Ghetto Fabulous: Spending a day in a township business shack
The Journalist Intern, Linda Fekisi, spent a day with Mathebula and his team and reports on her experiences.
It’s a sunny day in Khayelitsha and I’m on Solomon Tsuku Steet at Site C outside a blue shack with fruit and vegetable paintings on the outside with the board ‘Ntyweyi’s Shoe Repaires’ that can be easily missed by passersby.
I’m here to see Mpho Mathebula, an artist who displays his work in a very unconventional way – from a fruit and vegetable shack. If I did not know better, I would have missed this location that is home to artworks befitting gallery exhibitions.
Limpopo born Mpho Mathebula is an artist who is a jack of all trades. Not only does he draw and create craft with beads but he also designs clothes and is also a shoe maker. He “breathes art” and says that it has been a part of him since his childhood days in the Gakgapane Bolobedu District, near Tzaneen.
Mathebula traces his love for the craft back to his days in Mohale Primary School when art spared him from getting into trouble. He recalls the events as if it happened yesterday.
“There was a day when our Principal asked us to do any arts and craft piece. Now this was given to us as homework and we were required to bring them to school the following day. I only remembered the following morning. As he was going around I quickly drew a bicycle. It blew everyone away. So, I walked away with first prize and did not get a hiding,” he said.
In Grade 8 the slow and quiet village life became a confinement for a teenage Mathebula, who ended up venturing into a bigger, more urban area to his village in Tzaneen. Pretty soon, he was living on the streets of Polokwane and in no time he moved to Johannesburg.
He spent his young adult life in centres which catered for children who live on the streets. It is here where his art created opportunities for him to be noticed and he gained confidence in his craft. Then his life took a dramatic turn. City life temptations and peer pressure changed the direction of his drama free life to a troubled teenage life. A series of events led him to find himself on the wrong side of the law.
Mathebula was firstly sentenced to 5 years in jail on charges of house breaking and his second term was ten months on accusations of assault.
It is in correctional centres where he got exposed to bead crafting and was offered the opportunity to harness and hone his talent. Shortly after his second release he left Johannesburg and moved to Cape Town in 2005.
“I just wanted to be far away from Joburg. When I got here, I was still homeless and I stayed on the streets. My luck turned and I managed to find expression with my art. The rest is history,” he said.
Mathebula has taken designer Bulelwa Moleleki under his wing and rents space in the shack from his business partner Monwabisi Ntyweyi.
During our conversation I take notice of a few customers who come in for the a variety of products offered in the shack – an elderly woman who was interested in the spinach, two six year olds who came with money short and others who saw the shoes on display and came in to see.
While the country faces a skyrocketing rise of unemployment, the trio share their expertise and work towards bringing the bacon home.
“Due to a shortage of employment, I just decided to take matters into my own hands instead of sitting at home. This establishment started off as a shoe repair joint but it soon evolved. Hopefully one day we will have proper infrastructure and electricity to push our business to greater heights,” Ntyweyi said.
Moleleki and Ntyweyi describe Mathebula as driven, creative, and a character that is “a busy body”.
Mathebula explained that his work is influenced by his passion for art, the need to share it with others and his mentor, Selvin November.
“When I touch things they turn to gold and this is why everyone I have ever produced art for has fallen in love with it,” he said.
I leave Ntyweyi’s Shoe Repaires hoping that more people could experience and be moved by the stories that have given life to the artworks hidden in this blue shack.
*At the time of the interview Mpho was based at Ntyweyi’s Shoe Repaires. He has since moved.