Delicious local cuisine is always the order of the day at the fabulous Khutsong Farmer’s Market. Same name, different locationPreview (opens in a new tab)tion. This story is not about the Rivonia Craft Market in Johannesburg, but rather the Rivonia Farmer’s Market in Khutsong, Carltonville. The first one is good but the second one is so fantastic that it gave me confidence in such places. Obviously, my newfound confidence as a consumer is neither here nor there – this bustling trading post in West Rand Township doesn’t exist to bring joy to strangers like me. Its purpose is to buy and sell cheap, super fresh, mostly organic fruits and vegetables grown by Khutsong’s gardeners to the people of Khutsong.
Every trader is a producer. Each customer can indicate the garden, plot or field where each offer originated. Which is exactly as it should be. But so often this is not the case. It’s easy to become cynical about businesses that advertise themselves as “farmers’ markets” when many of them are nothing more than neatly curated outdoor food courts with rustic decor. Taking advantage of consumer naivety by reselling wholesale products at high prices is all too common. The most obvious warning signs that you are in a fake farmers market are stalls full of uniform, out of season/out of region produce and sellers’ ignorance/obfuscation regarding provenance or use.
Even where the supply is genuine, many once-fabulous farmers’ markets have been taken over by food-loving fashionistas who have turned all manner of apple carts upside down by using them as alternative, earthy brunch spots. They have long conversations about lattes and prioritize socializing over food shopping. Maybe a punnet of figs or an organic pork pie is bought, but nothing bigger will fit in their reusable shopping bags. Huge, fancy buggies prevent other market visitors from accessing the actual ingredients. All of the above discourages OG customers who previously did a weekly grocery shopping at the market. In many cases, these fashionable virtue-signalling hordes stifle trade from the very farmers they claim to support.
I am unable to judge. Understanding the question doesn’t mean I’m not part of the problem. I, too, have spent many happy Saturday mornings “marketing” – by which I mean sitting on a refreshed haystack, having long opinions about everything and nothing while eating pain au chocolat. If I leave with a few sprigs of asparagus and sourdough bread, that’s a lot.
The good news is that there are still plenty of places that have neither fallen prey to the market disguise phenomenon nor yet been bothered by the attention of Instagram’s epicurean elite. Rivonia Market in Khutsong, Carltonville is (almost) one of those places – I confess that I have now put several nice pictures of it on Instagram.
The township (located 75 kilometers from Johannesburg) is home to an ardent community of food gardeners who almost all sell in the local market as well. Many of these farmer-traders have supplemented their pre-existing horticultural skills with training in organic farming and pest management through a community improvement enterprise, SocioTech.
The location is a field, near the reservoir, which I am told becomes the dividing line between the territories of rival gangs at night. There are a few hardcore vendors selling in the space all week, but the main market is on a Wednesday. No one seems sure why the area is called Rivonia, but other parts of the township are known as Slovo, Hani and Mandela, so there may be a connection to the treason trial. Apparently the market is old, but this location adjacent to the reservoir is relatively new and came into being because the old place was developed for homes. When I asked an elderly trader how long the market had been serving Khutsong. He looked away and opined that it was “kudaloo!” (from isiXhosa kudala) with an extended central “ahhh” sound to emphasize how long ago it was.
The traders of Rivonia do everything the idealistic agroecologists recommend. Local producers sell high-quality food to their neighbors, which keeps prices low as produce moves directly from producer to buyer without intermediary distributors. Traders have told me that with SocioTech’s Trench Bed System, their soil is super rich and doesn’t need chemical fertilizers.
Apparently, insects are no match for the potent tea (amaranth) and aloe infusion that gardeners spray their crops. The advice I received from kudaloo guy had to use an older thepe that has finished flowering. Once the thepe produces flowers, it becomes too bitter to eat as a morogo, so this secondary use as a pesticide is the ultimate waste, don’t want to use resources. Food mileage is virtually non-existent as almost all traders arrive on foot pushing their wares in wheelbarrows.
The products are picked just a few hours before purchase. Such a system has very low barriers to entry and creates economic opportunities in an impoverished area. Among the vendors I met was an eight-year-old boy who had grown cowpeas on the edge of his mother’s plot and was selling them (R10 a cup) because he was raising money : “To go to the saloon (sic) for a German cup. Buying local ensures that money flows within the community and residents are protected from the potential threat of disruptions to long-distance food supply chains. We don’t know if the next such disruption will be the result of a pandemic or a policy, but, either way, the ability to withstand its effects will be a big bonus.
There are very few tables. Most people put plastic sheeting on the ground and sit on it surrounded by their garden fruits and vegetables. Some sell their wheelbarrows. The free-range egg lady is very tall – she does business out of the back of a bakkie, but it’s as fancy as it gets. Piles of gnarled green marakka squash compete for customers’ attention with flat white boer pumpkins and makataan melons. The leaves and stems of all of the above are carefully stripped of their stringy outer prickles and sold separately.
Spinach and mustard greens are offered in tied bouquets while the unit of measure for bangla (cleome), young thepe and guxe (okra) leaves is a “Checkers” (plastic supermarket package). My visit was in the summer but everyone assured me that the drying of the morogo wa dinawa (bean leaf) ensures a year-round supply of heirloom greens.
Locally grown peanuts are marketed by the cup, as are jugo beans (bambara nuts) and green peas. lethlodi (mung beans). Sweet potatoes (and their leaves) and green honey in abundance. The only ingredients not literally grown a stone’s throw from the market are cassava and coconuts sold at a stand manned by a group of capulana-clad Mozambican women. Big buckets of atchar (R10 per scoop, R8 if you bring your own tub of margarine to take away) made earlier in the season using green mangoes grown in Khutsong and smoked catfish (caught in the nearby Wonderfonteinspruit) were the only processed products on offer. .
Considering Merafong Municipality’s history of sewage leaks, I opted for the former and not the latter. Although there are apricot trees all over the township, the fruit vendors I spoke to said they only make jam for home use because, as one lady observed, “This market, it is the poor who do their shopping. They have no money to buy jam”.
In addition to crops, there are also huge piles of second-hand clothes for sale. Looking at the logos on the T-shirts and track tops, I’m guessing those garments landed on our shores via some unremarkable American evangelist. So if you fancy a jacket with Nashville’s True Love Waits mission insignia to pair with your reasonably priced, sustainably grown, seasonal, and heritage-driven food, come to Khutsong. DM/TGIFood
Wednesday Rivonia Market, Khutsong. The GPS coordinates are -26.3299,27.3125. Look for the reservoir or ask for directions at the Choppies supermarket on the outskirts of the township. (No card machines or ATMs, so bring cash)
The author supports the Saartjie Baartman Center for women and children in Manenberg. Their 24-hour crisis response service provides holistic social support that includes housing and food for up to 120 survivors of domestic violence per day.