Retrenchment led Grace Masango to start her own business, offering mine tours for tourists and local schools.
Masango's business Cullinan Mine Tours, was one of the 50 tourism products exhibiting at the 53rd Internationale Tourismus-Borse (ITB) world travel trade show, held in Berlin, Germany earlier in March.
The mine located east of Pretoria in Gauteng, is known for the discovery of the world's biggest diamond – 3106-carat Cullinan diamond— in 1905.
Masango shared with Fin24 how she ended up in the tourism industry, somewhat of a pioneer, she said she was the first black African woman to start tours at the Cullinan mines back in 1997.
After finishing school Masango was looking for work, when her cousin informed her that the local mine operator was looking for tour guides. Having passed the interviews, Masango immediately started training as a guide in 1995.
"I fell in love with tours," Masango said. "Tourists fascinated me, I would meet people from all over the world, they were very nice, friendly people."
However, things took a turn 18 months later when her boss informed her he couldn’t afford to pay her, and Masango was retrenched. A friend of hers, also a tour guide, suggested they start their own tour business.
"We went to the mine, drew a proposal and asked the mine manager if he could allow us to do that (run tours)," she said. Relying on a loan from Masango's business partner's friend, the pair opened their business a month later on May 1, 1997.
But Masango hit another stumbling block, her business partner had to move to the Northern Cape.
"My partner had to leave with her family," she said. This thrust Masango into the role of sole owner of Cullinan Mine Tours.
"It was difficult through the years. Sometimes I would wonder where to get money to pay rent and royalties to the mine."
Masango said for two whole years she worked seven days a week, without any off days. She also started training people in her local community to become tour guides. She also started networking with bigger businesses through tourism indabas, where she made valuable business connections that led her to secure deals for tours.
With help from the Gauteng Tourism Authority, Masango said she attended her first tourism indaba. "I got my first big group from the indaba in 1998," she said.
Masango also approached school principles and excursion organisers to promote her mine tours for learners to attend.
Masango said she noticed a lot of private schools went on tours, so she approached township schools. "They (schools) started coming in busses. Even now, I still get a lot of them coming from Mpumalanga, the North West and Gauteng," she said.
The schools helped Masango raise enough money to pay outstanding rental debt to the mine.
She explained among the biggest challenges she had to face was competition. At the time the tour operator for whom she worked was more popular and had managed to secure contracts with potential clients. "I remember some months where I could not pay rent. I was so worried," she said.
But De Beers, which owned the mine made arrangements for Masango to delay rental payments for up to six months.
"When I got the idea to go to schools and bring them in, the money helped cover and pay back the debt."
Having a website also helped Masango secure business. A lady at a tourism indaba had introduced Masango to an online booking system.
Having joined the platform, Masango said bookings started streaming in. People had mistakenly thought they had booked tours with her former boss, because she was the only tour guide with an online presence, she said.
Masango said there is value in attending indabas and trade shows like ITB, it helped promote her business.
Throughout the 22 years she's led Cullinan Mine Tours, Masango said the most valuable lesson she learnt is to listen, before answering anyone.
"I have learnt to be patient. I have learnt to be understanding… Tourists work hard to come and visit us. They save their money to visit us. There is no need to argue with a customer," she said.
This has been a lesson Masango said she has applied to other areas of her life. "You have to be patient, listen and understand what others want from you."
Throughout her years, Masango has said she trained multiple tour guides, who went on to do different things. Some have remained in the tourism industry. She now has two permanent tour guides and two freelancers. She still sometimes gives tours.
"I do tours especially for Belgian visitors who want someone speak Afrikaans with them... I do the Afrikaans tours," she said.
Masango said she is most proud that she could build her business from "nowhere". She considers herself to be a pioneer and said when she first started black Africans were not in the tour operating space.
"I came in and I opened the doors for them," Masango said.
*Fin24 was a guest of SA Tourism, which was exhibiting at ITB Berlin.