Johannesburg - When she was 18 years old, Gugu Mbatha asked her grandmother to allow her to quit school.
Born in Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal, she had attended Emnambithi Primary School, which is on the banks of the uThukela River.
Like 8% of South African children that live in what are termed skip-generation households, she was raised by her grandmother.
For those 18 years of her life, she had seen her grandmother struggle, as she tried to put food on the table and educate her, stretching a social welfare grant to its limits.
At the tail end of her teenage years, Mbatha decided that she had seen enough. She would no longer be any extra mouth for her grandmother to feed.
“My grandmother used to pay my fees with her grant but at some point she couldn’t afford it. I then asked to drop out of school when I was in Standard Nine to go and find a job,” she said, adding that she would occasionally visit her parents.
At such a tender age, Mbatha knew what she had to do. She had her sights set on Joburg, the famous city of gold, where her own glittering dreams could finally come true.
“I moved to Joburg in 1988 and stayed with relatives. I got a job that paid me R75 per week at a filling station in Soweto. Every time I served someone driving a nice car, I’d tell them that one day I would drive a beautiful car,” she said.
Mbatha has come a long way from those desperate days in the late 1980s when she had to leave her three month old toddler at home and go into the mean streets of Jozi just to make ends meet.
She is now the chief executive of Mfanyana Security, a portfolio that employs as many as 200 people. From the backwaters of Estcourt, she has managed to craft a remarkable rags to riches story, pulling herself up by the proverbial bootstraps to the top of the pyramid in a dog eat dog industry.
Just how did she do it?
According to her, a single-minded ambition to succeed at all costs drove her desire to one day own the finer things in life she saw other people parading while she was at work.
“While working at the filling station I was approached by a group of taxi owners to manage their taxis. I would do their banking and that gave me the desire to want to own a taxi.
“I then approached one of the taxi owners and asked if I could buy one of his cars that looked a bit old. He didn’t charge me much so I was able to pay it off in about 12 months,” said Mbatha.
She might have left school in Standard Nine but she never stopped learning.
Around the men in the ruthless taxi business, she was like a sponge sucking up all their business knowledge.
“I kept learning from these men. That experience taught me to manage finances,” she said.
While Jozi was witness to her bloom, Mbatha said she had started to flower as an enterprising person much earlier. It was in the classrooms back in Emnambithi Primary School where the businesswoman was actually born.
“I used to boil eggs, make sandwiches and pick peaches at home, put them in a plastic and sell them,” said Mbatha.
Just as she left Estcourt, it would soon be time for Mbatha to leave the taxi industry.
Before that could happen however, a seed had to be planted. One bright day, her friend Nthabiseng Keroane told her that, given her success in the taxi industry, she could perhaps prosper in the security business.
With those words, she had just provided the inspiration for a business that with time, would have a 200-strong staff complement.
While Keroane had always acknowledged her friend’s drive and ambition, she admits that she never thought she would take it this far.
“When I came up with the idea of the security company I never really knew it would turn out this big. She embraced it and ran with it and I’m so proud of her. It teaches me that everyone has their God-given path and God will do whatever it takes to make sure they find that path and sometimes he will use people,” Keroane said.
When she started, Mbatha only had a staff complement of 16 people but with every new contract signed, she saw the number of people under her employ grow larger and larger.
Today the company employs 200 people.
The 53-year-old Mbatha attributes all her achievements to the ability to learn from the people and environment around her.
Mbatha is proud that while she was never educated, through her sweat, her four children have been able to get an education she never had.
“My mother made our learning experience exciting, she would always provide everything we needed,” said her daughter, Noluthando Mazibuko, who is studying law at a local university.
Mbatha long accepted it as a stroke of fate that she was never able to further her education. In fact, she believes that had she been formally educated, she could not have achieved some of the things that she has gone on to achieve.