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 A lifetime of struggle and growth

 

 In a room in her township house, is where Nocwaka Mazaleni started her first business, designing and making clothes for family, friends, neighbours and anyone who liked her African fusion style. You could say Mazaleni still does business from home, but that is where the similarity ends.

Today, she lives in her complex of three luxurious Kwantu guest houses in Milnerton Ridge, Cape Town, scarcely 20km from Gugulethu where she started, but a lifetime of struggle and growth away. Mazaleni’s life is the story of how entrepreneurship was suppressed but never extinguished by apartheid, of emerging from informal trade into sophisticated corporate business, and of just how difficult that journey is.

Her childhood was marked by the bizarre cruelties of high apartheid. She was born in Kensington, Cape Town, before her family was moved to Gugulethu. There, her mother, a domestic worker, lost her house because she was single. Mazaleni and her siblings were forced to go and live with their grandmother in Whittlesea in deep rural Eastern Cape. Her mother couldn’t join them for fear of losing her right to live in Cape Town.

Mazaleni turned adversity into advantage, as she would countless times in her life. Her grandmother was an industrious garment maker, and Mazaleni enthusiastically learned to sew and stitch with her hand cranked Singer machine. She grew to love it.

A couple of years later the siblings had to rush back to Cape Town again when her mother finally managed to lay claim to a house on the grounds that she had a Cape Town born family. Mazaleni continued working on her grandmother’s machine and by the time she reached high school, she was making and selling clothes. She knew that she was going to work for herself one day.

After school, she completed a diploma in design at a small private college and immediately started her own garment making business in a room at home. From then onwards, every move that Mazaleni made was another step towards running a bigger, more formal business.

It was the late eighties, and Gugulethu was at the centre of the uprising against apartheid in Cape Town, yet her business thrived as she served the community. She built a garage onto their home to serve as “what I thought then was a formal shop, with rails of clothes, fully stocked,” says Mazaleni.

She started buying from factories to resell and travelled once a month to the Eastern Cape by bus to make deliveries and take orders in her ever-expanding network.

With her eye firmly fixed on the formal business world, Mazaleni took the bold step in the late eighties to open a shop in Athlone. In the dying days of apartheid she still had to jump through hoops. In order to get permission, as an African, to open a shop in a coloured area, she had to live in a coloured area, and so moved to Mitchells Plain. Still her business grew, and when the economy started opening up for all in the nineties, Mazaleni moved her shop to the City centre.

What followed was a series of ambitious and relentless attempts by Mazaleni to break into the upmarket boutique trade. She was already established among the new African elite, doing a roaring trade at parliamentary openings, for example. But the excited reaction of overseas tourists when they occasionally chanced upon her shop in the City centre and later in Claremont gave her hope that she could find an African fusion niche in Cape Town’s upmarket malls.

She opened a shop in the Waterfront and later in Canal Walk, but both failed because of overpriced rentals and bad locations. Her shop in Claremont, which kept on serving the local African market, kept her business afloat.

By the turn of the century, Mazaleni had lost her enthusiasm for the clothing trade. The market was flooded with cheap imports, “and when you design something new, the next day you would see hundreds of copies everywhere”. She made good money selling her products at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, and decided to go into the hospitality industry.

She enrolled in a hospitality course and joined as many tourism-development programmes she could find. But it was the 30 years of business experience that helped her most. When she identified the house in Milnerton Ridge, she developed it into the first of her three Kwantu guest houses with a proper business plan, unlike her previous businesses.

The bank finance barely covered the bond, but she was used to “taking the little you can get, and stretching it”. She set about furnishing the guest house in her trade-mark African fusion style on a shoe-string budget with every bit of creativity she had honed over the years. The business of hospitality was a steep learning curve for Mazaleni, who is grateful that her first guests were people whom she knew from her network and who gave her valuable feedback about her service.

Her greatest challenge then was to market her guest house. Her network provided a steady stream of church groups and trade union delegations, but her greatest success was tapping the local corporate market. She relentlessly marketed her facilities to local businesses which often had a need to put up visiting business people for a few nights.

“I never looked back,” says Mazaleni, who organically grew her first five rooms to the current 22. This year, with finance from Business Partners, she bought the property which she was renting for her Kwantu Three guest house, and put down a deposit for another which will eventually become Kwantu Four.

Mazaleni sometimes still takes on an order for a clothing design and mostly outsources it. But occasionally, when she feels like it, she would do it herself on her own machine, which she keeps in a small room in her huge Kwantu One guest house.

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