Lebo Malepa’s experience in tourism was gained on Soweto’s Vilakazi Street, selling crafts back in 1997, when the world was fascinated by the “Rainbow Nation” and the Mandela and Tutu vision.
He met all kinds of travellers and learned that some of them were interested in experiencing more of Soweto than just a view from the window of a tour bus.
“People wanted to sleep overnight in Soweto, so I offered them my grandparents’ house in Orlando West,” Malepa says.
He was taken by friends to a backpacker’s lodge in the Drakensberg and, for the first time, he saw something similar to what he was trying to do in Soweto, he says.
Since 2003, Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers has grown to the point where it employs 40 staff members and offers 10 different types of accommodation, including camping and privateand family rooms. Most of his clientele hail from overseas.
“Backpackers have changed stereotypes; guests can walk to Vilakazi Street and we don’t have to warn them about safety. They feel very safe,” Malepa says.
He credits tourists for changing parts of Orlando West. He says people have seen the rewards associated with visitors and have planted trees and tried to beautify their homes to show off the community.
Soweto is one South Africa’s key tourist destinations, with Cape Town and the Kruger National Park. Its history in the struggle against apartheid and being the largest township in South Africa, as well as being home to late president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, make it a major drawcard.
Malepa cites red tape as a major challenge in his rise from a street seller to entrepreneur. Compliance was difficult because he was hosting people in his grandparents’ home, which he did not own.
He is inspired by Sol Kerzner, the business magnate who founded Sun City, and hopes to be an example to the current generation — starting off in the streets and becoming “an empire”.
Malepa sees the tourist of the future as becoming more conscious and reflective about climate change. He says tourism operators should respond to this by limiting carbon emissions and promoting responsible travel.