JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s smallest province, Gauteng, home to both Johannesburg and Pretoria, has grown rapidly in the last decade. The 2011 census showed that an extra million people now live in the province, putting a new strain on housing, services, and competition for jobs. The strain is hardest on the poor, who don’t often have enough to live, never mind eat healthy. But one local non-governmental agency (NGO), Thlago, has launched a pilot project to set up organic vegetable and herb gardens in some of the last remaining free spaces in the area: the roofs of downtown Johannesburg.
A heavy metal door opens up the stuffy corridor of the African Diamond building onto a sea of iron, bricks and pipes. A few steps up a metal fire escape leads to the top of the five-story building.
Forget the recent storm that knocked down the green netting protecting the crops from hungry birds; the garden built by the Thlago cooperative, of which Tshediso Phalane is vice president, stands lonely but proudly on downtown Johannesburg's skyline.
“It looks so perfect because once you go to the rooftop you're thinking you'll see the cement," Phalane says. "But once you get here, you see the green vegetables, and it's organic. You can see health."
Rows after rows of old tires have been filled with nourishing earth and sprout the result of months of tender care. Spinach, beetroot, onion, parsley, celery, kale, and, in this warming South African spring, the hatching of sweet fruits: strawberries, lemon, figs, grenadilla or grapes.
Half a dozen people, all of them migrants to the city, are busy scraping the earth and watering the plants -- a surprising occupation in downtown Joburg, says Phlalane.
“Because the idea is: get a job. And the only way to get a job is to work on a factory. But now we are trying to change the mindset by saying: look, you have skills from the homelands [rural countryside]," Phalane says. "Why can't you utilize that skills on the rooftop and then see what it is we can come up with."
A young mother, Bonyume got this job through the city's social services.
“You must take care of it like a baby. Because they're our children, they must grow nicely," she notes. "Like your child you have to bathe it every time, like this also, we are taking off all these things so it's nice and fresh."
“I'm gonna heat my oil, put onions, lots of onions, green peppers. Then I'll put spinach, salt, I'll stir, put my Knox cube [gelatin], then I make my pap on the side, because I don't have money for meat these days since it's the middle of the month, but still I don't go hungry. There's plates on the table," Bonyume says.
She adds that the job changed her and her son's lives.
“If you want vegs on the side, healthy food, you just come, once it grew, you just come and take it, tik tik tik. Even if you get two beetroot, you can always get healthy food," she says.
Doreen Khumalo, chairwoman of the Thlago cooperative, says her program not only can do a lot to improve people's feeding habits, it also promotes self-reliance for people who, too often, have lost the confidence to take control of their lives.
“I love garden too much, I love nature," admits Khumalo. "I'll never buy anything with nature, because you can make everything. Even in a building you can plant, in the rooftop you can plant, in the balconies. In this barrel you can plant 152 vegetables, different ones. You can plant lettuce, beetroot, carrot, spinach, everything! You can feed 12 people in one family. So never say you are hungry, because you can feed yourself."
Khumalo says her garden produces enough to feed the 50 tenants from the African Diamond building. Twice a week, they can buy the products of her garden at a cheaper price than what is available in supermarkets: for example, 10 rands, or about $1.10, will buy a bunch of spinach that can feed eight people.
Her ambition is to extend the partnership she created with the affordable housing company, or Afhco, that lent this rooftop to her NGO.
“They have 69 buildings. If you plant the 69 buildings the city will be green. Everybody would eat healthy,” she says.
Khumalo adds that each building rooftop can feed 50 people, and costs about $16,000 to set up.