She rose before the crack of dawn every morning, rushing to catch a taxi so she could sell her wares in Benoni’s business district. And every day for three years the Daveyton-born passenger vowed she’d one day own a taxi.
Now Thembi Magubane (45) is the proud owner of nine taxis – all of which she bought with the profits from selling achar.
“I used to board taxis with the achar, and drivers would swear at me because sometimes it would spill, and it smelled,” Thembi tells DRUM. “Sometimes they forced me to get out of their taxis.”
In a way it was a blessing – it was what drove her to get into the industry. "I wanted to teach drivers how you work with passengers."
Her plan has worked – she recently acquired her latest vehicle, making her one of only a few hugely successful women in the taxi industry. Thembi is also the deputy chair of the Benoni Taxi Association and has ensured the association’s smooth ride over the years. Since 2011 she’s worked her way through the ranks in an industry dominated by men.
"There are some who say they don’t want to be led by a woman but through the grace of God we get things done," she says.
Thembi’s colleagues speak highly of her. The association’s public relations officer, Joseph Khoza, says she’s an inspiration. "She’s a leader who’s shown women can do it all."
Petros Motha, a rank coordinator at Lakeside Square taxi rank, says the businesswoman is blowing winds of change.
"We respect her and give her the platform she deserves," he says. "She’s humble and seeing her involved is good for us because women bring peace and stability to an environment."
It’s been a long journey for Thembi. When she first started selling achar she was ashamed.
"I started with one small bucket and it took me two months to sell it because I was shy about the kind of work I was doing."
But she lost all her inhibitions when her achar sold like hot cakes at church one day. Thembi realised she was sitting on a gold mine and bought a large drum of the spicy Indian condiment from a store in Pretoria. It cost R1 100 for the 20kg drum.
Thembi transferred this to 1kg tubs, which she sold for R25 each. In no time she was making a profit of R12 000 every month.
Business has always been in her genes. After her father, Biliya, died in 1981, Thembi and her late mother, Ma- Buthelezi, had to work to make ends meet. Her mother sewed aprons and tunics and took Thembi along as they went from house to house trying to sell her handiwork.
Thembi also sold sweets and earrings at school. "At the age of eight I knew if I wanted lunch money for school I had to work," she says.
Life became even tougher when she gave birth to her firstborn, Linda, at 16. Thembi dropped out of Hulwazi Secondary School in Grade 10 to take care of her son. Her responsibilities quadrupled when her sister, Busi, got married and left the family’s Daveyton home.
She worked odd jobs to help feed her family and two years after dropping out went back to school to finish matric. To keep the family afloat, Thembi walked door to door peddling clothes, jewellery and other items after classes ended.
The single mom started selling achar to make ends meet after the birth of her second child, Thando, in 2007.
"I had to fix the house we lived in and help with things my family needed with that money. I also had to save."
Thembi took her wares to the business district of Benoni and to shops at Lakeside Mall, selling her achar from stores and a stall she owned. When business boomed she was able to save R10 000 of her R12 000 monthly profit.
But she stuck to a tight budget. “I had to discipline myself to stay on track to buy what I wanted.”
Two years later, in 2009, she bought a bakkie at an auction. A year later Thembi once again used her achar money to buy her very first taxi – a Quantum – also at auction.
She’s bought a new taxi every year since because "it can work on its own, even if I choose not to get up that day".
But you won’t find Thembi sitting with her feet up at home. She’s a hands-on businesswoman who’s driven by her desire to break the cycle of poverty in her family.
“I grew up poor but that didn’t stop me. I never wanted my children to be poor because I come from that situation.”
She laughs when she says she was also motivated by being dumped by Linda’s father. "I told myself I never, ever wanted him to see me struggling."
Thembi believes in leading by example and often gets behind the wheel of one of her vehicles.
"On Sundays I used to take a taxi to church and after the service, I’d pick people up and drop them off. I’d do it for the rest of the day, just so I can show my drivers how to treat people."
When she isn’t learning about engines and planning routes, you’ll find Thembi in the recording studio following her first love.
"Growing up I saw myself singing and doing what Rebecca [Malope] was doing," she says.
"In school I used to love singing and I even had a teacher who once hit me because she said I have a wonderful voice and she didn’t want me to hide it."
She shared her gift with the world when she released her debut gospel album, Ng’yam thanda uJesu, in 2014 and followed it up with two more releases in 2016 and 2017.
The Mpumalanga Gospel Music Awards nominee says her singing career wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without the support of her taxi peers, who volunteered to put up posters for her self-funded first album.
Thembi would like to develop young gospel artists one day, but for now, she’s set her sights on another business venture.
"I also love cars so I want to open a car dealership."
Thembi has three cars and believes in starting small.
"You don’t need a lot of money to get started," she says.
"I had R200 when I started selling and look where it got me. The key is to discipline yourself and know what you want out of life."