Happy Hilton doorman wins international award

2014-05-29 00:00

“I’M a happy somebody every day,” says Obed Mbatha (72), his beaming smile providing ample evidence for the statement. But the doorman of the Hilton Durban, famous for his badge-emblazoned blazer, admits to being especially happy when told he had won the Hilton CEO Light and Warmth award for 2013.

The contenders for the award were nominated by their colleagues and selected from more than 3 300 candidates worldwide. There were 11 winners.

“There are 400 000 team members in Hilton internationally,” says Markus Fritz, general manager of Hilton Durban. “So to be one of 11 is an outstanding achievement. We are really proud to have Obed.”

Mbatha (72) vividly remembers when he began working at the hotel. “I began standing on the doorstep of the Durban Hilton on July 11, 1997. Now I’m part of the furniture.”

Mbatha’s famous badge-encrusted blazer, not to mention his warmth and professionalism, have led to his becoming a popular Durban figure, while his job has seen him meet and greet everyone, from heads of state, captains of industry and Bollywood stars to families simply on holiday.

“During the 2010 World Cup, I met Sepp Blatter,” recalls Mbatha. “I have also met Bill Clinton, Tony Blair — and all our presidents: Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma.”

And lots of children. “They come to see the badges and I bend down so they can look at them.”

Mbatha’s own childhood was spent in KwaMthashane near Vryheid. After his school years, Mbatha first worked as an electrician, followed by 25 years at Dunlop Tyres where he became a foreman supervisor. “But that was not my life,” Mbatha says of these jobs.

After leaving Dunlop, he worked part-time as a taxi driver, which is how he came to the notice of frequent passenger Rob Samuelson, a well-known talent spotter and personnel recruiter for the hospitality industry.

Samuelson organised for Mbatha to be interviewed when the Hilton first arrived in Durban. When Mbatha subsequently received his letter of appointment, he recalls jumping for joy. “That’s when my life started,” he said.

It was also the beginning of his badge collection. “The first badge was the Hilton Logo and then my name badge.”

As one conference followed another — from HIV/Aids to COP 17 — so did the badges. “People had these badges and I began collecting them.”

Mbatha is now on to his third blazer. The first was retired with 980 badges on it — the second with 675. The current count is 708, which means he daily bears a burden of 6,5 kg. “It’s heavy. I get cramps if I stay in one place,” said Mbatha. “I have to keep moving around.”

Mbatha is no stranger to awards. In 2010, he received a Living Legends Award that is awarded annually to community members in the eThekwini Municipal area in recognition for their contribution to city life.

Mbatha has also played a prominent role in local soccer, as player, coach and referee, even founding his own team. A KwaMashu resident, he is a member of the KwaMashu African Football Association and founder of the Durban supporters club for Moroka Swallows.

Mbatha, a pastor at the Lambert Zwane Methodist Church, said he is frequently asked by young people where he finds the energy and strength to do his job. “I tell them it’s love. I love people and I love my job. But the strength is not mine, it’s the Almighty’s.”

• Stephen.Coan@witness.co.za

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