Rita Zwane, founder of Imbizo Shisanyama Busy Corner and an advocate of growing township economies, shares how changing your mindset is the first step to success
Setting foot in Imbizo Shisanyama Busy Corner, in the buzzing township of Tembisa, feels like stepping into the comfort and safety of one’s grandparents’ home. The squeaky-clean setting and nostalgic shisanyama feast the establishment is famous for, are reminders of how it’s, ultimately, the simple things that tug at our heartstrings.
As Rita Zwane, or MaZwane as she is affectionately known, answers questions about what keeps patrons coming to her establishment more than 20 years later, one of two gentlemen seated a few feet from our table offers to answer. “This place is a destination. Every Monday, without fail, we drive from afar to come eat here.” A clearly chuffed Zwane describes the gentleman’s response as, “true to her brand premise”.
It was all a dream
Zwane vividly recalls working at an Egyptian restaurant in the early 90s and how, during the festive season, the owners would bring in belly dancers to entertain patrons. “I realised that they were selling an experience more than just food. During those moments, I wished for us black people to also have a place to showcase our culture and heritage.” This observation, she says, went a long way in shaping her long-term vision for Imbizo Shisanyama.
When she first opened the doors of her shisanyama container in 1997, she did so with a vision of creating an upmarket experience in the township. Anyone can sell pap and meat, she says. However, her focus has always been to sell the ultimate African braai experience with class, style and dignity. “In the past, when people spoke of township restaurants, they were assumed to be located in shabby corners. I was very clear about offering the same premium standard found in upmarket eateries. Safety, quality and cleanliness are of the utmost importance to me — and I would never compromise on them,” she explains, also adding a touch of humour: “Imbizo Shisanyama is like Hotel California — you can check out any time, but you can never leave.” Zwane has gone on to create the shisanyama subsector that now contributes to the country’s GDP. “Today, almost every township in South Africa has its own famous spot,” she says.
Learning as she goes
The businesswoman, who co-authored her first biography Conquering The Poverty of the Mind — MaZwane’s Story, released in November 2019, has always learnt by observing. Raised by an entrepreneurial mother, when Zwane moved to Tembisa from Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal in 1989, she sought out entrepreneurial opportunities in almost everything she came across – a fire, she says, was ignited by her own mother. “Once, I lived in a back room where the homeowner was an Eskom employee who mostly wore her uniform. I convinced her to give me some of her ordinary clothes to sell, instead of them wasting away. I sold them at the train station, and we split whatever profit I had made,” she recalls.
As one of Tembisa’s renowned township entrepreneurs, Zwane reached a point where she was inundated with mentoring requests, leading her to entertain the idea of penning a book that many up-and- coming entrepreneurs could reference for decades to come.
“My business coach Steven Mavundla Zwane convinced me that I had a story that was worth a book. I agreed, but parked the idea for a long time. When it resurfaced in 2017, I knew that it was a challenge I couldn’t back down from.” The therapeutic process, she says, started soon after her coach had found her a co-author. “I wanted the book to remind that young woman, currently packing groceries at a supermarket for a measly salary, that all is not lost. I want her to read the book and think: I am exactly where MaZwane was 30 years ago, and then ask herself: ‘How did she make it?’ Our battle with anything is all up in the mind. What got me here was that I hated idling.”
Zwane shares tips on starting small, and then scaling up as an entrepreneur:
1. Hard work never killed anyone. It can only usher you into the next phase of your dreams.
2. Self-discipline. This is the single most important trait of every successful entrepreneur. Be committed, and stay true to your dream.
3. Let the vision be bigger than yourself. There is a difference between self-employment and entrepreneurship. The former is when you have urgent needs that need to be fulfilled, whereas the latter means seeing opportunities where others don’t. Always force your way in where you spot opportunities that others may be blind to.
4. Surround yourself with people whose dreams are just as big as yours. You will have a community of people to constantly uplift you when the chips are down.
5. Invest in a mentor or business coach. They will drive you towards your vision, and pull you out of the self-pity rut when times are tough.
The mom of two expresses how, with no succession plan in place, most township businesses usually die with their founders — or never survive long enough to create generational wealth for the family. After mentoring her son Senzo Mhlongo for two years – teaching him some of the business lessons he may not have come across at varsity, Zwane handed the reins to him in 2016. She now busies herself with new passions – collecting properties to fast-track their vision of growing their footprint in every province, as well as running the MaZwane Foundation. “I shed blood, sweat and tears for 20 years so I could leave behind a legacy. I formalised the foundation last year, and have instructed my children that I would like it to outlive me. Its mandate is to inspire, educate and empower, with a special focus on early childhood development, and grooming entrepreneurs,” she enthuses.
Two decades of hard work later, what holds Zwane together? “Visiting my rural home – waking up to the smell of thatch, the sight of cows grazing and the nearby Imbizo River flowing, feeling protected by the most beautiful mountain range, and making a fire from scratch – truly energises me. And, so does reading, seaside holidays as well as watching gospel, cooking and decor channels.”
Book that shaped my entrepreneurial journey...
Your Road Map For Success by John C. Maxwell. I bought the book en route to my first holiday in Cape Town — it was the first time in five years that I had a weekend to myself. In it, I came across the quote: “Winners know what to give up in order to succeed”. I finished the book as I landed back in Joburg, and felt like a bulb had been switched on in my brain. I sold my house to raise the capital I later used to fund the three residential properties where Imbizo Shisanyama stands today.
Book I keep referencing... God Is My CEO: Following God’s Principles in a Bottom-line World by Larry S. Julian. This book is a reminder of God’s overall mercy on my life. Among other things, I’m grateful for how well my son and daughter turned out — even though I wasn’t always present to raise them during their formative years.