I recently went to South Africa on a work assignment and was met at Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo Airport by a gentleman called George for the transfer to my hotel.George is a Bulgarian who came to South Africa in 1994 aged twenty-eight years with just $500 dollars in his pocket. He had just left the army after being tired of the growing sense of helplessness and poverty in a struggling economy following the collapse of the Soviet Eastern Bloc at the tail end of the last decade. He landed at Johannesburg’s airport and asked the first taxi driver to take him to the cheapest hotel he knew. That hotel ended up being in Hillbrow, a rough, crime ridden Johannesburg suburb where his was the only white face for miles around. Armed with his $500 and ten or so words of English which included “cheap hotel” he walked around the neighborhood and bought a map so that he could get a lay of the land, as he wanted to figure out what he could do to earn a living. After walking for several blocks that took him beyond the confines of the dangerous Hillbrow zone, he found a butcher’s shop owned by a Serbian. Speaking Russian, which was a secondary language for former Eastern Bloc countries, George was able to find that therewere other Bulgarians who were working as food delivery riders for Nandos.
“I only knew two things: the map of Johannesburg and how to ride a motorcycle,” he said with a chuckle as he proceeded to tell me how he found that his country mates, ten in number, all lived in one house and welcomed him with open arms. They told him that all he had to do was buy a motorcycle and they would introduce him to the owner of the Nandos restaurant so that he could get a job as a delivery guy, which didn’t require much English. He spent his few remaining dollars to buy a second hand motorcycle and began working. After a few yearshe moved to work at another Bulgarian’s coffee shop, who eventually sold the restaurant to him which he ran successfully and subsequently sold in 2002.
A random chat he had with an acquaintance led him to discover that hotels in Johannesburg’s commercial district of Sandton were looking for clean, executive vehicles to transfer their guests to the airport. He bought a Mercedes Benz, “I incentivized the concierges in the hotels to call me whenever a guest wanted to go to the airport,” he said. George now has over 30 luxury vehicles and, according to him, he’s made a lot of money from the transport business as he has a few blue chip South African companies on retainer to transfer their executives.
“What are your key lessons?” I asked him as we approached my hotel. He looked straight ahead, lost in deep thought and I almost thought he hadn’t heard my question. Sighing loudly he answered after about a minute. “I’ve never taken my family on holiday ever,” he said. The intensity of the business has never permitted him to take a day off. “To get one really good and responsible driver, I have to endure almost fifty recruits,” he said. George speaks good English now and his two children are playing competitive tennis, with his eldest son representing South Africa at junior global tennis meets. But he is well aware that the tenuous socio-economic threads that bind the rainbow nation can easily become undone. His family fell victim to armed robbers at their home a few years ago. “I want my children to finish school and then will see where to go from here,” he summarized as we pulled up at the entrance to my hotel.
George’s story is one of sheer gumption, hard work and the power of drawing on traditional social networks to grow himself into a successful business owner. But that growth, as he ruefully ruminates, has come at great personal cost to the quality of life with his family, children in particular as they only have a few more years before they move on to university. Time, particularly quality family time, is a precious commodity that absolutely no money can buy was my conclusion as I stepped out of that interesting discourse.