The house that ‘Mama Jane’ built

2010-07-27 00:00

IF you take the road from Bergville that seems to wind slowly towards the Drakensberg mountains, as though it knows it’s in the presence of majesty, you cross over the Woodstock Dam. Pass a trading store that looks like the set of a Western movie, carry on up the hill and you will see a thatched cottage to the right. You may think little of this as it’s not unusual to see thatched houses in a rural village; however, this particular house embodies a significant triumph over many obstacles.

Called Isifundo, Zulu for “a lesson”, the cottage is well named as it represents “a learning experience for all involved and has cemented friendships across class, race, language and economic backgrounds”, according to one of parties involved in it. Isifundo was one of the first self-catering hospitality venues in the northern Drakens­berg, and was one of the first owned by a Zulu woman, Jane Shabalala (69). Widely known as “Mama Jane”, she was also one of the first women elected by the community to sit on the tribal council.

Almost nine years of learning, hard work and determination went into the building of Isifundo bed and breakfast (B&B) on what used to be Shabalala’s mielie field in the village of Zwelisha.

Although her first job was in the hospitality industry (see box), it was as a cleaner and kitchen worker, a far cry from being an entrepreneur and business owner. Through her work with nonprofit organisations (NPOs) over many years, she was eventually part of the Bergville District Development Forum (BDDF). “I kept hearing about this B&B thing, and when I found out what it was, I said ‘I want one of those on my land.’”

Through the BDDF, Shabalala became friends with several people who had helped with community tourism ventures in the area and were keen to see more, particularly the Carte family and Cyndi and Terence Jonker. Together with a rural community facilitator, who chooses to remain anonymous for professional reasons, they helped Shabalala set up Isifundo. This included raising the capital, setting up a loan agreement, and helping with building and plumbing. Cyndi is also mentoring Shabalala in the administration of a hospitality business, including booking, marketing and finance.

The first issue they confronted was the land, which has no title deed as it is communal land that falls under the tribal authority. Shabalala applied for permission to occupy (PTO) in 2005, but to date this has not been issued. The future legal status of her ownership and her children’s rights to inherit the property are therefore uncertain.

Then, no commercial bank would give her a bond as she had no security. The idea of a rural black woman owning her own business was so novel that the bank where she had a personal account was very unsure about opening a second trading account for Isifundo with Shabalala as the sole trader and owner.

The house was built by local builders from a combination of concrete blocks and concrete shuttering to pour concrete. Their progress was slow because of the challenge of getting materials to the remote site. Bergville, the nearest town, is 58 kilometres away. Shabalala laughs and throws up her hands as she remembers: “Once the road got washed away so the blocks could not be delivered. That delayed building for five weeks.”

Although a bulk water scheme was started in 2001, it is still not fully operational. This made it a challenge to provide water for building and then running water and a flushing toilet for the house. In summer, rain water is harvested off the roof of Shabalala’s house and pumped to a 5 000-litre storage tank. In winter, to fill the tank, she must fetch water from the communal tap, a 750-metre round trip away, and either roll it home in a hippo roller or carry it in a bucket on her head. The sewerage system provided another obstacle and the septic tank had to be built three times before it worked.

It took nearly two years to get electricity to the cottage as the application went first to East London, then to Durban and Ladysmith before getting lost in Newcastle. Shabalala spent many mornings at the Eskom office in Ladysmith trying to find out about the progress of her application and also stopped every Eskom vehicle she saw near her home to ask about it.

The Telkom service worked in the mid-1990s, depending on the weather, but then the lines were blown down in a storm. Then a cow became entangled in the cable lying on the ground before it could be fixed, and then it disappeared altogether. Cellphone communication has been the only form of communication for about 10 years.

Isifundo was officially opened in June 2009. Since then it has hosted guests from South Africa and overseas, and the comments in the Visitor’s Book are a tribute to Shabalala’s warm hospitality and her tenacity in pursuing her dream. In keeping with the concept of community tourism, guests can enjoy a range of activities designed to give them an experience of community life (see side bars).

At Isifundo itself, they can participate in local activities, including fetching water, shopping at the local spaza shop or trading store, grinding mielies with a grinding stone or learning to play Marabaraba, thus continuing the tradition of learning for which the cottage was named.


ANOTHER example of community tourism and local entrepreneurship in the northern Berg is Siyaphambile Tourist Guide and Porter Service run by Elijah Mbonane who started the business in 2000.

Mbonane and his staff of three offer cultural and nature tours in the Royal Natal National Park and local villages. These include trips to the Sigubudu San paintings, walks to Tugela Gorge, overnight hikes with porters, and cultural tours of local villages.

In the village of Amazizi, for example, tourists can visit a traditional homestead, an artist, a sangoma, the tribal court, a successful craft co-operative, a trading store, a tuckshop, a clinic, a school and enjoy a meal in a local restaurant.

Phone Elijah Mbonane at 073 137 4690.

BORN in the Howick district in 1941, Mama Jane was brought up by her mother after her father’s death. She attended Michaelhouse Farm School and Ashdown, and left after Grade 10 (Std 8). Her first job was in the hospitality industry as a cleaner and kitchen worker at Crossways Inn in Hilton. A spell in a doctor’s surgery in Nottingham Road ended after she helped with a patient injured in a motor vehicle accident and decided that the medical field “with all the blood” was not for her.

She met her husband, Alfred, a waiter at the Hilton Hotel, and in 1982 moved to his home near Bergville. Alfred died in 1998, leaving her the head of the homestead and the family. She learnt to knit and began to produce school jerseys for sale. She went on to teach knitting to women’s groups as an employee of a World Vision SA craft project.

From 1995 to 1998 she was trained by and worked for the Community Empowerment Project, (CEP), a project funded by the Canadian government to build local capacity in post-apartheid South Africa. Using the skills she gained in planning and project management, she worked for several different NPO projects. She was nominated as one of the top 10 Community Builders in the Shoprite Checkers Woman of the Year competition in 1997.

THE cottage is 20 km from the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage site and many other well-known tourist attractions like the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School and Boer War battlefields. It has two bedrooms, one a loft room, and can sleep six people. The area offers hiking and birding. Tours to a Zulu village and a San painting site can be arranged.

• Booking: Terence and Cyndi Jonker at 036 438 6000, 082 781 3476,

THIS form of tourism is designed to develop and utilise the natural resources of a community for the sustainable benefit of that community, while conserving the natural environment and respecting their way of life. Foreign and local tourists can enjoy “a value-added experience” through participating in and learning about the local lifestyle. This “fosters greater interactivity, builds cross-cultural bonds, respect and understanding” and empowers people to value their culture, heritage and lifestyle. In Jamaica, it has been formalised as a developmental tool for building not only the tourism industry, but the entire country.

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