Raphael Benza followed his heart to South Africa and never looked back.
He slipped into Joburg’s urban culture scene with stealth and steely intent.
The Liberian-born marketer and events promoter first came to South Africa in 2001 for three weeks when he followed his thengirlfriend who was transferred to Johannesburg by JP Morgan’s New York office.
“I’d always been interested in moving back to Africa. I’d got bored of the United States and I wanted to see if I could make what I’d learned in New York come to life here,” says Benza.
On his third trip to South Africa the following year, he decided to stay.
Born to a Liberian mother and a Congolese father, Benza’s family fled Liberia for the US in 1984, where they settled in Brooklyn.
The third of four children, Benza has one sister and two brothers.
After graduating from Minneapolis State University with a degree in marketing and computer science, he started an entertainment promotions business with two fellow Liberians and two Americans.
Together they managed artists, organised parties and established a small record label.
Benza hung on to his day job as a check-in agent for North West Airline and worked as a DJ at night. When the airline transferred him to New York, he quit shortly thereafter and opened his own company, Red Events Promotions.
His first job in South Africa involved doing roadshows for the loveLife campaign, while he sussed out the entertainment scene – his real interest.
Organising a 2001 concert with hip-hop artists Black Thought and Dead Prez gave him the opportunity to oversee his first local concert venture.
Two years later, he bought the Divine Lounge, a supertrendy hang-out spot in Rosebank.
It was here that Benza experienced his first brush with xenophobia.
“Some people hated the fact that I was a successful foreigner. I got a lot of threats and people telling me to ‘go back home’. But within a year of that, and as people got to know me, all the threats stopped and I’ve never experienced that again,” says Benza.
One of the things he loves about South Africa is that he sees it going through a phase in its urban culture very similar to the one he experienced as a young DJ and promoter in New York in the 1990s.
“I’m reliving the New York urban scene, but back then someone else was in the driver’s seat. Now I’m part of the driving force here and I’m sending it in a direction I want it to go.”
Nine years after he first arrived, Benza relishes his role as an unofficial welcoming committee for new arrivals. He particularly enjoys taking newcomers to places as diverse as Rasta House in Yeoville to friends’ homes in Sandhurst.
His favourite South African is Chris Hani. “From what I’ve read about him, he had immense foresight about what South Africa needed. He was brave enough to go against the powers that be, and ultimately sacrificed his life,” says Benza.
His second favourite South African is his two-year-old daughter, Siattache. Benza eventually married the girlfriend he followed here. The couple has two children.
After the success of the Divine Lounge, which he ran until 2006, Benza was approached to become a partner in Moloko and Latinova, two of Rosebank’s most successful nightclubs.
He was a partner in both until last year when he sold his stakes and moved on.
He is now the managing director of Vth Season, an urban branding and marketing company that specialises in brand activation and below-the-line advertising to the urban market.
The hardest thing about doing business in South Africa, says Benza, is the reluctance of people doing similar businesses to collaborate.
“That annoys me because we are always open to partner and to share our database and experience, and make bigger and better events.
But other businesses are threatened and don’t want to collaborate because they think you’ll steal their show.
That frustrates me because people don’t understand that partnerships lead to a stronger force.”
The biggest difference between South Africa and the US, Benza believes, is the work ethic and the productivity.
“New Yorkers are a bunch of die-hard go-getters and activators.
If you don’t do it, tomorrow someone else will.
If something needs to get done, it gets done. We worked 12 hours and still had fun. We were young and strong, and wanted to see our dreams realised.”
Benza says he has to push people harder in South Africa and constantly has to provide incentives to get people to do something they should be doing on their own in the first place.
He counts a greater awareness of diversity as one of the biggest lessons he’s learnt here as a businessman.
“You have to be much more aware of diversity. Here you have blacks, coloureds and Indians, and some coloureds don’t want to be called coloured while others are proud to be coloured.
You have to be sensitive to diversity within the same ethnic group.
I’ve had to learn to deal differently with people from ekasi and those from Sandton.
That diversity is immense, and you have to have good people skills.”
He describes himself as wearing “rose-coloured glasses” when it comes to South Africa, and finds it hard to identify anything he finds infuriating about the country.
Eventually, he concedes that the one thing that he has come to loathe is dealing with the police.
“In New York, the police are tough. They solve crimes, they may detain you, but they don’t take bribes.
Here you can’t rely on the police. I’ve called to report a crime and they’ve never called back,” he explains.
Benza’s favourite place in South Africa is Mpumalanga. “It has vegetation like West Africa, and lots of beautiful farms and waterfalls.
It makes me feel like I could grow plantains and sugar cane. If I were to retire here, it would be to a farm in Mpumalanga.”
His favourite local dish is chakalaka, especially when it’s spicy.
The things he’d like to share with South Africans about his native Liberia are its food and its music.
“Liberian food has more variety and soul. It’s spicy and it’s cooked with heart.
We make 80 different dishes just from ochre.”
The food he misses the most from Liberia is cassava leaves. “Contrary to the beliefs of our neighbours in Sierra Leone, we make the best cassava leaves.”
If he could take a South African to Liberia, he’d take them to his home town of Paynesville to an area called Red Light District.
“It’s got nothing to do with sex or prostitution; it’s the biggest market you’ve ever seen. It sells everything from belts to food. I’d also take them to our rice, rubber and sugar farms. And then I’d take them to the beaches of Monrovia.”
Liberia is ranked as one of the world’s best-kept secret destinations for surfing, says Benza.
What makes him most proud of his native Liberia is the tenacity of its people. “From our president to the women in the market, we all say: We won’t give up.
Through hard times and a civil war, we kept on loving. And now we’re building our country, and one day we’ll be the New York of West Africa again.”
The thing that gives him most hope for South Africa is that it is in Africa, he says.
“I’m bullish about Africa, and South Africa is the best position to be in to grab the ball, run with it, and score.”