Young Capetonian shows how plugging into her own business switched off stereotypes

Young Capetonian shows how plugging into her own business switched off stereotypes
Makaziwe Mazaleni has never wanted to work for other people, but lockdown killed her growing tourism business. Now, she has learnt the ins and outs of a new business – fixing broken appliances. (Photo: The Clothing Bank NPC)

Thanks to her passion, commitment and eagerness to learn, 29-year-old Makaziwe Mazaleni is on her way to becoming the first woman graduate in a programme dominated by men.

A year and a half into life after lockdown, Makaziwe Mazaleni came across an advert that would put her on an unexpected trajectory.

The advert called for hard-working people who wanted to develop their technical skills in a two-year programme, so that they could run their own businesses. The photo beside the advert showed a man holding three clothing irons and beaming happily.

Mazaleni went to the open day held by an enterprise development organisation, liked what she saw and triumphed during a tough selection process. She is now a quarter of the way through training for a new career and set to become the first woman graduate of a programme that usually teaches unemployed fathers to fix appliances and sell them on to make themselves financially independent.

That she was neither a parent, nor a man, didn’t occur to her as possible hurdles.

Had she harboured ambitions to do appliance repair? A lifelong fascination with how things worked? “Nothing!” she says.

Did she knit or crochet or have other handwork hobbies? “Nothing!” She laughs. “The only extra thing I ever did at school was dance.”

Mazaleni is 29. She grew up in Langa in Cape Town and studied tourism. She worked for the Happy Snappy photo company, part of City Sightseeing, for two years and discovered a talent and a love for tour guiding, which she consolidated with a tour-guiding course in 2017 at the Cape Academy of Guiding Services. She is also a graduate of the Raymond Ackerman Academy of Entrepreneurial Development.

With a solid foundation, she set up her own business, offering Airbnb experiences for Cape Town walking tours in Langa and the Bo-Kaap. She was fully booked for April 2020.

And then lockdown happened.

“I was watching what was going on, but I only really understood what was happening when I had to start paying back people’s deposits because they had to cancel,” she says.

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Mazaleni is not given to despair and her natural energy and hopefulness – and the help of friends and family – kept her buoyed for months, but she was starting to sink into real worry about whether she was going to be able to carry on paying her rent. She didn’t want to burden her mother by moving back home.

It was her mother, however, who saw the advert on Facebook and suggested it may be something for Mazaleni to investigate. “I wasn’t so enthusiastic, but I didn’t want to seem like I was ungrateful, so I went to the open day.”

The Cape Town branch of The Clothing Bank and The Appliance Bank is housed in a Thornton warehouse, about 15 minutes from the central city and about 10 minutes from Langa, where Mazaleni lives.

This enterprise development project is in its 12th year and has won nine awards, including the Mail & Guardian Greening the Future Award in the category of Waste Management Practice.

Both programmes function on the age-old principles of “mend and make do” and “waste not, want not”. Discarded, slightly imperfect, rejected products from the major retailers that partner with the organisation are diverted from their progress towards landfill.

Clothing and linens are de-branded, repaired and sold by mothers of children younger than 18 who have been chosen for the programme. Small appliances are put through the same process by fathers.

All the recruits who enter the programme go through a selection process, then two years of training, business and life skills development, and coaching and mentoring.

They can begin to earn money within two weeks of joining the programme. They volunteer a few hours a week to help with the sorting and de-branding. This pattern is replicated at the Johannesburg and Durban branches, while in Paarl and East London only The Clothing Bank is operative.

Year-end results for 2021 show that across the three main branches, with three retail partners, almost 120,000 items, valued at R8.6-million, were received for processing. The estimated profits made by the enterprise development beneficiaries amounted to R8.55-million.

Why, though, after so many years of men doing the appliances and women doing the clothing, did the selectors decide to change things up by letting Mazaleni join the men? What was it about her?

“We don’t have gender rules as a policy within The Appliance Bank,” says Tracey Gilmore, one of the co-founders, along with Tracey Chambers. “It’s just the way things fell along interest lines.”

The easy and immediate fit that Mazaleni found at the organisation made management sit up, though. It might never have been the plan to create a clear gender divide, but it existed.

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National marketing manager Heléne Brand says: “Maka [Mazaleni] made us realise that we needed to look at the subtle messages our marketing is sending. The photographs that we use to accompany the calls for people to attend open days show men for The Appliance Bank. We’re glad to be aware of that now.”

Programme manager Jenine Allen says that during Mazaleni’s interview it was clear that she had “all the technical skills, passion, commitment and eagerness to learn what you need for the programme”.

“She is very practically minded and excels in her technical skills. The men respect her for that.”

Mazaleni feels that, of the various skills they are taught, her weakness is on the technical side, but it doesn’t bother her, because she is particularly strong at the other things.

“I teamed up with one of the guys who is really good at fixing and not so good at selling, and so now we work together.”

She’s also teamed up with a driver and delivers products to buyers at their homes. The driver waits with her to make sure she’s safe, while she goes inside and allows her clients to test the products.

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Mazaleni’s business is growing so much that she no longer worries that she won’t be able to pay rent.

And, happily, her tourism business has reignited. She can accommodate that business, her new appliance sales and repairs business, her studies and volunteering because classes and volunteering only take up a few hours of the week. The rest of the time is meant to be spent on growing the business.  

The circular economy at the heart of The Clothing Bank and The Appliance Bank’s model seems to extend into relationships of reciprocity, says Mazaleni. Her months at The Appliance Bank have been marked by new friendships with the other men and women learning to run their own microenterprises, and the support she has received from the staff.

“This is the best thing that could have happened to me. Everything about this suits my personality. I’ve never wanted to work for someone else. I love the freedom to be able to support myself the way I want to, doing what I love,” she says. DM168

Karin Schimke is a writer and editor. She is a winner of the prestigious Ingrid Jonker Prize.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Laura Bergh says:

    The Clothing Bank and Appliance Bank programmes are superb social development models. Having seen their impact first-hand, year on year, I can only hope that these sorts of stories continue to make it into mainstream reporting. South African society needs access to information that shows what’s working and what is not. And we need to be working together, learning from each other in a collaborative space, to avoid duplication of effort and replication of models that may look good on paper but fail dismally in practice. This includes government and corporates , and not just non-profits and greater civil society. In a country of limited statehood, we need to be smart and strategic with our efforts and resources when it comes to the development agenda. Helping someone to help themselves should be the first premise of all models. Otherwise we might as well flush dignity and independence down the toilet.

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