Made in Chatsworth flies in the face of Covid-19

With the world on the brink of a new economic order brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, some communities are already reaping the benefits of social activism.

Anti-capitalist critic George Monbiot recently wrote a piece titled A Zombie Love Story in which he says that the horror films got it wrong. “Instead of turning us into flesh-eating zombies, the pandemic has turned millions of people into good neighbours.”

Some might say this warmth and cooperative ethos was always alive and well in a south Durban township, where some residents have reworked a colonial name synonymous with injustice into an inspirational invocation. 

“Made in Chatsworth” is the label independent publisher Anivesh Singh gave to a promising mini-movement that relies on hyperlocal micro projects. While it predates the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems a brilliant response to the global crisis that has upset supply chains and multinational monopolies.

Undated: Social entrepreneur Anivesh Singh has created an online platform for Chatsworth traders that is helping them survive financially during the government’s Covid-19 lockdown.  (Photograph by Illa Thompson)

Chatsworth was established in the 1950s, when South Africans of Indian descent were forcibly relocated there under the segregation of apartheid. Almost 100 years earlier, the area was a farm that British immigrant Samuel Bennington named Chatsworth after a stately home in Derbyshire, England.

Former academic and author Kiru Naidoo, whose family was forced to move there from the Magazine Barracks for Indian workers in Somtseu Road, released Made in Chatsworth under Singh’s Micromega imprint in January.

One reviewer described the book as “located in the ‘kasi stories’ genre pioneered by Es’kia Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, Ronnie Govender and others”. It has 300 pages, including illustrations.

Vibrancy and resistance

In February, drawing inspiration from Naidoo’s book, Singh created an e-commerce platform for Chatsworth businesses, harnessing the social entrepreneurship that defines the area. It stimulated the sale of niche goods from the township and harnesses the spirit of activism that was forged in the colonial and anti-apartheid eras, and which is thriving in response to the pandemic. 

There are a host of Chatsworth charities and non-governmental agencies running everything from feeding schemes to clinics for drug users. And while the township is far from a utopian enclave, it has always embodied vibrancy and been rooted in resistance to injustice.

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Famous residents include Lenny Naidu, a liberation-era soldier killed by apartheid security forces in exile, and Kumi Naidoo, former head of environmental campaigners Greenpeace and secretary general of human rights organisation Amnesty International.

Kiru Naidoo’s book celebrates the place that nurtured such people. “In Chatsworth, we did a lot with nothing,” he writes in Made in Chatsworth.

An excerpt reads: “Let’s not romanticise poverty. Perhaps we did not notice the things we lacked. We had limited wants, limited needs but we had enough. To use Neville Alexander’s words, enough is a feast. The real feast in Chatsworth was life.” 

Naidoo says the energy lifted a community battered and wounded by colonialism, indenture, apartheid and forced removals. “They had done their beastly best. Yet we survived. Nay, we thrived.” 

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Life was about simple pleasures, he says. “A chunk of wood could be whittled into a goolie ganda (a game with sticks). A wooden bread box quickly transformed into a cricket bat and stumps. The match that followed was worthy of a dedicated sports channel. Neither rain nor bad light ever interrupted play, just the odd car that needed to pass through the pitch.”

Chatsworth, Naidoo writes, was always about self-sufficiency. People grew fruit, herbs, vegetables and chillies in their back yards, selling what they didn’t eat on the pavement. “The iconic Bangladesh Market has its origins in that survival entrepreneurship. My grandmother sold eggs and cigarettes from home. Her margins were small but she saved enough to strut her dignity.”

A tribute to resilience

Singh’s Made in Chatsworth platform is a tribute to this resilience. “Here you will find the products of hardworking, creative people who have learned to be self-reliant despite overwhelming odds.”

When he is not publishing books for previously marginalised communities, he prints occupational health and wellness booklets and posters. As a result, Made in Chatsworth started with a foray into books, feeding the growing appetite for heritage stories. 

Singh and Naidoo then became involved in an offshoot geared towards former homeless residents of Durban who sold newspapers to earn an income. Organised by the Denis Hurley Centre, which helps hundreds of homeless people every week, the project drew the attention of the two men, who sourced books for 10 former homeless people to sell on the city’s streets.

Arts publicist Illa Thompson does pro bono work for the centre and has seen the impact of the project, dubbed the Booksellers of Mzansi. She says the participants have flourished. “The men and women involved have been remarkably empowered. Kiru and Avinesh did a bit of training with them and they have developed a keen knowledge of authors and what sells.”

Undated: From left, Booksellers of Mzansi Jay-Jae Madwe and Richard Nzima at a monthly book fair before the lockdown. Made in Chatsworth has given the booksellers a way to earn a living online during the lockdown. (Photograph by Illa Thompson)

Singh is using the website to help these booksellers during the government’s Covid-19 lockdown. On Made in Chatsworth, buyers are able to browse each bookseller’s collection of new and “pre-loved” books and place orders. The books can be collected or will be delivered when possible, and the money earned will be paid to the sellers the day after the lockdown is lifted, ensuring they are able to bank some income and don’t become despondent in the interim.

Naidoo says the booksellers are proud people. “They are not fond of charity, they want to earn a decent living.”

Local produce

Singh says Made in Chatsworth connects community businesses and offers a range of items for sale, from locally produced candles to pickles. One of the products is Mrs Naidoo’s home-brewed sour porridge, which has a flavour that is unique to Chatsworth and its famous Bangladesh Market. 

There are no mass-produced commodities and products must reflect the character of the township. Small businesses do not have to pay to list their products either. The platform gives them a free online presence and once it is buzzing, Singh says he will try creating similar platforms for other townships.

“The movement was born out of the desire to celebrate local,” says Singh. “Not much attention is given to the internal economy of townships. If we can get the micro businesses to supply not only their local community but also to ‘export’ their unique products, we will help to build a sense of pride and revenue.”

Books and gardens

Most of Singh’s book titles wouldn’t raise an eyebrow from a commercial publisher oriented towards making a profit. But his books are toasted by locals, who cherish them. The books vary, from traditional dance to children’s stories to sporting memoirs to one in isiZulu.

Naidoo says he was heartened and surprised by the take-up of his book, which he attributes to the nature of Singh’s novel enterprise. “Honestly, I expected to sell about 50 copies. Sympathy buys from friends. But in the first three months, it sold over 1 000. People have fond memories of growing up in Chatsworth and their lives have been defined by the community.”

Undated: The cover of Made in Chatsworth, the book that spawned a movement celebrating local enterprise. (Image supplied)

The public spirit embodied in the Made in Chatsworth platform has spawned another civic offshoot, a community garden at the township’s Depot Road Memorial School. 

Naidoo says that just before the lockdown began, two unused soccer fields at the school were ready to be ploughed for the Indo-African Peace Garden. The children went home for the school holidays with indigenous seedlings to nurture as a practical component of their classes. The organic garden will grow African heritage vegetables such as the starchy root vegetable madumbi and traditional Indian curative spices like moringa.

A group of local engineers, scientists and specialists have joined forces with Naidoo and school staff members in volunteering to make the most out of the land for residents. “The idea is to encourage local cultivation for the community.”

ANC member of Parliament Ben Turok says that while he was in exile at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere insisted that for two hours a day, everybody tilled the soil between the lecture halls. Food gardens replaced flower beds.

“This year, we won’t celebrate the anniversary of Indian indenture in South Africa by building a statue that pigeons will just shit on,” Naidoo says. “We figured the garden was a much better idea.”

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