View Gallery From Shipping Container to the Mall of Thembisa

In a move that is testament to how critical the township economy has become to the empowerment of South Africans while still recognising our unique cultural heritage, Imbizo Shisanyama will be opening its fourth venue in the newly launched Mall of Thembisa on Friday, 20 November.

This international recognition of a homegrown township business that began on a dusty street corner in Ivory Park by serial entrepreneur and author of Conquering the Poverty of the Mind, Rita Zwane in 1997, highlights how important it is for people to always be open to new possibilities even in difficult economic times.

“Opportunities do not only come around when market conditions are favourable. Even when things seem impossible, there is always hope. When developer Jason McCormick, CEO of McCormick Property Development (MPD) approached me with this opportunity, it was the culmination of a dream I have had since launching Imbizo Shisanyama. Despite the lockdown and the uncertainty around the future of the COVID-19 pandemic, I could not ignore this chance because I know things will change in the future,” says Zwane, affectionately known as maZwane.

She says that it was always her dream to take Africa’s Ultimate Braai Experience into a newly developed shopping centre in the township, but up to now multinational developers did not afford homegrown township businesses the opportunity and would rather go with the usual national tenants.

“Moving into the Mall of Thembisa is ground-breaking in many ways. Not only will the Imbizo Shisanyama here be the Ultimate Expression of the Experience: Home of Legends and Afropolitans, but it shows how this township-grown product is finally recognised in the global food and beverage sector. It delivers an African experience that celebrates our culture and heritage while still keeping close to my roots in cultivating a local value chain,” she adds.

It is through this value chain where maZwane wants to leave a legacy. For her, it is important to use people from the community in everything that Imbizo Shisanyama does. Examples of this include relying on home-grown produce, using local cleaning services, braai masters and car guards, the list goes on.

“From the start, I was focused on leaving something for generations to come. It is about integrating all aspects of the value chain – from our fiercely loyal patrons all the way to those who supply us with produce – into a uniquely African experience that exudes style, class, and dignity.”

The design and setup of this 44 911sqm mall located in the sprawling township of Thembisa incorporates a hyper-local mind-set, where customers are seen as so much more than just a consumer. The key question MPD wants to know when it starts a development is “How do we empower local communities to be part of the development” says Jason McCormick.

Through its local first principle more than 75% of construction work done on the Mall of Thembisa was completed by the people from the community. Breaking the mould of traditional retail development, the mall incorporates several pioneering social and community-based initiatives. This includes the prominent positioning of Imbizo Shisanyama that will provide a triple level, authentically African culinary experience within the mall.

“Normally, multinationals come into a township and just look to make as much money as possible without even recognising the community and what it has done to create a thriving economy there. For example, many taxi ranks do not even feature proper ablution blocks. It is simply a case of ticking a box and moving on. MPD’s approach is vastly different. They took the needs of the community very seriously and is providing emerging entrepreneurs the opportunity to be part of the mall through the Kasi-Colab where they will have rent-free space to display and sell their wares,” she says.

The importance of the township economy is underscored by Steven Zwane, the founder and chairperson of Youth Leadership & Entrepreneurship Development (YLED).

“Rita has had the audacity to disrupt the male-dominated food and beverage industry and the resilience to persevere even when a slew of challenges came her way. Hers is a story of a liberated woman who sought to be productive in one of the harshest operating environments,” says Zwane.

He goes on to state that while the township economy may not have reached its full potential, innovative entrepreneurs like maZwane have become the backbone of this economy and can provide other aspiring entrepreneurs with valuable lessons.

“We can learn a lot from MaZwane and others like her, and hopefully inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs who will take the baton from them and build corporations, whose roots can be traced back to townships,” concludes Zwane.