Changing perceptions from on high

Franck Leya is the head of Dlala Nje’s tours.   Like many employees at Dlala Nje, Leya is a local resident. (Picture: Zacharia Mashele)
Franck Leya is the head of Dlala Nje’s tours. Like many employees at Dlala Nje, Leya is a local resident. (Picture: Zacharia Mashele)

In 2012, eNCA journalist Nickolaus Bauer was sent to cover a story on Africa’s tallest residential skyscraper, Ponte City in Hillbrow, for the Mail & Guardian. He left with the story, and a lease. A week later a friend, Michal Luptak, came to Nick’s housewarming at apartment 5101 and he too was enthralled by Ponte’s joie de vivre.

Luptak, or Loopy as he’s known, signed a lease for apartment 5201, at about R37/m2 in rent at the time.

Upon moving to Hillbrow, the two were greeted by a great sense of polarisation. 

They didn’t want to be viewed as “the white guys that moved into the building, living on the top floors and not doing anything here”. 

So Bauer and Luptak founded Dlala Nje in October 2012 – a social enterprise aimed at challenging perceptions and creating opportunities through running inner-city guided tours and providing experiences in some of the city’s most misunderstood areas, like theirs.

It includes a community centre at the base of Ponte, headed by Sam Varney, a former management consultant at EY. The centre offers a safe environment for kids with a stage for performing arts and a learning centre with a library, computers and internet. 

“We have an opportunity to create something cool for the youth because they are the ones who need it the most,” says Luptak, a former chartered accountant at EY.
They have since launched 5101, pronounced “five-one-oh-one” – a venue that hosts pre-booked events on the 51st floor, which offers jaw-dropping views of Greater Johannesburg. 

They offer a complimentary tour of the notable building with every booking. This includes a viewing of the electrifying centre space known as “the core” – where blockbusters ranging from the sixth Resident Evil movie, Chappie and District 9 have been filmed.

Choirs and opera singers have also performed in the space, making use of its distinct acoustics.

Where did the idea for Dlala Nje and 5101 come from?

Luptak: After moving in, we realised that the retail spaces downstairs were pretty affordable in terms of starting a side project or business. 

They were recently refurbished and looked really nice with beautiful floors and views. They were all open, meaning that we had first pickings out of 15 different spaces. 

A space like the Dlala Nje centre was costing us about R2 500/month in 2012. So we thought that we could actually do this!

Nick came up with the name, which means “just play” in isiZulu. That was the idea for the arcade – to keep this nature of fun, entertainment and learning through having a good time. 

We bought and filled it with arcade games hoping that we could still keep our full-time jobs because it was all coin operated. 

It was failing badly at first. We almost shut it down. The kids were clever – they were jerking the system and collecting all the coins from the arcade game machines when no one was there. So we had to subsidise Dlala’s expenses with our incomes every month.

Just when we were thinking of closing down the centre, a lot of people were asking to come visit the building and area.

They were so keen to come and check it out now that they knew someone who was staying there. When everyone started flocking here, we realised that there was a business in showing people around.

I left my job and spearheaded immersive experiences, which are designed to create a sense of discomfort and are aimed at leaders. 

We basically aim to challenge the way people view organisational culture, especially in places like South Africa where there is a huge missing gap of diversity and inclusiveness.

That’s been hugely successful, last year especially.

Varney: 5101 used to be Nick’s flat when he lived here. When he moved out of Ponte, we took over the space and started using it for tours. It used to be a two-bedroom flat before being revamped into an events space.

What motivated you to turn the idea into a social enterprise?

Luptak: It all happened very naturally. I don’t think there was ever a moment in my life where I said that this is what I am going to do. We didn’t know what it was going to become either. It grew organically.

How did you acquire funding for the enterprise?

Varney: For Dlala Nje we’ve actually never been externally funded. 

Originally, the idea was that the arcade games and the core would fund the community centre but that was obviously not enough money.

The tours started to cover costs and that has been the model ever since. The tours and immersions business that Michal runs is the funding model that helps us to keep it afloat.

Luptak: For 5101 we did receive about R100 000 000 between Growthpoint Properties and Yellowwoods to help us with the face-lift. The rest was done with our own blood, sweat and tears.

Take us through your first tour.

Luptak: The first tour was done for a group from Maboneng. We were working with The Bioscope, which was screening a film there called Africa Shafted – an award-winning documentary filmed entirely in the lifts of Ponte City.

We did a quick Q&A after the screening of the documentary on what it’s like living at Ponte. We left there with a whole bunch of people that were super keen on doing a tour. 

About a week later we got a call from Bheki Dube, the owner of Curiocity Backpackers [in Jeppestown, Johannesburg], and he said that he’s got 20 people who would like to come on Saturday.

And then we thought… why don’t we just do it?

What have been some of the biggest difficulties you’ve had to overcome?

Varney: For 5101, it was difficult to renovate a space that is on the 51st floor of a building. At the time, some of the lifts broke down, so we were hustling stuff up on top lifts and up the stairs.

Getting the space ready was not an easy thing, but honestly, we have the most incredible team. It was hard, stressful and chaotic but it was incredible to have a team in place.

Luptak: Another challenge, especially for a small business like ours, is generating enough money to complete the job. When we first demolished the space, we didn’t have a cent to do anything. 

It was quite stressful to sleep at night knowing that there was not enough money coming in. We were using it to the very best of our ability but the construction was not entirely and properly budgeted for. We ended up spending much more than we thought. 

That was definitely a huge constraint. It put us in a really difficult situation coming into December and January. I think the financial aspect was the worst we have had since we opened.

Varney: We launched on 8 December and Joburg shuts down around that time. We were fortunate to have a lot of tourists and people who had heard about what we were doing and were interested.

So we managed to run a couple of sundowner events and a couple of others, which kept things afloat. 

We have definitely entered into 2018 realising that we have got no spare cash at all. Everything that comes in pays salaries, rent and for everything that we have. But now we’ve got this asset that we can use as a starting point.

For Dlala Nje… The challenge in the way people think and their perceptions has been one of the things that we have worked hard at trying to overcome.  

It is often difficult to get people to realise that they need to come here to experience it themselves. 

We definitely got to a point where that is much less of a challenge than it was originally. In the beginning people would be like, “What the heck are you guys doing there?”

The moment that someone gets their feet here and stands at Ponte, getting to walk through Yeoville, Hillbrow or Berea, meeting people and experiencing the environment – they start to think differently.

What was the biggest lesson you learnt since Dlala’s inception in 2012?

Luptak: Everything in Dlala Nje has a capacity. Understanding this capacity is a balancing act between the projection of your dreams and ambitions and the willingness of people who work with you. Invest in the right people, then dreams and ambitions get more space.

What differentiates yours from other tour guide services?

Luptak: We are on another mission here. We are super keen to reintroduce Johannesburg – its food, culture and people – because we have a very unique opportunity here to put Johannesburg on the map in a way that has never been done before.

We have to represent Johannesburg honestly. We have to show people that this is not the space that it’s made out to be.

Varney: It’s important to realise that Dlala Nje is an experiences organisation. We don’t necessarily see ourselves as a tour business or an events space. 

What we want people who come to Dlala Nje to do, is to go and have an experience of what Johannesburg is. 

How many people do you employ?

Varney: We currently have a team of 21 people between Dlala Nje and 5101 – everyone straddles between the two. Anyone does whatever needs to be done.

About 65% of our team are from Yeoville, Hillbrow or Berea. For the most part, they’ve actually come through our community centre programme, which is how we found them.

Luptak: We want to have an inclusive business that surrounds its community and brings in people from around here.

Best business advice you’ve ever received?

I am fortunate enough to have the very valuable and gold-class mentorship of Rob Brozin, co-founder of Nando’s. He’s one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met. He always has the time to talk to me.

He told me “the essence of leadership is surrounding yourself with the right people”. It echoes every day in my life. You will achieve great things if you are surrounded with the right people. 

If the biggest investment in your business is its culture, you get people to work with you instead of for you and you could move mountains. 

How do you stay motivated?

Luptak: For me personally, I like being my own boss. I like being in control of my own time. 

The minute you realise that your time is more important than the money that you are earning, or whatever you are doing… the fact that there is no one that can tell me where I must be and what I must do is quite important to me – that is very motivating. 

I like working on projects that I want to do, like organisational culture and immersions. I really enjoy doing it because I see the results right in front of me. 

Also, working with great people is a huge motivator. It’s crazy how they are as motivated as you are. You can’t let them down or take the back seat by adopting a sluggish approach. You’ve really got to be on point. 

The fact that the community centre is there and offers kids an alternative keeps me going too.

What are 5101’s goals for the future?

Luptak: The space is still not entirely done. Once we are happy with what is happening here, we may have the opportunity of expanding in terms of square footage.

Varney: Part of what we find in South Africa and the way in which we’ve been operating in the last 20-odd years has been through this level of separation. 

If we can get corporate South Africa to start engaging differently with the inner city, using this space as one of the catalysts for that, then we would be doing what we set out to do.

This article originally appeared in the 1 February edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here

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