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From Soweto-on-Sea to a bright, five-star future – brave Gqeberha chef is bound for Mauritius

From Soweto-on-Sea to a bright, five-star future – brave Gqeberha chef is bound for Mauritius
Boardwalk graduates Yonela Chophela (left) and Yolanda Gelebha. Photo: Deon Ferreira)

A young woman’s determination is taking her from an impoverished part of the Eastern Cape city to training at a high-end resort in Mauritius.

In an astonishing story of persistence, sacrifice and courage, a young chef from Soweto-on-Sea, one of the poorest areas in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape, has been selected for an internship at Sugar Beach, a five-star resort in Mauritius.

Yolanda Gelebha (18) from Soweto-on-Sea was a high achiever in consumer studies at Kwa-Magxaki High School in the city when she passed matric with a distinction in 2021.

That year, the Boardwalk Hotel and Casino in Gqeberha started offering R700,000 in bursaries to help the top students in the subject to obtain qualifications to become professional chefs. In 2016, the company had funded the renovation of the school’s consumer studies classroom.

The first five matriculants of 2021 who received these bursaries graduated in April from the International Hotel School with national certificates in the professional cookery programme. The hotel paid for their studies and also gave them a monthly stipend so that they could concentrate fully on getting their qualifications.

Three of the students – Yonela Chophela, Ntombizanele Mthunzini and Bulelwa Nogqala – have now been offered permanent jobs at the Boardwalk, whereas Gelebha and Yamkela Vena will complete a six-month internship in Mauritius.

The Boardwalk is also footing the bill for their visas and flights. When they return, they will also work at the hotel and casino.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Chef Wandile Mabaso, a Jozi food hero shining in the shadows

“It is extremely heartwarming to hear these youngsters’ stories, and realise their resilience. To say that we are proud of them all is an understatement,” said Nopinkie Jacobs, the HR manager at the Boardwalk.

“They went through a lot last year. It really is a sweet moment for me to see them here today. I am also proud to realise the fruits of what we did in 2016.

“We must make sure that our investments are sustainable,” she said.

“Becoming a chef is very expensive, and finding information on how to get there is difficult. It is our responsibility as [an] industry to go out there and provide the information for matric learners.”  

The hotel’s general manager, Tati Tsunke, said: “Boardwalk is an important corporate citizen in Nelson Mandela Bay and we are pleased to play a role in empowering youngsters to become gainfully employed in the hospitality industry.”

Dream realised

Gelebha said she was nervous about flying to Mauritius since she had never been on a plane before, but it had always been her dream to travel and experience other cultures and their food.

“I grew up in Soweto-on-Sea. I always wanted to become something in life. Every day I would remind myself that I must study hard, because I know where I am from. I wanted to achieve something.

“It was not that difficult for me. The teachers were helping me push through. They knew I could be something,” she said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: On eve of a fractious transition, Nigerian chef unites the nation and cooks up a 100-hour storm

Gelebha had not planned on a career in the food service industry, but the bursary changed her mind. She also couldn’t take a gap year after matric because she wanted to provide for her family as soon as possible.

“I never wanted to be a chef, but I always knew I [could] make it. I said to myself, learn to love it. This is the opportunity you were given. Do it well.

“I went to [hotel] school. At first it was very difficult. I came from high school. Nobody reminded you of your deadlines. It was difficult for me. I pushed myself. I wanted to be excellent.”

Boardwalk graduates Yonela Chophela (left) and Yolanda Gelebha. Photo: Deon Ferreira)

In August 2022, the students went from studies at the hotel school to the Boardwalk for industry training, which Gelebha said was “not fun – no fun at all”.

She and Chophela (19), her best friend, can laugh about it now, but their first months in the hotel kitchen were difficult for both of them. “You work very long hours,” said Gelebha. “When we were under pressure we began to fight. We always apologised afterwards, but I wasn’t used to working like that. We went to complain to the HR managers.

“As time went by, I began to understand the situation in the kitchen. Things became fine. We would look at the kitchens of the big chefs on social media and think maybe it wasn’t too bad,” she said.

Take all the chances even if it is not exactly what you want – you never know where it can take you.

“My family is very happy about me going to Mauritius, but they are a bit nervous that I am going to another country on my own. But I will manage.

“I am happy and grateful about this. My friends are happy too. They know I am capable and I deserve this. I want to open my own restaurant and maybe a hotel one day. But I also want to help the poor.

“One day I would want the people in my kitchen to understand each other. We have different types of personalities and we are not all the same. We must understand each other. Sometimes it is all about how you introduce yourself, how you appear to other people,” said Gelebha.

“Some of the chefs treated us like we were there to take their jobs. It is those difficulties that we face in the industry. I always tell myself not to get angry. I will keep asking questions if I don’t know.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Chefs with Compassion appeals for a little more kindness

“I think the best advice I can give is for people to work as hard as they can. Nothing comes easy. Life doesn’t always go according to your plans. Take all the chances even if it is not exactly what you want – you never know where it can take you.

“When I decided to become a chef, many people asked me why I wanted to do it. They said I cook at home already. Maybe it is not nice. I told them it is not like that. You must learn to ignore negative comments. Don’t listen to people’s judgements. If you see something that works for you, just grab it.”

Chophela is from Despatch. She agreed that, although the academic work at the hotel school had been easy, she really struggled doing practice in the kitchen.

“Practically all I can say is, yoh! It was very difficult. I never worked before. The first time in the kitchen I just thought I can’t do it. This is not my thing. Then it became worse.

“I went to HR to say I am quitting. I said I will make a plan to pay back the money.”

But Gelebha stepped in, sending Chophela motivational voice notes, encouraging her friend to stick it out. “I would tell her every day, ‘Yonela, you’ve got this. We always said we will do this together. Everything has its own difficulties. Just continue and work here. Just don’t give up,’” Gelebha said.  

“I was telling my other classmates to talk to her. I even told my mother I know she’s got this – she is just afraid,” she added.

Chophela is glad she stuck it out. “I feel like I am in charge of my own destiny,” she said.

“In my family it is only my father that works. I also want to provide for the family. Having a friend is very important. It keeps you going. I learned so much from Yolanda. She is very brave.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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