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Can markets make for a better future Cape Town?




by Matthew Griffiths

Markets 1

Spanish markets are an integral part of some communities

In a recent tweet Future Cape Town shared an interesting fact. Markets in Barcelona were ranked as the 2nd most valuable public service after libraries. Having just returned from Spain enjoying these markets, it made me wonder why Cape Town does not have similar “fresh produce” markets.

Locally, markets have had a dramatic “upswing” in recent years. From the days of the old car boot sale at Milnerton, where families would to take their piled up junk on a weekend, we’ve progressed to a wide variety of different markets. Neighbourgoods in Woodstock perhaps lead to the Hout Bay Harbour market, the City Bowl Market in Hope Street, Stellenbosch Slow Market, and many more.

Staples like the Rondebosch Craft Market and Milnerton Fleamarket have grown and changed over the years but the newer markets seem to be focused on food and “crafts” – essentially arts, crafts, clothing, jewellery etc. someone is making which you can’t buy in the traditional supermarket. While these are great, and fun for a slightly expensive weekend lunch, they cater to the middle and upper class and are nothing like the markets of Spain.

The reason why Barcelona would even rate its markets as a “public service” is because they are exactly that; public spaces where communities meet, much like a local park. They gather to buy fresh produce, share stories and stop for a coffee. These markets are also used by more disadvantaged groups signaling that they are both affordable and accessible; apparently you are never further than 10 minutes from one.

In Spain the public use these markets daily whether to buy fresh produce for that week, or even that day. The personal service and knowledge offered by a butcher or grocer you know is so much more valuable than the cold aisles of a supermarket. But these spaces are about much more than just food, they are about the community and city making.

Markets 2

A butcher’s stall at Mercado Central Valencia

Markets like the ones in Spain can be set up to support local produce, especially smaller farmers who can’t provide to huge supermarkets. While they may not be on par with the job creation of a supermarket they provide a whole new level of personal contact – and in South Africa where our cities are so divided, every opportunity helps. You can speak to the vendor about the produce you are buying, know the best way to use it and make special requests. While you are there you will also meet others from your community who have walked down the road to get a piece of fresh steak and fresh fruit or vegetables for their evening meal.

FACTBOX: The Mercat Central de Valencia covers exactly 8,160 square metres divided into two areas or zones. The first one is an irregular shape with a surface area of 6,760 square metres and the other, which is octagonal and covers 1,400 square metres, houses the fish market. The basement, which has 7,690 square metres, was previously a fish auction and is now used as a car park. The Mercat Central brings together almost 400 small traders and 1,500 people are involved in its daily activity. It is the largest centre of its kind in Europe specialising in fresh products and the first market in the world to rise to the challenge of computerising sales and offering home delivery, services which have been available since 2nd October 1996. Nowadays, the Mercat Central is an important economic focal point of Valencia, not only because of the work of its traders but also because of the large number of visits it receives and events it organises.

While the concept of bringing this to Cape Town may sound like a good idea, the real question is could such markets survive in South African culture? We have supermarkets in every suburb, often plenty of them, where we rush in, get all we need and rush out.

Do South African’s really want that personal touch where they can know their butcher and get his recommendations? There is one place this sort of public space could definitely work and that is where it is already happening, in township communities across Cape Town. Here there are already the vendors (some using containers), often already a sense of community, and perhaps all they need is the assigned public space and infrastructure?

As denser suburbs develop around the CBD I’d like to see one of our under utilised public spaces converted into a daily, affordable fresh produce market for the surrounding community, and not just another restaurant and crafts fair for the upper incomes.

Madrid Market Valencia MArket

Matthew Griffiths is a film-maker and owner of Echo Ledge Productions.




  • Sean Dayton

    Hi Matthew, thanks for a great article. I am very supportive of the idea of markets as a “public service”, acting as an informal place of meeting, socialising, people watching, etc. It seems that South Africa has corporatized the retail food industry just about everywhere except for the townships and rural areas.
    Why don’t street bazaars work here? Is our zoning and planning regime overly prescriptive (and overly draconian)? Are our cities not dense enough for a critical mass of shoppers to sustain a market? Do we have city officials who are not willing to allow streets to close during certain times of the day to allow for markets to operate for a couple of hours a day? Are our citizens simply not demanding markets?