At the top of Roving Bantu Kitchen’s towering doorway is a sign: “Spy kos corner.” It’s a play on words.
Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park is known as the home of free speech — a space where anyone can get on their soapbox and share their gospel. “Spy kos” is fast food in tsotsitaal.
It’s under this sign that people from all over Brixton, a historically working-class suburb in western Johannesburg, collect hearty meals prepared at the restaurant and by members of the community.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the government’s efforts to curb infections have forced restaurants like Roving Bantu Kitchen to close their doors, a measure that could have a devastating effect on the industry.
But, in the wake of the economic blow of the lockdown — especially on households already teetering on the edge of destitution — some restaurants have vowed to continue feeding as many people as they can.
The change game
At noon on Monday, an hour before serving begins, Roving Bantu Kitchen’s curtains are drawn. The cold darkness mutes the otherwise bright colours inside. The restaurant’s chairs are propped upside down on its tables.
The space slowly warms with the smell of food as Sifiso Ntuli, the restaurant’s co-founder, talks.
The place was robbed shortly before the lockdown began in late March, adding to the chaos of the period, Ntuli says. He has fixed the robber’s mask to one of the small trees outside — a scarecrow watching over his granadilla plant and the restaurant.
“Just as we were coming out of that madness, boom! — lockdown,” Ntuli says of the break-in, banging the table for effect. “So it has been heavy.”
But Ntuli lives by the credo: “In times of deep social crisis, culture best expresses itself.”
Roving Bantu Kitchen was founded to provide “affordable yet tasty food” to the Brixton community, many of them students. “But the idea of being a community centre that is the essence, or the foundation, of the kitchen,” Ntuli says.
He adds: “So really, at least for me, what we are doing now is nothing strange. The only thing that is strange is that we are both sitting here wearing masks. When we went into shutdown … we realised we had all this food left. So what do we do with it? Give it to the rats or the roaches?”
Instead of letting food go to waste, students staying on the premises help make and serve hot meals four days a week. Members of the community donate big pots of food served with pap or rice. More food is delivered to Fietas, the suburb sandwiched between the Braamfontein and Brixton cemeteries.
Explaining that, for Roving Bantu Kitchen, the soup kitchen was an inevitable next step, Ntuli says: “Covid is an equaliser. Covid is a reminder of who we are. It’s about change. And I have been in the change game for a good part of a generation.”
Roving Bantu Kitchen balances these efforts with now also taking orders for delivery, allowed with the easing of the lockdown.
“We’ve been more busy now than we were when the place was open,” Ntuli says, his brightly coloured mask slipping under his nose when he laughs.
More than a business
In another corner of Johannesburg, Mathew Abraham — the owner of Norwood-based Indian restaurant Thava — was also intent on not letting his kitchen go unused during the lockdown. “The kitchen was there. The staff was sitting at home, so I thought: ‘Why don’t I do something?’,” he says.
With the help of chef Philippe Frydman, and in partnership with Nosh Food Rescue, Abraham and his team went about achieving the goal of feeding 1000 people a day in the surrounding suburbs.
The initiative began in April and, with more restaurants and organisations joining since, up to 30000 hot meals are served each week. “We all get to a stage when we feel we have to start giving back to society. We owe the society,” Abraham says.
Abraham, who did not initially pursue a career in the restaurant industry, appreciates the importance of food. After he arrived in South Africa in 1995, he found himself longing for the food his mother cooked at home in Kerala, India. “It was a passion. More than a business, it’s a passion for me.”
Since the lockdown started, members of the food-service industry have been vocal about the knock they have taken in the past two months. In South Africa, restaurants
were among the first businesses to be told they could no longer operate. Unlike in many other countries, restaurant delivery services were also shut down in level five of the lockdown.
But the pandemic has crippled the industry on a global scale, jeopardising the jobs of millions of wokers. In April, the National Restaurant Association in the United States predicted that the sector would lose $240-billion by the end of 2020 — and two-thirds of its workforce.
The economic fallout of the pandemic will also likely have a lasting effect on restaurants, as patrons choose the often cheaper option of at-home dining.
Restaurants Association of South Africa chief executive Wendy Alberts told the Mail & Guardian that many people in the industry are flailing, with some on the brink of closing their doors for good.
“We are about to lose very many of our restaurants. The conversations are very real. We are about to talk about liquidation, about retrenchments. We should not have to be talking about this,” she said.
According to Alberts, operating through only takeaways and deliveries is untenable for restaurants that primarily offer sit-down services.
“Most of our businesses have had to transform their whole business models to become takeaways, which they are not geared up to do … To readjust and be innovative is great, but it comes with a capital cost.”
‘We carry on’
Although he is hopeful business will pick up under level three of the lockdown, Abraham says: “We can only achieve part of our turnover by doing takeaways … It’s a challenging time for all restaurateurs.”
But Abraham says he has not let concern for his business shake his resolve. “I can definitely say I have been blessed until today, so why should I worry about tomorrow? … That is why we have taken on this feeding scheme. It itself is a cost, but we carry on.”
Back in Brixton, Ntuli has a similar attitude towards the future of the Roving Bantu Kitchen. “What happens, happens, that’s how I see life,” he says, sitting back in his makeshift seat. Talking about the added pressure of running the soup kitchen, he says: “It’s not fun, but it’s not painful. It’s about the spirit of volunteerism.”