Louis Botha Avenue’s ‘Little Italy’: What is left of la dolce vita?

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. 

LEFT: Samson Muvhali, the Super Sconto security guard who has worked at the food centre since 2010. Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

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.

Roberto Casti starts his morning at Super Sconto, his place of work for the past 23 years.
Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

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.”

Employees and customers take us through the history of Super Sconto, the now renowned Italian food centre with humble beginnings in the unlikeliest of places. Video: Gemma Gatticchi

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.

Marco Pecci cuts a mirror for a customer in his workshop on Louis Botha Avenue. Photo: Gemma Gatticchi
Marco Pecci specialises in window repairs, sandblasting, bevelling and glass furniture. Many of his current customers once formed part of Louis Botha Avenue’s “Little Italy”. Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

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.

LEFT: Deli assistant, Rosina Senwamadi slices and packages mortadella for a customer in the popular Super Sconto deli.
Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

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.

RIGHT: Thomas Mpfuni waits for customers next to his snack station on Louis Botha Avenue where he has been working since 2010.
Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

“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.

BELOW: A homestyle ciabatta sandwich made with blue cheese at Super Sconto. The sandwiches are a quick and popular dish at the Italian food centre.
Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

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.

 

Dave Garlick frequents the food centre for its range of Italian coffees and chocolates. Above he inspects a box of Sperlari, an Italian chocolate brand. Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

FEATURED IMAGE: A women rolling dough for baking. Photo: Supplied

RELATED ARTICLES:

My brothers keeper

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. 

Thabiso Brian Zungu holds out his winnings and the cards he and his colleagues use to play a game called Sevens. Photo: Imaan Moosa

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

Resident Steven Marks stands outside his apartment unit, Pearl Harbour, in Savoy Estate. Photo: Imaan Moosa

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.”

Many of the men who work as informal mechanics outside Savoy Supermarket and Pirate Motor Spares on the corner of Louis Botha and Grenville avenues are migrants who have left their homes and families to seek a better life in the City of Gold. They have become a family, their common ancestry traced to the short strip of pavement they share from 8:00 to 6:00 on Monday to Saturday where they wrangle their day’s income by offering auto repair services.

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

A customer sits inside Savoy Supermarket reading the daily newspaper. Photo: Imaan Moosa

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.

LUNCH BREAK: Mechanic James Kustavo and his colleagues seek a reprieve outside Savoy Supermarket from the sun and car soot. Photo: Imaan Moosa

“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.

ABOVE RIGHT: Mechanic *Declerk downs an early Tuesday morning breakfast of lager beer before he begins his shift. Photo: Imaan Moosa
ABOVE LEFT: Mechanic James Kustavo keeps an eye out for potential customers to offer his auto repair services to. Photo: Imaan Moosa 

FEATURED IMAGE: A mechanic working on a car. Photo: Supplied

RELATED ARTICLES:

From political violence in Pakistan to crime in Braamfontein

 

Waleed Teriq talking politics and mobile technology with customers at his new home and business, Celltronic Express.

Waleed Teriq talking politics and mobile technology with customers at his new home and business, Celltronic Express.  Photo: Percy Matshoba

From political violence to crime 

SMALL Pakistani immigrant communities are finding refuge in Braamfontein’s inner city through the establishment of business chains to escape the politically hostile environment back home.

After one businessman nearly had his shop bombed, he ended up here.

‘’We do have businesses in Pakistan but the problem in our country is war and it’s too much,” said Pakistani immigrant and business owner Waleed Teriq, who reveals that his decision to move to South Africa was motivated by the political turmoil in his country.

The political unrest was brought by the ideological conflict of the Islamic faction known as the Taliban.  It had taken control of Afghanistan in 1997 and imposed extreme Islamist law, which found neighbouring country Pakistan in the ongoing crossfire of the conflict.

Crime – the lesser devil 

According to Teriq, members of the Taliban sent letters to his store in Pakistan which prohibited him from downloading videos and songs for his customers. They threatened to bomb his shop if he did not adhere to the instructions.

However, while Teriq moved from his country to South Africa to escape the consistent danger to his life, he still falls victim to the high incidences of crime in South Africa.

[pullquote]“We had a robbery, two times in 2010 and six people came with the guns and laid me down, taking 60 cellphones” said Teriq who reflects on the attack as his first experience of South African criminal activity.[/pullquote]

Similarly, a shop attendant from Bangladesh, Rohan Islam experienced a similar incident when his phone and R500 was stolen from him whilst getting off a taxi at the Bree street taxi rank.

“South Africa also have [sic] crime, not too bad, but there is a mix,” said Islam.

Communities at war 

Islam reflects on his decision to move from Bangladesh to South Africa as an escape from the violent attacks he endured under the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) regime. This saw him spend 21 days in hospital.

Teriq describes the relationship between the South African Police Services (SAPS) and the immigrant communities as “helpful”, although he mentions the need for the police force to be unduly incentivised is “too much”.

The political conflict in the migrant communities from different countries plays out in their business operations. This is because of the   complicated relationship between the Pakistani and the Bangladeshi. “There is a community, but we are not friends,’’ said Islam.

“It is too difficult to live in our country right now,”   says Teriq, talking about Pakistan, who describes Braamfontein as better than any other area in Johannesburg.

Johannesburg: The migrant city that is anti-migrants

Gallery by Mfuneko Toyana

The Market Theatre’s main stage was the platform where six diverse minds gathered to discuss migration, a topic central to all of their individual work.

The last day and the last panel discussion of the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival helped to make audience members and authors alike reflect on the movement of people in and out of cities and countries.

The poor accommodating the poor

Wandile Zwane from the City of Johannesburg’s Migrant Helpdesk, used an interesting anecdote from a conversation he had had with a woman, illustrating a point made earlier about migration being a situation where the poor are accommodating the poor. [pullquote]”…people migrate to places with a gravitational pull…”[/pullquote]

The woman talked about the hierarchy that existed when it came to where one slept in her house. As a young child one was in the main bedroom, the older one got you would move to the dining room and the kitchen to make space for the younger ones. Eventually one would land up in the outside room and from there move on to their own house with a spouse.

Unfortunately her marriage had not worked out so she had to move back to the outside room with her kids, but because there was an immigrant living in that room she had to go back to the kitchen. The story points to one explanation of the animosity that exists around migration in South Africa.

Migration

Chinua Achebe’s book ‘There was a Country’ was the theme around which the conversation around which migration had to bend itself.

The panel consisted of writers who had threaded together stories and books, all zooming in on migration and themes central to resettlement. The panel discussion was largely based on the different writers’ works and their experiences of bridging political and personal narratives in their storytelling.

A young writer making waves in the literary world, NoViolet Bulawayo, said emergent personal narratives are based on political events, and that it was not possible to separate the two in one’s writing. [pullquote align=”right”]“Johannesburg is a migrant city”[/pullquote]

While the works of the six on stage were central to the discussion, engagement with audience members opened up the dialogue and brought up issues that were left out in the initial conversation.

Photographer and self-proclaimed book lover, Victor Dlamini (@victordlamini) made a poignant point from the floor, which steered the conversation to a meaningful point. He commented on people who are migrants themselves taking issue with people who migrate. He used Johannesburg as an example, saying most people who are in this city are not even from this city. “Johannesburg is a migrant city,” he added.

Panelist and writer, Achmat Dangor responded by saying that he agreed with Dlamini and pinned negative attitudes around migration on mechanisms of ‘othering’. He added that people migrate to places with a gravitational pull because of new ideas in that specific place. This is always the case with ‘big cities’, the activity and promise of economic emancipation lure people in, be it across borders or provincial lines.

Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, author of The Bookseller of Kibera, added to Dangor’s response, saying that human beings had a tendency of finding one another’s differences and using them to oppress one another.

Another audience member asked why was it that only Africans were considered immigrants. He did not understand why the Chinese and Europeans who come to this country were not treated with the same hostility that “our brothers” were.

In response Kwanele Sosibo (@KwaneleSosibo), journalist at the Mail & Guardian, simply said “we do it to ourselves”. He went on to narrate an anecdote about how people in an Eastern Cape community believe in measuring people according to certain pedigrees. Mining house recruiters divided them up according to body size, using pedigree determine who’d make best workers, exemplary of systematic ‘othering’.

Writing Invisibility

The Writing Invisibility e-book was launched. Some of the writers on the panel were contributors in the book which was a project done in collaboration with the Wits African Centre for Migration & Society.

The book is available for free download here.

RELATED ARTICLES: