Last harvest: sad day as inner city farm makes way for multipurpose centre
Mam Refiloe Molefe’s Bertrams Inner City Farm which feeds the needy will move 20km away to Eikenhof
After doing the uncommon — planting and cultivating organic vegetables right in Johannesburg’s city centre, near busy roadways and high-rise buildings – Mam Refiloe Molefe has harvested for the last time.
While Molefe’s Bertrams Inner City Farm was iconic, the 63-year-old who has been there for 16 years has been forced to move 20km away to Eikenhof as the City of Johannesburg has decided it wants to use this particular piece of land for something it believes could be more fruitful.
“I will survive because I am unstoppable. I just think that destroying a farm is very sad because it involves food,” she told Sunday Times Daily on Friday afternoon as she plucked the heads off her last remaining patch of kale.
Molefe started her urban farm in 2006, after establishing a place of safety and love for city children — only to realise that hunger was a huge problem.
She approached the City of Joburg and was given the use of an old bowling green — a small piece of land about the size of two soccer pitches close to Ellis Park. She trained in food production, farming and education, partnering with universities, NGOs and tourism groups.
“Two years back the city told me that I would have to move, but nothing happened. Then on the 11th (of May) there was a big meeting and they told me they now have money. They want the site for a multipurpose centre and I will be taken to a new place,” Molefe said.
On May 26 the matter was formalised when executive mayor Mpho Phalatse and health and social development MMC Ashley Sauls conducted a soil-turning event to mark the start of construction of the new Bertrams Multipurpose Centre.
The project is being managed by the Johannesburg Development Agency, with phase one — demolition and earth works — set to run until the end of October. Phase two will start immediately after and the R240m project will be completed by June 30 2023.
The new facility will offer community services such as sewing, cooking, baking and early childhood development. Libraries, community halls and community spaces for the youth and senior citizens, as well as the return of urban farming, have been promised.
Ewan Botha, spokesperson for health and social development, said: “Mam Refiloe has a farmer incubation agreement which the city intends to be bound by and will continue to provide the services undertaken in that agreement.”
People like good, organic food — not that long spinach full of chemicals. Food is medicine. We make juices and sauces — everything healthy and organic. We make our own compost, we share our seeds and we feed people.Mam Refiloe Molefe
He said city contractors would move all her equipment from Bertrams to the new site — double the size of her current property. The department will also continue to support her Fountains of Youth cooperative with various interventions such as production inputs, access to markets, training and some farming equipment.
“What they are doing makes sense. I just wish that I was given more time to meet with my clients to tell them what is happening. There has been no time for goodbye. It’s like I am sneaking out or running away,” Molefe said on Friday, guiding Sunday Times Daily off the farm property that is now a designated building site and declared unsafe for the public.
In 2020, Molefe was among eight gardeners who were profiled by Sunday Times Daily.
She expressed how she had overcome many obstacles — even the Covid-19 lockdown. She had spoken passionately about her work, saying: “This garden means everything to me. I’m passionate about farming and I love sharing with people, especially underprivileged people like me. Even if we don’t have much money, we have food. That makes me happy.”
Molefe had said she was able to provide food to at least 250 children every week and was excited about training a new generation of gardeners and teaching young people to cultivate the land. Some were now working with her in her food garden, while others had started their own or were managing gardens for companies or individuals.
Molefe’s impact is undeniable. As she made her way out of the farm on Friday, one man came rushing to her to inquire about her leaving the area.
She reassured him that her absence from the area wouldn’t mean they would go hungry. She promised she would still come and provide them with food.
Molefe works with 50 youth volunteers and others from Wits, UJ, GIBS, Henley Business School and the Tshwane University of Technology, who receive training and research opportunities. And through her work with tourism groups she has gained love and respect around the world.
“People like good, organic food — not that long spinach full of chemicals. Food is medicine,” she said, explaining the other name she operates under: Fifi’s Food Farmacy. She will take her entire operation to her new venue where she will continue her Fountain of Youth cooperative, now almost fully managed and run by her junior workers.
“We make juices and sauces — everything healthy and organic. We make our own compost, we share our seeds and we feed people,” she said.
Botha said Molefe would, in terms of the farming agreement, run the new Eikenhof farm for five years. After that she will be invited to settle permanently either in Bertrams or Eikenhof.
“I have been with her for donkey’s. I can’t believe this is ending now. We worked so hard and we never got tired,” said volunteer worker Margaret Stuurman, who has been a solid force in Bertrams. Third partner Judy Masuku said she was planning to move to Eikenhof with Molefe to make sure the urban farm continues.
“I am excited. This is God’s time. You can see my smile. We will start again and do great things and the farm will be bigger and we will continue to teach orphans how to feed themselves,” Molefe said.
Already the local councillor and a church pastor have reached out to her and offered facilities. Another organisation has booked a Mandela Day event and ordered 100 juices.
Molefe’s vegetables have been harvested, her compost is packed, her drip irrigation system has been bundled up ready for Eikenhof .
“I don’t know the exact address yet, but it is going to be fantastic,” said Molefe.
Everything will be delivered to her this week and she will start again. It will be difficult as she has no volunteers and no borehole at the new site.
“We can move quickly if I can just get transport for my 50 guys to come across and start the farm. We need tools — spades, forks, hoes and some razor wire to make the place safe. Plus volunteers to help with anything.”
Anyone able to contribute in any way can contact Molefe’s assistant Sibongile Cele on 072 120 9784.