10 things you need to know about Kwa Mai Mai market (Joburg's traditional Mai Mai market)

08 Jan 2024
In Sipho Sithole's fascinating book about Joburg's Kwa Mai Mai market entitled Maye! Maye! (May 2023), he tells the story of a place that is at once a site for preserving cultural memory and ties to a rural homeland, a place of resistance, and one of economic survival.

Kwa Mai Mai, or the Mai Mai market as some know it, has often been misunderstood. Post the Covid lockdowns (and possibly during this time) this city centre market – known for its healers and Zulu cultural artefacts – exploded in popularity. It became the place that wealthy suburbanites headed to for authentic outdoor shisa nyama (braaied meat), and its popularity became a thing of legend captured on Instagram.

If you are driving along the M1 North into the city on a weekend afternoon, you'll notice the billowing smoke from the fires clouding a section of the city. Beneath it, taxis jostle with shiny Mercedes Benzes and BMWs for parking space in the neglected and broken streets. The city long ago stopped paying much attention to the area. Despite this, Kwa Mai Mai has continued to be a stronghold of Zulu identity, a site of traditional healers, different religions, commercial trade in cultural artefacts, and many other things for nearly three generations.
Kwa Mai Mai Photo: Laurice Taitz.
Kwa Mai Mai, where contemporary and traditional culture, the secular and the sacred, all meet. Photo: Laurice Taitz.

Known as 'the place of healing', the Kwa Mai Mai market has a long and fascinating history in Johannesburg, and is part of the earliest gold mining camp history. In his groundbreaking book Maye! Maye! cultural anthropologist, Sipho Sithole, delves into the market's history to reveal a place that holds a deep significance in this city of migrants. We took a walk with him to go and explore the place.

At Kwa Mai Mai prayer, culture, medicine, resistance, performance, entrepreneurship, woodwork and healing take place daily, side by side. Kwa Mai Mai is emblematic of Joburg's history, a place of contrasts, and home to a migrant working class who have found a home away from home in this part of the city. It's not without its immense burdens and hardships – but as Sithole unfolds the story, you get a sense of the depth of cultural pride that marks out Kwa Mai Mai's community. Throughout, Sithole emphasises how little is known about this place and its significance in Joburg, so we thought it's important to document some of his findings. Here's a taster – 10 things you should know about Kwa Mai Mai. The 11th is that you should definitely read the book if you have an interest at all in Johannesburg. 

1. A place of horses
Today's Kwa Mai Mai was once a horse stable. The discovery of gold created massive demand for cheap labour, accommodation of this labour, and for transport (hence the need for stables in the city), and this part of Johannesburg was at the heart of the mining encampment. At the same time, black South Africans were being forced off their land. The government imposed new land laws regarding ownership and heavy taxes that could only be paid in hard currency, when rural South Africans traded in cattle. The result was forcible removal of black men from a rural way of life and from their families.
Traditional attire advertised at Kwa Mai Mai. Photo: Laurice Taitz.
Traditional attire advertised at Kwa Mai Mai. Photo: Laurice Taitz.

2. From mining compound to Kwa Mai Mai
One of the early mine compounds was at Wemmer and Jubilee streets, the site of the original Kwa Mai Mai hostel that was then relocated to its current location in Albert Street in City and Suburban (now known as Maboneng), writes Sithole. City and Suburban was in fact named after a mine. The suburb was established in 1896, 10 years after Johannesburg was declared a city.

3. The name Mai Mai
There are several interpretations of the name in the book. Said to be derived from 'maye maye' in  Nguni, writes Sithole, "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." He explains that it was believed that "maye maye" was the signature scream of a particular mine manager whenever there was an accident in the mine. 

4. The bitter history of Albert Street
Nearby Kwa Mai Mai, at 80 Albert Street, was once the notorious Bantu Affairs Office, a place of deep, daily humiliation and degradation. It was here that black workers in Johannesburg were forced to apply for a 'pass', or special permit every few months in order to stay in the city. The men were subjected to a medical examination each time, with no privacy afforded them.  

5. A meeting place of the secular and spiritual worlds
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." Every Saturday in the compound, "below the bridge and under the tree", followers of the Shembe iBandla lamaNazaretha, or the Nazareth Baptist Church (founded in the early 1900s) gather here. You'll also find worshippers of the Zionist Christian Church (fusing Christianity and traditional African beliefs). Side by side are traditional healers who treat both physical and mental ailments; diviners and herbalists who are consulted daily. 
Knobkerries at Kwa Mai Mai. Laurice Taitz.
Traditional beaded knobkerries and other cultural artefacts are sold at Kwa Mai Mai. Photo: Laurice Taitz.

6. Same, same
According to Sithole, the original hostel system created for mines remains entrenched as a housing system. He notes that "hostel dwellers now number one million" as the city has been unable to cater for the steady influx of people from rural areas. "These hostels are in the same condition as they were when the democratic government inherited them... and perhaps in even a worse state."

7. Home and family businesses
The community of Kwa Mai Mai lives and works in this compound, and in some cases is made up of three generations of families who have inhabited this space, at once separate from the city outside the gates but connected via the busy trade of customers seeking all manner of traditional goods and services. What has changed is that the compound is no longer the domain only of men, as it would have been at the start of its history. 
Author Sipho Sithole. Photo: Laurice Taitz.
Author Sipho Sithole, whose book Maye! Maye! is a fascinating and detailed history of Kwa Mai Mai. Photo: Laurice Taitz.

8. The entrepreneurs of Kwa Mai Mai
The range of services and goods at Kwa Mai Mai is diverse, and much of it is part of the colourful history of the place. On site is a horse-saddle maker, herbalists selling muthi (traditional medicine and amulets), and Zulu traditional weapons and symbols of warriorship, such as wooden sticks, knobkerries, spears and shields. Traditional attire from a range of African cultures can be found here – from Pedi regalia to Tsonga traditional clothing, Ndebele bead work and Zulu footwear to the sacred church clothing of the Nazareth Baptist Church. Tradition is strong at Kwa Mai Mai. Animal parts and skins are for sale here, and there are also a number of woodworking workshops, as well as a panel-beating and automotive upholstery business keeping some of Joburg's minibus taxis on the roads. What tourists view as souvenirs are in fact, for many, essential goods. 

9. The wedding kist
Known as the Mai Mai wedding kist, the wooden kists made at Mai Mai market have traditionally been transported across the country back to rural homes. Sandile Sithole (no relation to the author) is a third-generation woodworker who manufactures around 400 kists a year; these are still used as a standard piece of luggage to transport items back to villages for soon-to-be brides.  

10. Jive and defiance
According to Sithole, today's Kwa Mai Mai is a place where "the who's who, the want-to-be-noticed, the slay queens and the well-connected come to dine". Many who come and eat here never take the time to travel beyond the gate – but like to boast that they have been to Kwa Mai Mai. The place has also become a go-to for maskandi musicians to sell and launch new albums. This is because of its proximity to nearby men's hostels. 

Maye! Maye! The history & heritage of the Kwa Mai Mai market by Sipho Sithole is published by Jacana



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