Tucked between Melle and Biccard streets is a little gem called Reserve Street, redolent with trees and somehow shielded from the bump and grind of Jorissen and De Korte’s traffic. Adding to the charm is a progressive bookshop called The Commune and venue called The Forge — two sides of the same organisation with the same shared social justice mandate.
Both are not-for-profit spaces; and success is therefore not measured by their profits, but by feet through the door and their engagement with their clientele/audience/collaborators.
It’s a refreshing change that harks back to an earlier era. Instead of marketing a product or service, Justin Barrow, Yvonne Phyllis, Ryan Honeyball and Mwelela Cele are promoting the interests of the oppressed, and the marginalised via the arts, discussions, workshops and other events. The bookshelves of The Commune groan with authors like Franz Fanon and Steve Biko, and across the road at The Forge, there are screenings, book launches and talks about topics such as farm workers, state violence and political revival.
The large student population in Braamfontein is one of the reasons for the C&F’s location, another is the NGOs in the vicinity. All events (there are also DJs such as Charles Leonard at the bookshop) are free, and, due to their anti-capitalist stance, nobody is ever turned away. “Capitalism does a very good job of supporting its own ideologies while demonising other ways of thinking,” explains Justin, “and so we are attempting to create a counter narrative to what is commonly considered this “default” or “natural” ideology of capitalism.”
During the Covid lockdowns, the bookshop suffered, but The Forge continued to run events such as Zoom discussions online. Covid itself was a topic of discussion, as the pandemic highlighted the already vast existing inequalities — those with access to Wi-Fi had a very different lockdown to those without, for instance. “We’re not all in the same boat; we’re in the same ocean, but in very different boats,” according to Justin.
The biggest focus right now for C&F is getting people back, after having been largely online during the pandemic. This entails not only doing events, but also getting really good books and records into the bookshop, which opened again in September (it launched two years ago, just before Covid hit). But Braamfontein is still pretty quiet; the students are still coming back.
The C&F vision is to provide more of a platform for acts, activists (individuals and movements), artists and intellectuals. Not all the performers have to be activists, but they do have to align to some degree with what C&F stands for: freedom, equality; mutual aid; solidarity; direct action; consensus; voluntary cooperation; and compassion. The hope is to slowly have bigger crowds and engage again in person with those who attend their events.
Their vision for Braamfontein? There are ideas about making Reserve Street into a “destination”, a green walkway. “It’s difficult to create a shared vision with some of the other businesses, which are more concerned about attracting paying customers and their security, but we do want to work with our neighbours,” says Justin. “We want to engage with the existing community on a mature level, where nobody is being patronised or coddled. We want to talk to people, and involve them.”
For more information, visit the theforge.org.za and thecommune.org.za. Or plonk yourself down on one of the numerous leather couches scattered around The Commune, upstairs and downstairs, enjoy a hot cup of joe, read some revolutionary literature, and appreciate the solace that is Reserve Street.