A former industrial hub that is now home to creatives is adding some civic pride into a down-at-heel neighbourhood.
Enticing people to wander to downtown Johannesburg is not always an easy task. The area struggles with potholed roads, pollution, a lack of public amenities, power cuts and crime (Johannesburg is among the five most dangerous cities in Africa). But on any given day, Victoria Yards, set in an old steam laundry in the centre of downtown, is a plant-filled oasis. People sit outside a fish shop enjoying crispy hake and chips while a hum emanates from studios producing a wide range of products, including sculptures and jeans. On the first Sunday of every month a market takes place, bringing people to the area to buy these wares. The collection of industrial brick buildings, which house shops, restaurants, workshops and an urban farm, has become a beacon of hope in this underserved area. The man behind it is developer Brian Green. His hope was to create a hub for artists and craftspeople with affordable workshops and to engage in communal development through non-profit companies that provide food, employment and education to more than 50 local families.
Tshepo Mohlala, founder of Tshepo, is one of the development’s biggest success stories. Having started his brand as a one-man operation in a small space nine years ago, he now employs 20 people, many of whom are his neighbours, and he has doubled his studio size. Many of the entrepreneurs who have started businesses here are from underprivileged backgrounds. Some have benefited from support, such as free internet and computer usage, and rent-free workshop space. Another rising creative entrepreneur is Samson Cristóvão Chamabala, who devises ideas for his sustainable fashion brand, Senhor Negro, in the community’s collaborative workspace. Chamabala hopes eventually to move into his own shop, which is no longer an unrealistic ambition for designers here. While these kinds of social initiatives and neighbourhood rejuvenations can often lead to gentrification and subsequent displacement, Victoria Yards has been careful about reserving space for the local community. Hector Mbiga (pictured), who is from the area, worked his way up from volunteering to become CEO of the Makers Valley Partnership, a social enterprise that has a space in Victoria Yards. “More people are coming onboard, wanting to see the work that we do,” he says. “People are asking, ‘How can I get involved? How can I volunteer?’”
Mbiga has seen positive changes both inside and outside Victoria Yards. For example, last year saw the 38 illegal dumping sites in the neighbourhood reduced to eight. This was largely thanks to Makers Valley’s Urban Rangers initiative, a collective of local people funded partly by city hall to educate Joburgers
“Young people are thinking of business ideas that consider the community and the planet”
about proper waste disposal. As more businesses find their feet and thrive, it is inspiring others in the community to become entrepreneurs too. “Young people are thinking of business ideas that consider the community and the planet,” says Mbiga. “One guy has started a car wash that uses 80 per cent less water than the standard model. He’s also educating the community about water scarcity and how we need to be more intentional with water usage.”
This year, Makers Valley is hoping to collaborate with international corporations to help create more opportunities for local youth through commercial partnerships. It is also planning to help mobilise people in the area to vote in this year’s general election, which is set to be an especially pivotal one for Africa’s third-largest economy. “We’re trying to direct people’s awareness so that they can become active citizens,” says Mbiga.
Monocle comment: If this microcosm of social development and entrepreneurship can thrive in adverse conditions, then it could serve as a blueprint for other neglected communities across South Africa and the wider continent.