share the sentiment.
In 2010 “Louis Botha Avenue had begun to deteriorate in that there were people moving out. A lot of people moved out from the houses around it because they did not feel safe or secure,” Gallagher said.
Robyn Cullis is another client who has been with the vet for 10 years now. Cullis got herself a cute and healthy white-haired rescue dog from the vet. Her other dog has skin allergies, which requires her to visit the vet regularly for injections, special food and grooming.
OGVH nurse Vanessa Anderson, who previously worked with the Johannesburg Zoo dealing with wild animals, finds her work here less stressful.
“Here you can get bitten, but you are not dealing with animals that can eat you,” she said.
Anderson said apart from the cats and dogs, the vet sometimes gets budgies, guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens.
Surely Louis Botha Avenue is one of the major historical places in Johannesburg. Seeing most of the places in it having to shut down should be a wake-up call for effort to be put in to ensure that these places are well looked after as a way to preserve the histories associated with the place and to pass the knowledge on to the generations still to come.
FEATURED IMAGE: An image of a dog playing outside. Photo: Supplied
In this episode we take a look at the work of Joburg Theatre, through the eyes of the people that work at there. Justine, who has been at the theatre for more than 20 years, walks us through its history, and Mbongeni, a ballet dancer, tells us how he came to make this beautiful theatre […]