Young women are seizing the initiative and making strides in Mpumalanga’s tourism and hospitality industry, and one has even discovered an entrepreneurial streak – defying the odds stacked against them in an area where youth unemployment soars as high as 65%.
Thanks to hard work, determination and sheer grit, Lwazi Thobela, Vutivi Mthimkhulu and Mampho Makofane have shrugged off the more difficult circumstances that often come with living in rural villages to become active participants in the burgeoning wildlife economy in and around the Kruger National Park.
The luxury and comfort of the Kruger Shalati private lodge – which straddles the Sabie River in Skukuza and offers converted train carriage accommodation on its distinctive Train on the Bridge – is a far cry from the humble streets of Mkhuhlu, 40km away, where some of these young women hail from.
Yet it is one of the many private lodges dotted around the Kruger National Park that are investing in local communities by employing work-ready graduates such as these. They are in strong demand thanks to the Good Work Foundation (GWF), an education non-profit operating five digital learning campuses in the Hazyview and Bushbuckridge area.
Young mum triumphs against the odds
With dreams of becoming a chef, Lwazi Thobela’s plans were put on hold when she fell pregnant in her teens – but now, with the support of her GWF family, she has found a balance between being a caring mother and pursuing her ambitions.
After motherhood came knocking, Lwazi resolved to resume her education journey by enrolling in GWF’s Bridging Year Academy, and gaining digital and work-readiness skills to have a fighting chance at getting a job in rural Mpumalanga. She then studied hospitality at the foundation’s Travel & Tourism Academy – but fate again threw obstacles in her path.
“Previously, I’d had the opportunity to do chef training in Graaff-Reinet but had to decline because of family commitments. Then, when I was offered a position at Hippo Hollow Country Estate [in Hazyview], my child was sick and I couldn’t take up the position. But the Good Work Foundation kept in touch with me, constantly checking in to ask me how I’m faring, do I need assistance finding work, and so on.
“When the opportunity to do an internship at Kruger Shalati came up, Madam Tarshine [Mafuyeka, the GWF Hospitality Academy coordinator] phoned me to ask if I’m interested – and here I am! I’m hoping the internship [via the Youth Employment Service] will become permanent in time.”
Lwazi counts “being patient, being humble and working hard” among the personality attributes that have got her this far – that, plus the support of her GWF mentors who kept urging her to chase her dreams.
The bar lady who doubles up as a taxi owner
Another example of empowerment in action is Vutivi Mthimkhulu, who attends the bar at Kruger Shalati. After completing her BYA post-school training to become more digitally literate, she enrolled in a short course in hospitality management – with GWF assisting her with the practical component.
This helped her secure a job at Shalati in 2020. Says Vutivi, “I was nervous at first, but luckily I had learned how to use a computer at the Good Work Foundation, so I wasn’t starting out with a blank slate. I began as a cashier then I moved on to be a barista – and now I am working as a bar lady.”
But she is taking self-empowerment a step further – thanks to her job, she saved up and bought a Toyota Avanza, and is now the proud owner of a taxi.
“I can now firmly say that I am a businesswoman. My mom was so proud of me when I bought the taxi. She said to me, ‘This is why I named you Vutivi – your name means ‘knowledge’ [in Xitsonga], and you have shown that you really are knowledgeable.’”
This young entrepreneur says her GWF certificate has opened many doors. “I love it here; there are so many opportunities and avenues for growth. I am now a permanent member of the Shalati staff. I can feed myself and my family – and it’s all thanks to GWF.”
The dignity of being a breadwinner
Mampho Makofane is a cashier at the Kruger Station restaurant, run by Kruger Shalati. She has been working there since it opened two years ago, having studied at GWF’s IT Academy and then at its Travel & Tourism Academy.
Mampho says the practicals at different hotels and restaurants gave her valuable experience to help her land her current job. “I was so happy when I got my first pay cheque,” she remembers. “My family are very proud of me being a breadwinner.”
She says she loves working at Kruger Shalati, alongside a group of young people who also studied at GWF: “The other GWF staff here are my friends and family.”
Her advice to other young women is to “keep on pushing, keep on pulling your socks up, because one day you will get a job. GWF has improved my life; I never thought I’d be here, working at Kruger Shalati!”
Where does Mampho see herself in the future? “I see myself being a manager. I want to see myself growing here.”
Training and placing young people in jobs
Vincent Mlambo, human resources manager at Kruger Shalati, says there are currently eight GWF graduates working at the lodge. “They come to us fresh from graduating, and they know their theory and how to follow the necessary steps. It’s easy to teach and guide them, as they are applying the knowledge they have.
“GWF graduates always impress us with their knowledge during interviews, and most receive Employee of the Month awards, nominated by fellow staff members – some more than once! We find they are great team players and can assist us across departments.”
Kruger Shalati is but one of the many lodges where GWF graduates are making their mark, and Lwazi, Vutivi and Mampho are just three of the many success stories of GWF’s pioneering Ecosystem of Learning and Working.
For a nominal “commitment” fee, young school-leavers at its Bridging Year Academy and career academies learn essential digital and work-readiness skills. Then, GWF uses its relationships with lodges and other partners to get these graduates placed – a win-win situation because the establishments know they are hiring quality employees.
This effectively helps Mpumalanga to “grow its own timber” by producing job-ready graduates – all fired up and ready to assume the mantle of family breadwinner with pride.