/ 13 January 2024

Marketing a cultural gem

Kwa Mai Mai2 (1)
Tradition: Sipho Sithole’s book Maye Maye traces the history and heritage of Kwa Mai Mai market in downtown Joburg where izangoma and herbalists ply their trade. Photo: Derek Davey

‘Tucked under a bridge in downtown Johannesburg, and far from the gaze of economic hitmen and venture capitalists, is a place where culture, heritage and tradition (as championed by its residents) converge and find expression in the creative pursuits and cultural narrative of migrant workers who, once on the margins of society, have become ethnic entrepreneurs.”

This is an excerpt from the book Maye! Maye! (Jacana Media, 2023), subtitled The History & Heritage of Kwa Mai Mai Market, in which cultural anthropologist Sipho Sithole carefully researches this oldest traditional market in Johannesburg: first its history, then its culture and last, its present-day circumstances. 

Here, he is saying that by commodifying the rural cultures (mainly Zulu) that the mineworkers brought with them to the urban setting of Joburg, the market’s “ethnic entrepreneurs” were able to create their own means of production, which were not tied to that of the gold mines.

Nearly 140 years old, Joburg is a fledgling city, with little deep heritage, but the Kwa Mai Mai market draws upon cultures far older than this. The market is one of Joburg’s oldest surviving establishments and some of its stores have been run by the same families for generations. 

Established in 1913, it has evolved over more than a century and this community of survivors is now a hostel, a small business hub, a market, a source of spiritual guidance and place of worship, all rolled into one. As Sithole puts it, “a home to people who dared to dream”.

Its position — in a hostel built for mineworkers — connects it to the deepest roots of how Egoli came to exist in the first place. The unbelievably rich deposits of gold discovered on the Rand were deep underground and their extraction required immense manpower. The colonial government forced rural men into the cities by imposing on them crippling taxes, such as the hut tax, in the early 1900s.

Once in the city, the black workers were kept separate from the  “European designated” areas by means of hostels, which had facilities closely akin to prisons, and where the workers’ movements could be closely monitored and controlled.

The market’s name is closely linked to its mining history. It goes back to an early mine manager, Saul Msane, who hailed from what was then Natal, who became known for his signature exclamation and cry of, “Maye Maye!” whenever a mineworker who had been injured was being brought to the surface.

As Sithole explains: “In Nguni, maye maye is an expression of shock, disbelief or exasperation, which will inevitably induce some awkwardness and discomfort in those who pass through the gate for the first time. 

“Hearing someone down the street or a next-door neighbour screaming ‘maye maye’ or ‘mai mai’ could easily persuade you to call the emergency number. It can only mean that something is very wrong and needs the urgent attention of whoever must come to the rescue.”

Sithole’s academic book is filled with quotes, photos, building diagrams and historical records but what grabbed me was the stories, such as how the authorities dealt with the brewing of beer in the hostels. The beer led to fights and, of course, less labour being performed, but constant police raids on the hostels had little impact on its production and consumption. 

In a 1919 letter published in Maye! Maye!, written to the director of native affairs in Joburg, the city’s exasperated deputy police commissioner suggests that “a little public flogging would have a good effect”, revealing clearly that the heritage of the city is one of exploitation —Joburg is built on blood.

In the end, a solution was found — the municipality began to brew beer itself, which became known as mai mai beer, and soon it was raking in over R100 million annually from thirsty mineworkers.

The making and selling of traditional costumes, weapons, herbs and muthi is what Kwa Mai Mai market is most renowned for, and traditional dancing there on weekends used to attract many visitors. Some items that the Zulu dancers wore incorporated modern materials: the sandals had a base made from repurposed car tyres. The brightly coloured straps of the sandals not only complemented their traditional attire but were also a symbol of defiance, “demonstrating that Zulu men could walk long distances that whites could only travel by car”. These sandals are still on sale today at many of the stores.

Along with mai mai beer, there’s a wooden wedding kist that also bears the name of the market. Originally made as a safe space to contain the belongings of hostel workers, who lived in communal rooms, the mai mai wedding kist, which can only be obtained from Kwa Mai Mai market, came to symbolise that a wedding was to take place when sent back home to the rural areas on a bus or truck, and was used there to store the bride’s possessions.

Sithole has photos of many of the market’s present store owners in his book, along with their individual stories, and how they learned their various trades; he clearly spent a lot of time with them. 

Herbalists comprise about 20% of the shops, but visitors to the market can also get a coffin made, a horse saddle fixed, a car panel beaten, or their upholstery repaired. There’s a taxi hub outside and nearby there is an outdoor section where shisa nyama is on sale and maskandi musicians sell their latest albums. 

The ecclesiastical garb of the umnazaretha — those who belong to the Shembe Nazareth Baptist Church — is on sale at the market, and church services are held there under a tree “which fits perfectly into the Kwa Mai Mai environment, which is all about song, dance, ritual, ancestral worship and celebration”. 

Kwa Mai Mai4

Sithole provides some background on the Shembe church and that of the Zionists, the differences between them and what the colours of their clothes symbolise, which I found illuminating, having witnessed their congregations at various outdoor Joburg venues for decades.

Both leaders of the churches at Kwa Mai Mai carry weapons; one carries a gun, the other a traditional weapon. 

There’s the touching story of an mfundisi (priest), who no longer has a congregation. He dresses up to preach a sermon every Sunday, and walks to where the service should take place, past the stalls and past the other congregation, which is well attended. Since his wife died — she was his assistant — nobody comes to his services but he never gives up.

As Sithole writes: “Today Kwa Mai Mai does not discriminate between religious converts and atheists, or between the priest and the diviner. It is a place for healers and worshippers of all persuasions.” 

In the final chapters, the author describes the issues that the market is grappling with today, such as poor supply of power and water, and sewage disposal problems, which makes for onerous trading conditions. 

In this, Kwa Mai Mai is not alone. Both informal and formal traders across the country lose profit and patience due to the interruption of what should be a reliable supply of services from city and state. 

Sithole also contends that historical factors might play a role: “One reason why hostels populated by Zulu migrants have been left in a state of disrepair may well be that the ruling party views them [Zulus] as not having been on the side of the mass democratic movement during the struggle for democracy.”

When I visited the market, I found it to be functional and clean. It is easy to access from the M2 highway and is close to the Fashion District and the Arts on Main precinct. 

I was the sole honkey on the block but I felt safe and enjoyed interacting with the traders. 

However, the condition of the area one must drive through between Marshalltown and North Doornfontein is particularly grim, filled with potholes and rubbish. Only the most determined tourist would venture through this and I fear for the future of this cultural gem.