10 October 2008

Three Soweto Entrepreneurs

All throughout my youth I had heard of Soweto, the South Western Township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, hotbed of ANC activity and location of frequent uprisings and clashes with the Apartheid regime. So I was pretty excited to finally be going to see it. I had heard all sorts of descriptions and been given advice, from the "you can't go on your own, you'll get mugged" to "why do you want to go, it's just a slum" to "you'll love it, it's such a hip and happening place". So thoroughly confused, I took a drive there with George, the father of a friend of a colleague of Stuart's. George is my first entrepreneur. He is 70 and retired from a job at a bank. He took a course with the Tourism Authority and now drives tourists through his home suburb. Apart from his in-depth knowledge of the area, having lived there since the 70's he also has some interesting stories about life under Apartheid and some pretty definite political views: "I don't give a man food, I give him the means to get his own food." I met my second entrepreneur (or rather both of them) as we were driving through Pimville, a small part of Southern Soweto. As we were driving along, I saw a large red elephant by the side of the road. It turns out that Lebo and Isaac had collected steel reinforcing rods, wire and red onion bags and were building a life-sized elephant. They had based it on a photo found in a magazine and drawn designs based on this to decide where the steel rods should go to form the base of the elephant. After covering the frame with onion sacks there were going to smooth it with cement to make a realistic-looking animal. These were then for sale. Pretty cool. If you want to buy one for your garden let me know and I'll give you their mobile number. I met my third entrepreneur at lunch. A cousin of George's (who seems to know everyone in the neighbourhood) Robby runs a B&B/restaurant/marketing firm. He co-ordinates with the large car companies such as Mercedes, Audi and Lexus to showcase their new models to potential buyers in Soweto. Despite it's large and increasingly well-off population and the building of many shopping malls in the last decade, Soweto still misses out on car showrooms. So Robby fills that gap by putting on a party and drawing in the customers.

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