“Entrepreneurship is not magic, is not mysterious and has nothing do with genes. It is a discipline, and like any other discipline it can be learned .” Drs Lebusa and Pitso.

Thami Manzi is a passionate, die hard entrepreneur who has managed to build a substantial retail business and achieve a South African first in a small under-developed township. He is also a role model. Not the kind of role model that seeks the limelight or wants to be known as “the man”, the kind that day by day, month by month, year by year, keeps living his values and doing what needs to be done to achieve his dream. Here is his story. 

Thami grew up in a small township called Bophelong in Vanderbijlpark. His father was a Methodist church priest, carpenter and welder and his mother a teacher and housewife. Getting a good education was a challenge for Thami. “We lived in a section of the township which was known for not having any tertiary students. Because my brother and I always worked hard and did very well at school, we were victimised by our neighbours for thinking that we could get ahead in life. When I was in Grade 10, our house was petrol-bombed and we lived in fear for some time because of this.” 

Thami’s entrepreneurial spirit was evident from a young age. “I started my first business and opened my first bank account in Grade six. I charged people to take photographs and began to take care of myself from the income I made.”

In spite of the difficulties, Thami finished school and started at Potchefstroom Univesiteit (now North West University) in 1994. This presented a whole new set of challenges for him. “It was still 50% Afrikaans medium and there were very few black people in classes. I didn’t do well in my first year and my Afrikaans professor said that I would never be able to run a business.

We were victimised by our neighbours for thinking that we could get ahead in life.

I think this made me more determined than ever. There were times during varsity when money was short for food and we would eat fish and ducks from the dam near campus. We also used a friend’s bakkie to hunt in a very unusual way. We would drive out at night and dazzle buck with the headlights and then run them over before skinning and eating them in the veld. I’m sure this violated university policy, but we were hungry!”

When he left varsity, business was the natural choice.  “BEE was just starting and my friends and I as black graduates had many opportunities to take up lucrative positions but I was determined to start my own business.” In 1999, with support and financial assistance from his family, Thami started business as a street vendor selling deli products (Escort hampers), house to house, at schools, in clinics and in municipality offices. In 2000, he started his first retail business called Ola Superstores with a loan of R5000 from a local medical practitioner, Dr. Mkhulu Nkabinde. He started by selling eggs from a 62-square meter outlet and in four years the business grew from sales of less than R 100 per day to three outlets employing 30 people.   

Life was looking good for Thami. Business was booming, he had fallen in love, married and had a child. But in May 2005, he received a phone call that changed everything. “My new wife and my four-month-old baby girl had been tragically killed in a car accident. The pain was unbearable. If it wasn’t for my faith and the support of my family, I would not have made it through. The next few years were the toughest of my life. My business began to suffer and decline. The one shining light was Portia who I met and became engaged to. In 2009, it all came to a head and I lost everything; my retail business, properties, furniture, and friends. I was bankrupt.”

But the dream didn’t die with his bank balance. For three years, he took on salaried positions to help him rebuild, first with the African Dream Trust and then with SEDA. During the day, his wife Portia would run the store and after hours he would take over. “It was incredibly hard work. Long hours and small margins but we kept the dream alive and it began to pay off.” In 2013, Thami returned to Ola full time. Three years later, Ola won the inaugural Township Entrepreneur Awards in the retail and finance category as well as the Inaugural YB20 Youth Awards for Entrepreneur of the year. In 2016, Thami converted his three retail stores into the first full-service Pick n Pay Market Store in a township and is now officially the biggest single employer in Bophelong, with 40 staff. 

Business is a journey and not a sprint

Thami has learned many profound lessons along the way. “Perhaps the toughest lesson was the realization that business is a journey and not a sprint. What I thought I could achieve in five years took me 16 years. Another lesson is to never allow compassion to cloud sound business decisions. In hindsight, I have backed and trusted people I never should have. You have to run a business as a business. Otherwise, everyone loses in the end.” 

Another insight relates to one of Thami’s great passions – developing business in poor communities. “My greatest inspiration is seeing black brothers and sisters rising from the dusty streets of townships and villages and building successful businesses that impact and benefit the communities they operate from. But it’s heartbreakingly difficult. Whilst I was leading the Enterprise Development Programme in Bophelong, I realized that the biggest challenge in township enterprise development is not resources such as access to finance, premises or markets. The biggest challenge is attitude and mindset. So many people who grow up in townships have a survival mentality, they don’t have a belief that they can make it in life. There is an underlying sense of dependency. Unless we can change this, we will never break the curse of poverty.”

For Thami, integrity is everything. He steadfastly refuses to either take or offer bribes. And he has had plenty of opportunities to do both. “For me, life is about building a legacy and making a difference. I am a firm believer that what we do today echoes through eternity.
I would love to be remembered as a great father, a follower of Christ, a visionary and a Kingdom entrepreneur.”