This past weekend was South Africa’s first weekend under Level 3 lockdown, during which we’re allowed to move around more or less as we please within provincial borders. So like many South Africans, I got out of the house — for real — and went to the African Accent spaza shop in Katlehong.
Katlehong is about 35 kilometers south of central Joburg. As I was driving there, I realized it was the first time since March that I’d driven more than five kilometers from home.
I first blogged about African Accent at the very beginning of the lockdown. Bongani Mabuza, the owner, was running a fundraiser called the #SpazaShopChallenge, supplying basic essentials to families in need in his community. I promoted the #SpazaShopChallenge in my blog and many of you donated to it.
I had never met Bongani or been to African Accent before. But I had a feeling this place was special. Now that I’ve finally visited, I can’t believe how right I was.
Spaza shops are like tiny convenience stores, located in townships or other neighborhoods without easy access to larger markets. Usually a spaza shop is on the same premises as the owner’s home — African Accent is in front of Bongani’s house, in what used to be a garage. Sometimes a spaza shop is as simple as a window cut into a garden wall or fence, with a person sitting behind the window selling cold drinks, bread, cigarettes, and a few fruits and vegetables.
According to Bongani there are about 1,400 spaza shops in Katlehong alone. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any others like African Accent.
Bongani is an unusual spaza shop owner. He’s South African, for starters, while most spaza shops are owned by immigrants. Bongani is only in his early 30s but he’d already had several other careers before opening the store. He worked in the cosmetics department at Edgar’s and was a manager at Woolworth’s. Bongani is a filmmaker, a clothing designer, and an apostolic priest. His wife, Bongi, is an actress and TV presenter.
The African Accent shopfront, with its bold Ndebele design, is a statement in itself.
I arrived at African Accent at 10 a.m. and met my friend Nkosikhona, who lives around the corner. I thought I’d stay for an hour or two, meet Bongani and take a few photos, catch up with Nkosikhona, then head home.
Five hours later Nkosikhona and I were still there, sitting at the picnic table with Bongani and Bongi, discussing everything under the sun. (Literally, we were under the sun and we discussed everything.) We talked about South Africa and America. We talked about history and politics and education and economics, art and culture and food. We talked about classism and racism and xenophobia. We talked about how we grew up and the defining moments of our various generations.
I assume we talked about COVID-19 at some point. But I can’t even remember. For the first time in 10 weeks, the global pandemic wasn’t at the forefront of my mind because there were too many other interesting things to talk about. My non-corona-obsessed brain suddenly woke up again and it felt freaking wonderful.
There are several interesting entrepreneurial projects going on at African Accent. Bongani recently started a partnership with Mentos. Mentos supplies African Accent with discounted candy, along with branded bibs and hats. Bongani recruits kids and young adults in the neighborhood to sell the candy, and they split the profits.
Bongani has a fashion line and sells clothes in a small showroom adjacent to the spaza shop. I fell in love with one of his tops and walked out wearing it.
Bongani is trying to phase out the #SpazaShopChallenge food parcel program. As he pointed out, donating food can only be a short-term intervention. Bongani prefers to play the long game. He’s currently working on new initiatives to help people in Katlehong earn a living — like the Mentos partnership, and a plan to procure bicycles for youth who will work as delivery people for the Spaza Shop (like a local version of Uber Eats). If you’d like to contribute to the work Bongani is doing, please contact me privately.
Thanks Bongani, Bongi, Nkosikhona, and everyone at African Accents for the best day I’ve had since lockdown started. I’ll be back soon.
African Accent is at 134 Mngadi Section, Katlehong, at the corner of Mopholi and Behnya Streets.