Portia Mahlobo is like a double espresso for the soul and the brain

This is a story about Portia Mahlobo from Johannesburg as told to Natasha Joseph

A 40-minute phone conversation with Portia Mahlobo is like a double espresso for the soul and the brain. She’s full of ideas – and, unlike some people who are all talk and no action, Portia brings those ideas to life through a combination of hard work, networking and a passion for three things in particular: mothers and motherhood; land ownership and communities being able to sustain themselves. The evening of our chat follows one of Portia’s “self-care” days, when she puts aside her phone and doesn’t check her emails. But, she admits, she didn’t have the day to herself. About 30 women came to her Johannesburg home, most on foot and having walked around 10 kms from informal settlements in search of any food parcels she had left over from the week’s deliveries. The security guard at her complex, mindful of COVID-19 restrictions, didn’t want to let anyone in; Portia convinced him that there was no harm in a socially distanced, properly masked hand over of food to these mothers desperate to feed their families. It was, she tells me, “a quiet day”. It also offers a small window into one of the biggest effects of this pandemic: crushing, devastating hunger. 

As any South African with even half an eye on their world knows, hunger isn’t a unique side-effect of COVID-19. It’s a daily reality. That’s why sustainability and land ownership matter so deeply to Portia, who is originally from Umlazi in KwaZulu-Natal but has spent most of the past 15 years in Johannesburg. She grew up with a mother who gardened and, as a teenager, resented having to spend any time tending the soil or checking seeds. But her mother’s passion was as indelible as the soil beneath her fingernails after hours in the garden, and today Portia believes a plot of land rich with seeds and crops is everyone’s right – not just a privilege. “Land ownership and food sovereignty are especially important in impoverished black households,” she says. And this isn’t reserved for rural spaces: inspired by edible landscaping gardens flourishing in US and European cities, Portia wants to see green shoots in South Africa’s urban backyards and office parks. Her plans for using corporate food garden projects to drive empowerment programmes designed to create a fund that will get teenage mothers back to school shows just how intertwined and intersectional her thinking is.

But for now, with COVID-19 putting so much on hold, her main focus is on her “The IThemba Project” an initiative that began as a response the struggles of hungry families during lockdown and teamed up with the Green Business College and Tim Abaa, who is running what’s called the Ubuntu Project to deliver food parcels to homes in Zuurbekom. At the same time, households are asked whether they want to start a food garden. If they say yes, Tim and his team ask some questions and talk people through preparations. Portia, Tim and others then deliver seedlings, compost and a gardening magazine; they also provide tutorials on WhatsApp and answer any questions the new gardeners may have. The seedlings include household staples like beetroot, spinach, tomatoes and herbs. Local “champions” are identified to learn and then teach others; skills sharing that means more and more people – many of them women – feel confident enough to start gardens that can feed their families.

By early June, Portia and the team she worked with had put together food parcels for over 2000 families.

She does all of this, by the way, on a volunteer basis, partnering with existing organisations and identifying those who know particular areas and people’s needs best. It’s a long way from the high-flying corporate property career she began in her early 20s. That was derailed by trauma; by some tough moments – and by Portia’s own realisation that she wanted more than conventional success in a capitalist system. During a recent visit to her mother’s KZN home, she found a hymn book from her days as a pupil at Durban Girls’ High School. The words to one hymn leapt out at her then as they had many years before: “And the blessing I shall ask is that God will grant me, to be brave and strong and true.” She pauses. “I knew then that I wanted to…that I was called to help others.” She took some left turns along the way, but now – amid lush food gardens alongside dusty streets, and standing at her gate giving food to women who have walked for hours just to feed their families – she is living out the next line of the hymn: “And to fill the world with love my whole life through.”

There is no passion to be found in playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.