Trek4Mandela climbers join locals in a Sunday ascent of Joburg’s notorious Westcliff Stairs, all 200 of them. The reward, as you catch your breath and head down for the next set, is the view. Picture: Kevin Ritchie

Richard Mabaso remembers the day like it was yesterday. It was Christmas 2011 and the young man had gone home to his village of Luphisi, outside Nelspruit, in Mpumalanga.

His niece was speaking to his mother.  She was complaining about being in pain. She didn't know what was happening.

“My niece was starting her period for the first time and when my mom worked out what was happening, she shushed her in front of her uncle and took her out of the room to speak to her privately.

“When I found out what was happening, I was very sad. It hit home. She came from a relatively privileged background by our standards, a roof over her head and an older relative, me, who worked, but she didn't have sanitary pads and I, who could afford to buy her them, would never have thought of going down the feminine hygiene aisle at a supermarket.

“What she needed was someone she could have a conversation with… so I started a campaign to change all that.”

That campaign involved climbing Kilimanjaro, but more of that later.

Mabaso, 37, is a social entrepreneur. Most people who grow up with nothing often end up using it as an excuse to do nothing. With him it was the other way round.

When he finished school, he didn't have the financial wherewithal to go to university so together with a group of former schoolmates he started helping others, dong a bit of gardening, growing fruit, selling it. 

The group was befriended by an old wood carver, Darada Nkosi, who taught them everything he knew as well as a bit of veldcraft and a master’s class on the flora and fauna of the area. They ended up importing masks from neighbouring Swaziland and – encouraged by one of the local councillors – put on exhibitions at the Mbombela municipality.

All the time, he was meeting people and getting them to help his own.

He approached a local game lodge, Bongani Mountain Lodge in Kaapmuiden, and persuaded the owners to let his group run a food garden. Before long, he’d been offered a two-year internship. There were 10 people on the course and he finished top both years, getting his first ever trip out of Mpumalanga – to Paris courtesy of Moët & Chandon, and then the following year to the US and Canada where he ended up doing a course.

“I fell in love with travel and hospitality, but Canada really opened my mind. I learnt that you might have grown up in a village, but out in the world no one really cares about that. For me it meant that whenever I found myself in a situation that put me at a disadvantage, I would just find a way of getting out of it and leveling the playing fields.”

At Bongani Lodge, he’d learnt to make beds, unblock toilets, work behind the bar and even cook. The one thing he'd never done was work on the safari side, although he'd met a friend there who would play a major role later in this life, Sibusiso Vilane.

Mabaso never finished the two-year internship, because he was headhunted to go to Maritzburg to work on a community charity project, the Wildlands Conservation Trust.

It was 2003 and it was the first time he’d ever left Mpumalanga to go anywhere else in the country, apart from Gauteng. 

He registered at the University of Zululand to study development studies, qualified and then decided to go home and replicate the charity there. 

A friend of his cautioned him to rather study further, so in 2010 he registered at a GIBS business school in Johannesburg for a certificate in social entrepreneurship; this, too, broadened his network of contacts.

By now, working with a Briton whom he’d met at the Wildlands Trust, Duncan Burman, and who would become his mentor, Mabaso was regularly hosting young business leaders in South Africa and from abroad on the community leg of their leadership fellowships.

It was to this network that he turned when he wanted to launch the campaign that today is known as Caring4Girls, breaking the social taboos around menstruation and ensuring that no girls would miss school due to not having access to sanitary pads.

He immediately came up against a brick wall wherever he turned.

“I wrote proposals, I asked for donations of sanitary pads, but I would always be asked ‘why are you doing this if you’re a man?’”

Mabaso became quite despondent.

“Then I had a light-bulb moment, I thought I'd climb Kilimanjaro for the girl children and drive publicity for the campaign. I called Sibusiso (who in 2003 had become the first black African mountaineer to summit Everest) and he said ‘sure, let’s try it out’.

“I hung up the phone and the excitement was starting to mount. A few days later, I phoned the Nelson Mandela Foundation to tell them I wanted to climb the mountain and summit on his birthday, in his honour and to publicise the plight of poor girl children.”

The foundation invited Mabaso to attend one of its regular stakeholder meetings to make his pitch formally. It worked and the foundation has been on board ever since the first climb in July 2012 – seven months after Mabaso decided to change the world. 

They’re not the only ones. Bongani Mountain Lodge (through one of the directors: Steffen Schneier) and former speaker of KZN Legislature, Peggy Nkonyeni, who gave Mabaso and Vilane their starts, have been there since the beginning, along with The Banking Association South Africa with whom Mabaso had been working with their CSI 

“When we climbed in 2012, there were two of us, but the support we received meant that by the time we came back to South Africa, we could support three schools. I realised then that I was on to something.”

Picture: Kevin Ritchie

The next year, the two were joined by a Nigerian. The following year, 10 summited, including rapper ProVerb, on what was now known as Trek4Mandela, with the summit scheduled for July 18 each year.

“By 2015, this was exploding. We had 37 climbers. Summiting Kilimanjaro was not fashionable in some sectors of our society, but when Sibusiso started speaking about it in his corporate talks around the country it really started taking off.

“For this one we had executives from the IDC, Thebe Investment Corporation, Vodacom and media personalities such as Leanne Manas, Gerry Elsdon, Jack Devnarain, Penny Lebyane and ProVerb who was summiting for the second time.  Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang also summited for the first time that year.”

Then ordinary South Africans came forward and asked to be part of the process, ticking it off on their bucket list and “paying it forward”. The biggest Trek4Mandela was in 2016 with 42 climbers; it was also the year that rally driver Gugu Zulu died during the expedition. The next year, his widow Letshego conquered the mountain in honour of his memory.

This year, the centenary of Mandela’s birth, Mabaso is hoping to have at least 67 climbers summit in two ascents.

Summiting Kilimanjaro as part of Trek4Mandela costs R85 000 and R15 000 of this is a straight donation to the Caring4Girls campaign – each climber will automatically support 100 girls with sanitary pads for a minimum of 12 months (one year). 

The rest of the costs are the usual Tanzanian summit fees, transport, kit, accommodation – as well as a fairly intensive training schedule.  
One of the biggest partners in the Caring4Girls campaign has been local pharmacy giant Dis-Chem. Each year since 2015, the group has hosted its Million Comforts drive, encouraging its clients and shoppers to buy sanitary pads which are either discounted or matched in kind, and then given to Caring4Girls for distribution to participating schools.

“We’ve helped 360 000 girls in over 450 schools since we began the project,” says Mabaso. “I’ll never forget when (TV personality) Gerry Elsdon climbed Kilimanjaro in 2015. She said: ‘I’m climbing Kili so all the girls in my country will have one less mountain to climb every month.’ That’s as true today as it was then.”

* For  more about Trek4Mandela or donate towards Caring4Girls,  contact Nkateko Mabale on email: [email protected] or call: +27 (0) 11 883 0379