Passionate about PMB

2011-05-18 00:00

IT had been a hard day, with the death of a colleague weighing heavily on her shoulders. Despite this, Melanie Veness (40), CEO of Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business, welcomed me into her office with a friendly smile. Situated in the Royal Showgrounds, she has the view of the fields from her computer desk and, being a country girl at heart, she likes looking out onto the arena every now and then to taking time out to smell the roses.

Born in Durban, Veness spent her early years in Hluhluwe Game Reserve where her father worked as a game ranger. Even though her family relocated to East London when she was five, she still harbours fond memories of life there.

“I remember things like having to stay in the pool and growing all wrinkly because the buffalo had wandered in and were grazing next to the pool. I remember being stuck because a pride of lions were lying on the road and there was no way around them, scuttling up trees to avoid the warthog and lining the monkeys up on a pole and feeding them bits of bread. I once got a hiding for chasing a baboon that had snatched some of my bread from a baby­ monkey.”

At the age of 14, Veness returned to Durban, but completed high school in Pietermaritzburg at Carter High. Since then she has never wanted to leave.

“The people here are so special. The community is warm and close knit … I love Africa, her sounds and scents and rhythm, she talks to my very soul. And Pietermaritzburg offers a rare lifestyle combination — a vibrant city set in the beautiful countryside between the mountains and the sea with the bushveld on our doorstep. It’s where I want my children to grow up.”

When Veness left school, she wanted to take the drama route, but having achieved highly in matric, her parents swayed her to do something more sensible. She studied for a BCom for two years, but didn’t complete it.

“It was hard for me to be passionate about it. It’s strange how things seem boring in school, but as you grow up, they become fascinating. I would like to complete it now. Wanting a deeper understanding of economics comes from being passionate about the place I love, the people and the city. Business plays a critical role in the development of these things and one of the things that appealed to me about joining the Chamber of Business is that it encourages you to study. I love Pietermaritzburg­ and I just want to see it be the best that it can be.”

For a while, she was part of the Hilton Intimate Theatre Society, which used to put on supper theatre for charity. After having children, this became time consuming and she stopped, although her bond to the world of arts remains unbroken and she regularly attends the Hilton Arts Festival and Art in the Park.

Married for 20 years with two children, a son (16) and daughter (14), Veness says that her career has grown with her children. Initially a stay-at-home mom, she returned to work slowly, at first half day and eventually moving into tourism where she ran PMB Tourism for 10 years.

“I have a very special family — my husband, my children and our gogo, Emily, who has been with us since my daughter was two. They give me the space to follow my passion.”

She has been working as the CEO of PCB since February and her passion is economic and enterprise development.

“My focus will be on creating employment. Unemployment levels are unacceptably high and one of the ways that we can perhaps make a difference, is to help with the sustainability of small businesses. We are currently growing our women empowerment desk into an SMME desk, and will run a comprehensive SMME support programme through the desk.”

Back at the ranch however, Veness loves to do a variety of things including sewing and cooking. Due to relocating and having to change schools, she had to pick up home economics as a subject in school and loved the sections on food science and interior design. She has a flair for cooking and is not a fan of following recipes when cooking.

“I love to play. Cooking is all about smells and experimenting, but I would probably follow a recipe­ when baking. I love creating things. My mum and I used to bake together and she used to sew. I still use her old sewing machine and when I moved into our house, I made most of the curtains with it.”

Veness’s mother died from cancer at the age of 47 when her son was three months old.

“I adored my mum, and was devastated when she died. I still miss her every day, but one has to trust that God is in control and that whatever decision he makes will make sense one day. You just have to accept that the plans that he has for you are good plans — even when they don’t feel that way.”

Her current PCB project, ‘P3 Campaign — Picture Perfect PMB’, aims to encourage businesses to either do up their own corporate garden or to adopt a public space to landscape to restore the image of the garden city and encourage businesses to do something positive.

“It may seem cosmetic, but it’s a start to get people feeling more positive about this beautiful city.

“One of the greatest lessons that I have learnt is to not limit my thinking, to identify what I want to achieve and then to figure out how to go about getting there. Pietermaritzburg is an amazing place as there is always someone who you can call for help. That said, no organisation can be successful without a good team and I’ve been fortunate to be working with the best. There’s only so much that one can do on one’s own.”


• The P3 Campaign was formally launched last night at The Witness offices. For more information, phone Lorna Jones at 033 345 2747.

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