8 August 2022
Refiloe Molefe, 63, ran an acclaimed urban farm in Bertrams, Johannesburg, for 16 years, providing food and training to thousands of people.
The two-acre plot of land was owned by the City of Johannesburg, and Molefe cultivated it with their permission.
In June, the City bulldozed her farm. It plans to establish a “One-Stop Social Development Service Centre” on the site.
But Molefe vowed to continue farming.
Refiloe Molefe, known to many as Mama Fifi, is determined to rebuild her thriving inner city farm after her acclaimed Bertrams urban farming project was taken over by the City of Johannesburg and its fields bulldozed in June. Her donations to a network of feeding schemes were brought to a halt, as well as a youth training agri-programme, both of which have benefited thousands of people over the years.
Molefe, 63, began to build the Bertrams Inner City Farm in 2006 after she saw that many people in her community were going hungry. She approached the local council and asked if she could use a vacant two-acre plot of land in the Johannesburg suburb of Bertrams. The City of Johannesburg agreed.
“I was looking after the small children of mothers who had to go out working, but realised that these children were going to bed hungry,” she told GroundUp. Molefe decided to grow organic produce to feed these children. Soon the initiative took up all of her time. “I knew I could help more children and their families by focusing on growing food.”
With the help of the community and NGOs, Molefe installed taps and an irrigation system at the site, built greenhouse tunnels and a packing station.
Over the years, her urban farm became a success story for inner-city cultivation, winning several local awards and garnering accolades from organisations working towards food security. Her fresh produce soon became so bountiful that she was able to supply dozens of soup kitchens through a network of feeding schemes, and co-founded the Bambanani Food and Herb Cooperative Project.
Her farm’s success saw her approached by several universities to train students in urban agriculture, including the Tshwane University of Technology, the University of the Witwatersrand, and the University of Johannesburg. She said she has trained thousands of students over the years. “When you compete with the youth, you’ll always learn new things.”
But after 16 years, the City ordered the farm to close immediately to make way for the construction of a R275-million Multi-Purpose Centre.
The fields were bulldozed, and the irrigation pipes, equipment and greenhouse structures were removed and dumped at a nearby site.
“I was devastated, I couldn’t even get out of bed the next day,” said Molefe.
The City of Johannesburg’s Department of Health and Social Development owns the land. Molefe said that unidentified officials claiming to work for the department came to visit the farm last year and told her there were plans afoot to build a multi-purpose centre on the site.
“They never left their numbers and I didn’t hear from them again, so I put it in the back of my mind.” She said that when she later approached the department, she was assured that her tenure was secure. With a Farmer Incubation Agreement in place, Molefe said she felt reassured about her tenure.
But in May this year, City officials came to visit Molefe at the site again, this time with documents showing that the project for the multi-purpose centre had been approved and that the Bertrams Urban Farm was to be demolished.
According to the City’s plans, the land would house a “One-Stop Social Development Service Centre” and would, ironically, include a greenhouse and urban farm.
In response to the City’s announcement, a group of more than 60 NGOs and activists from across the country, many of whom have supported Molefe over the years, issued a statement criticising the City’s decision and calling on officials to reconsider the negative impact the closure would have on food security in the area. They also criticised the City’s lack of consultation and communication to Molefe.
The Legal Resources Centre stepped in to represent Molefe and appealed to the City, highlighting Molefe’s credentials of creating and sustaining an essential food security network benefiting hundreds in Bertrams and surrounding areas.
But despite these attempts to forestall the City, the demolition went ahead.
In July, City officials and Molefe met, and she was offered a new piece of land in Eikenhof, south of Johannesburg, 20 kilometres away from the community and soup kitchens she supports. “I left there without any written agreements. How can I trust them?” asked Molefe.
Subsequently, many people have reached out to Molefe offering assistance. She has received two solid offers for land where she could rebuild an urban farm.
For now, she has begun to cultivate a plot of land in Comptonville, 16 kilometres away from Bertrams, made available to her by a local church.
“I just want to keep planting and teaching and feeding my community,” said Molefe. “I will make a success again. I have no choice. People are going hungry out there.”
Questions were sent to the office of the Mayoral Committee Member for Health and Social Development Ashley Sauls without any response.