Wednesday 27 May 2009
Donald Qubeka and Liziwe Ngcokoto: 'South Africa is a time bomb that is ticking'
Their story is so incredible, you wouldn't bet against a film one day being made based on their experiences. Already, someone in the Netherlands is writing a book about this remarkable South African couple.
It's not just that Donald Qubeka sat down over a course of three years and chipped clean 36,000 bricks to build a home for his family. They called him the 'Mandela of Guguletu' as he sat on his little plot of land and worked literally with his bare hands. It cost him a couple of layers of skin so that even today, years later, he cannot put his hands in hot water and on some days, his fingers still bleed.
Incredibly, Qubeka and his wife Liziwe Ngcokoto, a warm, welcoming and happy, smiling African lady, built a house that rose as a startling tribute to one family's determination and pride. Today, Liziwe's guesthouse in Guguletu is known all around the world, visited by tourists and groups either for stays or for meals and local entertainment. Their guest house has joined 21 others in Cape Town's Guguletu, Langa, Khayelitsha and Montana townships to form Dibanani Association.
The house is cosy yet has an unmistakable African style. There is a sitting room, one dining room and a larger, more formal one for bigger parties or visiting groups.
Now, the next stage of their story is about to unfold. Their four bedroom guest house, complete with satellite TV and bathrooms en-suite, has another pile of bricks outside, waiting for the extension to be built that will give them in total eight bedrooms to cope with the growing demand. For they come from Europe, Singapore, the United States and Australasia. News of Liziwe's little guesthouse in the Township at Guguletu has crossed oceans, filled pages of guide books. It is a remarkable achievement.
But this happy, fiercely determined couple do so much more than just take in visitors for a night's accommodation. They educate overseas guests about life in the real South Africa, well away from the white beaches of Camps Bay, well out of sight of the V & A Waterfront, where luxury shops in the mall could mean you're strolling in a shopping centre in France, Canada or the United States.
Guests at Liziwe's Township guesthouse see the reality of life in this country. They are taken on walks around the Township, they meet other local people and they talk. Often long into the night………….
All of this came out of one man's simple desire to make something of his life, to make a proper home for his family. Donald may be small and wiry in a physical sense but his courage and determination shone through. "I worked for a company that supplied paper for packaging companies. It was very difficult. I wanted to do something for my family but every time I asked the bank for a loan, they said they couldn't help me. I didn't earn enough".
He was restricted to sharing rooms with friends, a situation he knew could not continue. So one day when he saw a wall being demolished at his work, he asked the boss what they would do with the bricks.
'Why do you want to know' he was asked.
Donald told them he needed bricks to build a house. Well, they told him, you can have them if you move them. With the help of friends, just a few at a time, he transported 36,000 bricks to a tiny plot of land he had bought from the local council at Guguletu in 1990. Then the real work started. He had to chip every one clean of the plaster cement that disfigured most of them. It took him three long, painful years, and he lived all the while in a tiny shack he'd built on the site, assisted for security by two large dogs.
The concrete slabs he put up around the plot he'd also moved there himself, transported from a local graveyard where they were no longer needed.
The guesthouse was his wife's dream, an idea she had always had. But it took them years to build and then furnish the house in the way they needed to fulfil that long held desire. A smile creases her face, like a gentle breeze touching soft skin in summer. "We didn't know how to go about publicising the guesthouse so we got some advice. We were told we had to have brochures printed but we didn't have the money."
That lack of funds was an omnipresent difficulty. A friend provided the R2000 needed to print the brochures. But first, there was the problem of taking the pictures. "We didn't have money to buy new beds so we kept on moving the same one from room to room for the photographs" giggles Liziwe. "The camera followed the beds. All we changed was the linen."
Ingenuity and innovation: qualities that have hallmarked their determination to achieve in life. Eventually, the big day came. They went to N1 City to register the guesthouse and were bluntly told 'This could take three months'. More giggles. "I had already started the business and I told them. So they laughed at me."
Quite soon, the phone calls began: at first a trickle but then more steadily, especially from overseas. The foreign visitors said they wanted to see the true South Africa, wanted to experience what it was really like living in a Township. One Danish couple got the shock of their lives.
"They thought we lived in a forest area with lions around us and believed they were coming on a hunting trip. They really did. They couldn't believe it when they came here. We had to take them for a walk around to make them feel comfortable."
The life those visitors who stay in the Township see, is very different from the pictures on the tourist brochures. "I don't show them the beautiful side of the country; I show them everything, the reality" says Liziwe. "Just because this country has been free since 1994 does not mean everything is good. People are still struggling on the ground. People who come here from overseas see how people are living. We take them to the shanty areas and go inside. The people who come here want to see how we live, they want to explore. There are so many questions for me to answer.
"I always tell them the truth, I don't want to hide anything."
But the truth can be harsh. Donald spells it out bluntly. "Life is still a struggle. I knew hardship in the apartheid regime: I never went to school. But whatever they try to do today, it is a drop in the ocean.
"All the people of my age won't see real improvements. We are going to sleep in our graves without seeing it. Only the young ones will benefit. You always want to see things improve quicker but it won't happen that way.
"There were no shacks here until 1994. But as soon as the black Government took over, everyone from the rural areas came here. Under apartheid, movement was banned but once that was lifted, things changed. Now people are free and can move but the result is, you won't find any young people in rural areas. But when they come to the towns or cities, they have no money, they cannot afford to pay for accommodation and there is no work for them.
"So these shacks are mushrooming all the time. There are loads of children barefoot around here but then, this is the real South Africa. I don't blame the black Government; it was the white Government that messed up. But this must change. If it doesn't change, the younger generations won't accept it. It is a time bomb that is ticking.
"If the gap between the people with money and all those without any becomes bigger and bigger, the younger generations growing up will say this is rubbish. So it is a time bomb. I just pray people will be patient."
Their own efforts have already rubbed off on others. There are now four guesthouses in Guguletu, the others encouraged by the success of their example. But more than that, they get local people to help them in the endeavour. Ladies are brought in to help cook meals for visitors on official tours; musicians are employed to entertain them. One woman's humble dream of running a guest house has spread to influence the lives of many others, a meritorious achievement.
But of course there is jealousy, too, among some. "There is always a jealousy in some people. They don't always show it but….there are those that are happy with what we are doing but there are jealous people" says Donald.
"But we are working closely with the community and the Guguleti Association. We are bringing business to the Township and trying to get others to share it and benefit from it."
Liziwe insists their tours are not what they call in Soweto 'zoo tours': trips made by tourists in sealed buses where they speed past the shacks and shanties, never stopping and safely at a distance from the reality of every day life for those who live there. "This is not a zoo tour. I take my guests on a little walk around here and they meet local people.
"Sometimes, we just sit up in the night talking with these guests for hours and hours."
And their home, one man's inspired dream that was so lovingly built ? She smiles. "I am very proud of my husband. But this place is not like a home anymore, it is like a business. But that is not a complaint. This whole experience has given us so much. So many people who have come and stayed here have remained friends. They have told us they see this as their home away from home. Now, when they leave, they have a different mindset and it is as though a part of us is departing, too."
Their biggest gripe is against the South African politicians and officials who have risen to office but ignore those like them, who offer good, wholesome food and a comfortable home. "They prefer to stay in expensive hotels when they could stay here for a small part of the cost. They don't support us and because they are not doing that, they don't support the Township.
"They forget about us. Quite often, the Government arranges workshops but the people stay in town. They should stay here with us. We are not just here for the people from overseas.
"Nelson Mandela said, wherever you go, you must always remember where you came from. These people in official positions should support us and the people around us. But once they become Mr. Someone, they forget about us."
But the good news is, the growing numbers of overseas visitors, many of whom they now meet at Cape Town airport, bear testimony to the fact that the overseas demand continues to climb.
By Peter Bills
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