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Maboneng struggles to keep the vibe going

Pata Pata restaurant in Maboneng has also suffered from the national lockdown
Pata Pata restaurant in Maboneng has also suffered from the national lockdown

Maboneng is seen as "the place of light" despite being buried in the deep dingy parts of cold Johannesburg.

Despite the rampant crime in the city, people from Johannesburg and all over the world would arrive in their numbers to enjoy the vibrant hub and all it had to offer. From popular nightclubs to quaint coffee shops, those who had their fingers on the pulse would be beckoned there.

But under lockdown, restaurants full of life a few months ago are sealed up. Only a few stores have tentatively opened.

One of those is specialist coffee shop Home of the Bean, owned by married couple Leroy and Itumeleng Kgopa.

The Kgopas decided to re-open under the level 4 regulations to ensure the survival of their business and to protect their three employees from losing their jobs.

Leroy, who doubles up as a diagnostic radiographer at Helen Joseph Hospital, said since the coffee shop part of their business only started running last year they had just registered with the Unemployment Insurance Fund in February, making it impossible to claim from the fund for relief during the Covid-19 lockdown.

"So we have been paying for part of their [workers'] salaries from our own salaries."

His wife is a radiation therapist at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital. He said they applied for Covid-19 relief but realised some of the packages were loans they were not willing to risk on top of existing debt. They applied for other relief funds which have not responded to their applications.

Leroy said their landlord reduced the rent by 50% but they are still not able to break even. He now makes deliveries of coffee and light meals to nearby places including Charlotte Maxeke Hospital where many essential workers and colleagues support their business.

After working night shifts as an essential worker at Helen Joseph Hospital, he goes straight to Home of the Bean to make sure all is well.

Leroy said after he fell in love with coffee, he and his wife bought a Kombi that they used to sell coffee at different events around Gauteng.

Their success led them to open a physical coffee shop in 2019. "We wanted to open another coffee shop but I highly doubt that is going to happen."

They used to have between 40 and 50 customers on a bad day coming to peruse their menu. But now with no tourists around they are barely making 20 coffees a day under level 4 of lockdown.

Home of the Bean owner Leroy Kgopa in Maboneng says the coffee shop is not breaking even during level 4 of the lockdown.
Home of the Bean owner Leroy Kgopa in Maboneng says the coffee shop is not breaking even during level 4 of the lockdown.

Leroy said the virus has made them realign their short and long-term goals.

They have had to cancel a number of events which contribute to their pocket. Last year they were on the list of vendors invited to Basha Uhuru, a concert held on Constitution Hill every winter. But with gatherings no longer allowed, events are a thing of the past.

Only a couple of the colourful characters drawn to Maboneng are out and about on the empty streets, as an army Hippo vehicle drives by.

One of these creatives is 20-year-old street photographer Vuyiselo "'School Boy" Mabena who was fast becoming a rising star in the popular area, styling people in street fashion and taking avante garde pictures of them under the prominent Maboneng sign.

"To have a camera in Maboneng is heaven," he said.

He cradles his last remaining camera as he lost his other camera when he got arrested for working under level 5.

He said not working was not an option for him because he had to pay rent and buy food. Despite breaking the rules, he is still R3,000 behind for his rent.

"There isn't much money under lockdown but some people still want pictures anyway," he said.

"But before lockdown I used to make a lot of money, especially month end. On a weekend I could make up to R1,500 just from street pictures and then I would have people book professional shoots."

Vuyisilo Mabena and Vincent Mosito, who work as photographers in Maboneng.
Vuyisilo Mabena and Vincent Mosito, who work as photographers in Maboneng.

He has not applied for any kind of relief because he does not believe he will be granted anything. Now his future remains uncertain.

Senzo Mncadi, who co-owns Love Revo Cafe in Maboneng, said the tourism industry in the area "is basically dead".

The businessman who also owns a couple of apartment units in the area said he was drawn to Maboneng because it was expected to boom.

"I was a property analyst and I always had an appetite to own a restaurant space."

He saved up a bit of money and found a silent partner to open up in the trendy spot. However, he has had to overhaul both businesses to survive.

"Right now we do deliveries for food but we never used to do that. People are used to ordering food from franchises so it has been difficult."

Mncadi said he had eight full-time employees and 10 part-time workers but has only been able to keep four people employed.

"Only a few of them have been able to get UIF," he said.

A man cleans outside a restaurant in Maboneng.
A man cleans outside a restaurant in Maboneng.

He has applied for the tourism relief fund and Seda Covid-19 relief but had a few documents missing which he was able to submit.

He also had an online campaign to raise money to pay his employees. "If the funds do come through that will be very helpful," he said.

Mncadi, who operated his apartment buildings as Airbnbs, said that business has come to a halt.

Restaurants such as Pata Pata, Afru Brew, Blackanese and Street Food owned by the Thabethe family have also been struggling.

Ziggy Thabethe, who runs the Maboneng businesses under the umbrella company The Heritage Brands, took to online fundraising platform backabuddy to raise funds.

"We are appealing to our local and international customers, our colleagues in the industry, private and public donors, and South Africans in general to donate so we can make sure that our employees are able to survive during these very difficult times," read the message.

The company has applied for Covid-19 relief but in the meantime their employees are not earning any money.

It's either sink or swim to keep the lights on in this city.

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