Vilakazi Street grows its own food to feed hungry residents

Tsholofelo Molatlau was spurred on by South Africa's covid-19 lockdown to create a community treasure. Her dream is a country filled with veggie gardens. "If you don't have space, grow the veggies on the roof of your shack," she exlaims

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In the heart of Soweto, lush vegetable gardens are shooting up alongside the pavements of one of Mzansi’s most famous streets, Vilakazi Street. These veggie pavements fight hunger in a street once home to two Nobel Laureates, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

The Sgangala food garden project started with Tsholofelo Molatlau (40) who found herself in a state of panic when the country’s first covid-19 lockdown was announced.

“I was at my home in Orlando West, filled with paranoia more than anything else. People were losing their jobs and hunger suddenly became an even bigger issue within townships. Some people even started engaging in petty crimes just for survival,” she explains.

With this in mind, Molatlau wondered how she could alleviate the poverty in a community she loves. She decided that a garden would be the answer.

“It’s something that I had been thinking about for a while. With the lockdown, I think it became a matter of you either do it now, Tsholofelo, or never.”

Planting pavements of hope

But the task at hand would not be easy. First of all, she had no idea where the garden would go. However, being the resourceful woman she is, Molatlau quickly devised a plan to start her gardens on the sidewalks of the historic Vilakazi street precinct.

Muzi Vezi showing off Soweto-grown carrots grown from one of the food gardens. Photo: Supplied

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She introduced the concept to the community, and they loved it. Today, there are three pavement gardens and 20 home gardens. They plant spinach, radish, lettuce, tomatoes, beetroot, cabbage, kale, coriander, rosemary and much more.

The Sgangala food garden donates the produce to members in the community as well as to the Ikageng Community Centre in Mamelodi and the Orlando West feeding programme.

Molatlau tells Food For Mzansi she has always had green fingers. Back home her family always planted fresh vegetables in their backyard. Nothing hectic, though, she says.

“It feels like a calling. I know it sounds a bit ridiculous, but it really feels like it. I mean, I didn’t even have to struggle to get everyone on board,” Molatlau says.

The Sgangala food garden project is involving ever more members of the community. Photo: Supplied

When she is not feeding her community, she is the owner of a Gauteng-based public relations and marketing company called Pyper Communications. Through her company, she works with a vast number of community organisations and is always involved in community development.

“Even if you are throwing a party, I believe there should be a developmental element to it,” Molatlau remarks.

The impressive project has even caught the attention of the Shoprite Group, who made a large donation of seedlings.

“This kind of support means the world to our (garden) project. We have zero budget and therefore depend completely on such aid, which means we can get to our ultimate goals faster,” says Molatlau.

Future project plans

Without predicting the future, the Sgangala food garden plans to take the project to schools and move into other communities.

“It has gone beyond pavements now. Ultimately, we want to establish an eco-tourism hub, which we will call the Garden Route, that will hopefully serve as a catalyst for economic development in the community.”

They plan to go all the way up the street to the Hector Pieterson museum, just two blocks away from where the schoolboy was shot and killed on 16 June 1976. Molatlau wants to document his story on the walls behind the food gardens.

“We also want to properly package the produce and sell it to the Vilakazi restaurants and maybe expand to other areas,” she says.

Harvesting healthy food from a Soweto pavement are (from left) Muzi Vezi, Tshediso Phahlane, Mpho Shasha. Photo: Supplied

Molatlau’s wish for her community and township communities across South Africa is to really start looking at their yards and spaces differently.

“Someone told me that they don’t have space to grow vegetables. I said grow the veggies on the roof of your shack, if you must. It sounds crazy, but there’s always a way. We need to start thinking independently and self-sustainably. There are no jobs, machines are taking over, so we need to rely on our creativity. The most important thing is to start.”

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