A NEVER-SAY-NEVER attitude combined with an odd mix of characters and co-incidences has turned one-time domestic worker Josephine Tshaboeng into a first-time entrepreneur. Think fairy godmother and insurmountable odds minus the quick-fix of a magic wand and you have all the ingredients for a modern-day fairytale playing itself out right here in the heart of Joburg.

Halala 2010 winner, Josephine Tshaboeng with MMC for development planning and urban management, Ros Greeff and CEO for JDA, Lael BethlehemHalala 2010 winner, Josephine Tshaboeng with MMC for development planning and urban management, Ros Greeff and CEO for JDA, Lael Bethlehem
Fifty-one-year-old Tshaboeng’s journey as entrepreneur in the making began over 10 years ago and culminated in her walking off with a Johannesburg Development Agency Halala Joburg Award on 12 May this year.

Received in the category Not Houses But Homes for individual investors, Tshaboeng finds herself today in the company of successful investors such as Afhco Holdings and Olitzky Properties.

But hers is not a sweet bedtime story; it is rather a story of love and determination.

“If you love something it becomes your baby. I was just loving my baby. You win the battle with love,” she recalls, thinking back to how she fought for the survival of her beloved building, Harmony Galz in Saratoga Avenue, Berea.

Looking for work
It was the year 2000 and Tshaboeng had just given up her job as a domestic worker after a wage dispute with her employer. Upset and despondent, this single mother of four was once again pounding the streets, in search of her umpteenth job since moving to Joburg from Lichtenburg in 1985.

But while waiting for her bus home one day, a chance encounter with an elderly African-American woman changed her life forever. She laughs with unrestrained delight as she recalls what took place as a result of this brief meeting. Three months after she met this foreigner, the old lady appeared out of the blue once again, this time below her flat window.

Josephine Tshaboeng with one of her tenants, Dikeledi Ramara in the cozy reception areaJosephine Tshaboeng with one of her tenants, Dikeledi Ramara in the cozy reception area
Not quite the fairy godmother of tales of old. Hurry, she told Tshaboeng, and don’t worry about bathing and brushing your teeth. They needed to go somewhere quickly, she urged Tshaboeng.

Tshaboeng found herself in front of “her building”. At that time it was called Harmony Hof and was an old-age home that had been standing empty for a number of years. The woman asked her to look around to see if she would be able to “run this place”. Again, Tshaboeng laughs with abandon. “I thought to myself: what am I going to do here?”

But another voice was making itself heard inside her: “My madam used to say, never say never.”

Once outside, she found herself signing a contract on behalf of the woman with the Suid-Afrikaanse Vroue Federasie to run Harmony Hof as a business venture. The older woman was considered to be too advanced in age and needed a representative, and Tshaboeng stood in “as her daughter”, she says, again breaking into a laugh as she recalls the weirdness of the situation.

As part of the agreement, Tshaboeng and the woman had to come up with R70 000 as a deposit. But the older woman had no money Tshaboeng quickly realised, and as the signatory on the contract, Tshaboeng was therefore solely responsible for the financing. And, as is so often the case with fairy godmothers, the older woman vanished from Tshaboeng’s life forever, never to be seen or heard from again, her role in the drama clearly completed.

Filling up the place
Tshaboeng can now look back and laugh, recalling how she went about filling up Harmony Hof with tenants, virtually in just one day. She could not believe she had put herself in such a predicament and recalls how she just started “doing it” with “things just happening”.

First, she had to make the place presentable and for this she asked 10 street children hanging out nearby to help her to clean the building. She had no idea how she was going to pay these kids at the end of the day, she remembers. But it seems, even these children were sent to her for a good reason as they came up with a solution to her problem.

They advised her to write posters for Harmony Hof on pieces of paper which were then put up all over the inner city flatlands of Berea and Hillbrow, advertising the building as rental accommodation. Within a couple of hours, people were calling and the place was almost full. And Tshaboeng had enough money to pay the deposit, draw her first salary and pay the street children.

She ended up managing the building for the Suid-Afrikaanse Vroue Federasie for five years, and did it so successfully that the organisation offered to sell her the building in 2005. However, even at the bargain price of R450 000, she could not find a bank willing to fund her.

It was then that she remembered a business card from a Trust for Urban Housing Finance (TUHF) agent she had put away in a drawer with other “rubbish” more than three years earlier. On looking in this drawer, she was quickly able to find the card, still among the scraps of paper and other things usually stored for no reason whatsoever. Finally, with the help of TUHF funding, Tshaboeng became the owner of Harmony Hof in 2005.

Her troubles were far from over, however. In fact, they were only beginning, she remembers. “You know, success doesn’t come straight to you,” she says, her face adopting its ready smile once more. As the area started going into decline, her building was hijacked and tenants stopped paying rent.

Conditions worsened and it became more and more dangerous to venture into the area. Eviction order after eviction order was squashed by clever lawyers. Tshaboeng’s financial status became dire.

Loving it like a child
But she could not let go. What kept her going was her love for this building, she says. “You know, I really fell in love with this place. It was part of me.” But more importantly, her children always supported her, especially during the difficult times.

A double bedroom in the buildingA double bedroom in the building
“Mom look where you have come from. Don’t discourage yourself when you are almost there,” they would remind her. “Mom, you can do it,” they would say.

Again she approached TUHF, this time to help her with the removal off the illegal tenants and the refurbishment of the entire building. TUHF approved a loan of R1-million, with much of the money going towards security and court cases, but in June 2009 refurbishment of the building finally began.

Today, she houses 128 female students in Harmony Galz, the new name for the building. The “Galz” part of the name refers to girls, so called because Tshaboeng only takes in females. The students call this home from home and Tshaboeng makes sure she is on the premises daily, not just to oversee her investment, but also to be a mother for her girls, she says.

Harmony Galz offers accommodation in triple, double and single quarters with full ablution facilities available on each floor. There is also a communal kitchen and laundry facilities, and a special “chill” area for the students. Ample parking space is available and Tshaboeng is planning to create a grassed area in front of the building for outdoors leisure.

Hers is a fairytale, for sure, agrees George Chauke, a portfolio manager at TUHF. “She’s cooking. We think she is ready for her next project.”

Tshaboeng’s adopts her smile once more and nods her head affirmatively. “I am ready,” she agrees.

About TUHF
The Trust for Urban Housing Finance provides short- and medium-term loans to property entrepreneurs looking to buy or improve residential rental buildings in South Africa’s inner cities. The organisation focuses on projects that promote urban regeneration and/or black economic empowerment, with loans from as little as R50 000 to as much as R30-million.

Story: City of Johannesburg