Your hands hold a kota together while you eat it. Your palms and fingers feel the soft white bread that has been made warm by chips and other steaming deep-fried ingredients.
The kota, a quintessential street food in Gauteng’s townships, is usually packaged in a clear plastic sandwich bag. The combination of flavours and textures inside the hollowed-out quarter ("kota") loaf is a matter of personal preference. Ordering a kota is an exercise in curating a meal to one’s taste, and is dependent on the fillings on offer.
Over time, the meal has adopted multifarious ingredients, depending on what the owner of the take-away that is selling it has had the inclination to make available.
"The idea came about last year," Tshingilane says, "because we also do a cake festival. I saw someone commenting on Facebook about attending a Soweto event and finding no kota there. After the cake [festival] we wanted to present a street food event — that’s what was planned. We decided to focus on one item, [the kota]. So we tested the market, and early this year created a page for it." Within weeks of marketing the festival on social media, Tshingilane witnessed an unexpected deluge of enthusiasm from his native Rockville and other townships in Johannesburg, throughout Gauteng and as far afield as Botswana and other neighbouring countries.
From the outset, Tshingilane realised that he needed two key and complementary ingredients for his venture’s success: the right venue to host the festival and the right combination of vendors.
"When I was checking the vendors I went to Pimville, and was surprised to see a kota [seller] on each and every street. Kota is popular in Soweto; there’s a demand for it."
Competition is the cornerstone of capitalism. The kota business is no different. The kota festival will include an audience award for the best kota served on both festival days.
Tapping into an existing product and brand competition in the kota business, two young black content producers from Vosloorus, George Mnguni (aka Okay Wasabi) and Daluthando Monageng (aka Daliii Danger) have embarked on a quest to find the kota to end all kotas.
On the YouTube series Kota Past 9 Wasabi and Danger do unscripted tastings and ratings of kotas and kota take-aways that have been referred to them primarily through social media.
"When we shoot an episode, it’s the same as when we take someone to a new kota place. We tell them what it is like," says Danger.
In filmspeak, Wasabi says: "The viewer in Kota Past 9 is the third person who comes along."
With the series the two pay homage to the environment of their upbringing. "We’ve never lived in the suburbs, ever," says Wasabi, "and what you see on Kota Past 9 is the way we are in the hood [and] everywhere we go. We make sure that you never forget where we come from. Kotas are from the hood and that’s where you will find the best ones."
For Wasabi and Danger, the experience of a kota as the township parallel to fast food chains outside of the township was and continues to be a lived one. The cultural associations that kota resonates with are not wasted on the duo. Wasabi believes kota vendors outside the township are "trying to bring the hood to the city, which is something I don’t think people will relate to, because I’ve seen many react to the prices. Someone has said: ‘If it costs more than R25 or R30 it just defeats
the purpose — kota was made to be very affordable but very filling at the same time.’"
Source of income
Not far from the Soweto Theatre, where the Soweto Kota Festival will take place, the kota business has been and continues to be an invaluable source of income for Luzia and Zandi Luke. Their business, Majola’s Place, was opened in 2002. At the time, husband Zandi was employed, and he provided capital for his unemployed wife to establish the business. "When we started, we sold from the house. We put a sign up outside that said we sold kotas. People who bought [here] told others. We started with five loaves [of bread a day], and then [moved] to 10 loaves."
Luzia says the business provides them with a livelihood, and the cost of putting children through school is
laid squarely on the roughly 4m² take-away shop they run from the front of their home.
Kota businesses like Majola’s Place belong to SA’s informal economy, which some sources say contributes more than 20% of SA’s GDP. Sasko, the Soweto Kota Festival’s brand sponsor, makes much of its profit from this informal economy. Pioneer Foods group communications manager Deborah-Ann Sharwood says: "Sasko is sponsoring the festival because it is a natural fit: after all, you can’t make a kota without bread. The majority of Sasko bread nationally is sold in the informal market, through spaza shops and street vendors. Pioneer has specific trading terms designed to service both [formal and informal] areas of the economy."
But the kota business and others in the food sector need to be weighed against what they cost the state. The tagline for Vosloorus that Wasabi and Danger have crafted is "1475, the hood where skinny niggas die and izidudla [fat people] multiply". For them, the adage is about promoting body positivity. But the incidence of noncommunicable diseases like diabetes is rising in SA and other African countries, and the consumption of deep-fried, processed foods has been blamed for it.
The elusive enemy in health minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s war against noncommunicable disease remains those foods that have no contents label — foods that are produced in the informal economy and are not subject to the rules of the formal one.
The city of Johannesburg and its member of the mayoral committee for health & social development Mpho Phalatse recently took up a #HealthKota campaign.
A lesson from the criticism levelled against the campaign would be that culture is ingrained over time and can be reformed only over time and with the appropriate messaging.
"Kota" in Johannesburg, suburbs.
The Soweto Kota Festival will provide not only a moment to celebrate the taste of township life but also an opportunity to reflect on township culture and how it is integrated in different spaces.
When I was checking the vendors I went to Pimville, and was surprised to see a kota [seller] on each and every street
Soweto Kota Festival, Soweto Theatre Forecourt, September 16-17