JOHANNESBURG - Preeminent tombstone entrepreneur Lebohang Khitsane says he wants to be known and remembered as the Steve Jobs of the world’s lucrative tombstone industry.
Khitsane, who’s been in business for more than two decades, is founder and chief executive of Bataung Memorial Tombstones in Katlehong, east of Johannesburg.
The business’s tagline: a legacy cast in stone, proves true for Khitsane who has built himself an empire, erecting over 20 000 tombstones in countries including Botswana, Zambia, Lesotho, Kenya, Malawi and Australia.
In South Africa, Khitsane has made a name for himself by designing and erecting extravagant tombstones for the country’s departed celebrities, thus giving a new meaning to going out with a bang.
The celebrities who continue to live on through their elaborate tombstones include musicians Mandoza and Robbie Malinga, racing driver Gugu Zulu, soccer star Shoes Moshoeu, TV personalities Joe Mafela, Vuyo Mbuli and Lindiwe “Doobsie” Chibi, among many others.
He’s designed and manufactured tombstones for prominent figures including Nelson Mandela, former prime minister of Lesotho Leabua Jonathan, and flyweight boxing world champion Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala.
Through his other company, Bataung Legacy, Khitsane has designed and manufactured statues for disco king and reality TV star Papa Penny Penny, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, entrepreneur Richard Maponya and former president Thabo Mbeki.
The tombstones range from R3 650 up to a cool R1 million. Khitsane granted Business Report an interview at his company headquarters in Katlehong, in between eating full English breakfast at his desk and taking calls and reading text messages on his cellphone.
“I’m innovative, I’m passionate. I love what I do and I’m the best! I want to be known as the Steve Jobs of the tombstone industry,” says Khitsane.
He established Bataung Memorial Tombstones in 2004. “We started small, doing basic tombstones. I conducted research to try and understand the industry better,” he says.
“I analysed what people really wanted and refined my strategies and designs. Gugu Zulu’s tombstone is the first in the world to have Braille.”
Khitsane admits that he doesn’t know how he came up with his business idea for tombstones. “I used to be in clothing and printing and graphics. This creativity just comes. Some designs come at night when I’m sleeping.”
In 2014, Khitsane bought out his major competitor West Hyper Tombstones. “They were one of the leading tombstone manufacturers in the country. They have done stones for Zodwa Khoza, Oliver and Adelaide Tambo, Eric Molobi and quite a number of high profile South Africans.”
He says the white-owned company couldn’t keep up with Bataung Memorial Tombstones. “They approached me and said, ‘Morena, don’t you want to buy us?’ I offered to buy them.”
Khitsane reveals that he is currently working on statue marking Mandela’s 100 years. “We also did one for Cristiano Ronaldo. We are talking to the embassy to deliver it to Spain.”
He says he had to cancel his other business interests and focus on building Bataung Memorial Tombstones, which has branches in Soweto, Tembisa, Vosloorus, Jane Furse, Tzaneen, Polokwane, Pretoria, Qwaqwa and Lesotho.
Khitsane’s passion for elaborate tombstones has taken him to some of the best cemeteries in the world to see what other tombstone entrepreneurs are doing.
“I’ve been to more than 30 cemeteries in Queens in New York, Atlanta in Georgia, Forest Lawn Memorial Park in California where Michael Jackson is buried. I’ve been to cemeteries in Paris, Verona and Rome in Italy, and Xiamen in China.”
He says one of his tombstones would be going to the US at the end of the month.
Khitsane is also a philanthropist and gives back to the community through many initiatives including funding underprivileged university students, giving out food hampers to over 1000 Katlehong families every December, and hosting events for the elderly and orphanages. He also donates tombstones to and funds the funerals of the less privileged.
Last year, he played a crucial role in the building of the Lutheran Church in Katlehong by footing 70 percent of the bill.
Khitsane, who also mentors young entrepreneurs and provides them with business opportunities, says his ultimate plan is to franchise the Bataung Memorial Tombstones brand.
“I can’t divide myself. I want to give others an opportunity. We’ve got the designs and experience. Entrepreneurs must buy into the franchise so that the brand grows,” he says.
- BUSINESS REPORT