Early Morning Star(t)
At three o’clock in the morning, while the town of Bedford sleeps, a light in the window of a small municipal building in the township is the only clue that not everyone is in bed. Six women have just arrived at work at the Lilitha Women’s Co-op Bakery. Lilitha is the Xhosa word for the early morning star and is an appropriate name for this bakery which begins to hum with life in the cold early hours of the morning.
A single florescent light lights up the room in which they work, reflecting off the silver surfaces. In 2006 the Department of Social Development granted R250 000 to Margaret Kopsani and the Lilitha Women’s Co-op Bakery to buy the equipment needed to run a bakery in the township in Bedford. Two giant ovens fill one wall and the other three are lined with metal counters, a large mixer, a bread slicer and two empty racks.
In their white Bakels aprons, the women set to work on their various tasks, clearly familiar with the daily routine. While the large bread pans are being laid out and cleaned, the dough is mixed. No measuring cups are used here; flour is dumped by the bucketful into the large mixing machine and then yeast and water added. The large mechanical arm rolls slowly, kneading the dough into a large lump.
Once the ball of dough is formed, it is rolled into smaller balls which are covered and left. As soon as this is finished, three more tasks are started; the bread packets are prepared, the muffin pans are greased and the muffin mixture mixed.
And then, as if on an unheard cue, two women turn to the forgotten balls of dough and begin to feed them into a curious machine which squashes them into long fat rolls. These are placed into the greased pans and from there they are placed inside the first large oven.
The process continues as bread, brown and white, rolls and muffins are produced. Every now and again Mrs. Kopsani, the boss, will ask the time, always working against the clock to get everything done on time. The women move from counter to counter, each knowing exactly what happens next and which job belongs to who like busy bees in a hive, each intent on their task for the good of the hive.
And it is only for the good of the business that these women work, they receive no money from Mrs. Kopsani for their work. Any profits made from the baked goods get put straight into a bank account and used to buy raw products like flour and milk.
Last year, there had been twelve women working at the Co-op, one of whom was appointed the treasurer and had access, along with Mrs. Kopsani, to the business funds. One day Mrs. Kopsani received a phone call informing her that all the savings in her account had been withdrawn – R25 000.
Despite approaching the Department of Social Development with whom she had been working and being assured it would be sorted out, justice was never done. To this day the thief remains in Bedford and the Lilitha Bakery has been forced to start from scratch. Because of this there is no money available to pay these women who work so hard for such long hours.
They do get breakfast at work though, once the loaves and muffins are revolving in the oven, the women pull out chairs and take a break while they drink their tea and eat fresh rolls. Later in the morning Mrs. Kopsani will make a pot of mielie meal which is shared by the women.
Just as the early hour, the warm room, and the full stomachs begin to make eyelids droop, it is time to take the bread out the oven and restart the production line. Hot brown loaves are shaken out of their tins and onto the counter, wiped down, and placed on the rack to cool and behind them, on the peppermint green wall, the clock hands show that it is almost six o’clock.
While these loaves cool down the ladies warm themselves by standing at the open oven door. Once these loaves are cooled they are ready to be sliced and bagged, another process made to look quick and effortless with each woman playing her role of slicing or bagging or tying a knot. Soon the counters are covered in crates of bread and small packets of muffins; it is almost time for business to begin.
The day’s first customer is a man picking up a packet of muffins on his way to work, clearly a regular. As the only bakery in the township, individuals come to the bakery to purchase the bread but Lilitha also supplies all the local spaza shops and Madeira café in the centre of town.
These customers obviously do not have the facilities to pick up the bread they are buying and so if the bakery would sell their bread, they have to distribute it themselves. With no vehicle and no public transport in Bedford, these women have to walk for miles with their bread to sell it.
They set off as the sun begins to rise, each large red tray of bread carried by two women. Even when they reach these shops, they do not know if they will be able to sell any as some days the shop owners want bread and other days they do not. They return to the bakery, trays half full and return the bread to the shelves where they await more customers.
These few women work tirelessly without getting an income to keep this business going, one of the few initiatives actually running successfully in the area. With high levels of unemployment, these women are grateful for the job despite getting no pay and long hours. While the Department of Social Development has funded this initiative, it has failed to follow up and bring help where it is needed.