Luck, the first-century Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca is believed to have said, is where the crossroads of opportunity and preparation meet. I wonder what Seneca would have made of Josephine Tshaboeng’s amazing journey. This former domestic worker has managed to preserve the architectural heritage status of what was formally known as the Harmonie Hof Old Age Home, a building she has transformed into Harmony Galz, a female students’ residence in Berea, in downtown Johannesburg.
Tshaboeng is affectionately known as Mam’ Jos by all those she mothers — and this turns out to be dozens of young people who she wants to see make something of themselves through education. A 53-year-old single parent, Tshaboeng was born in the township of Boikhutso in Lichtenburg in North West province. She only completed standard 6 — the equivalent of today’s grade 8 — and describes herself as “an ordinary township girl”. When she was eight her parents divorced and her mother relocated to Botswana with Tshaboeng’s two younger siblings. It was her father, a driver and mechanic at the local garage, who raised her, instilling pride in her and her older sister, despite their poverty.
“Sometimes my father went to work with no shoes on,” she tells me over a cup of coffee and her favourite cheesecake at the Doornfontein McDonald’s Café. “He sacrificed his time for his daughters, gave us the best he could. He taught us how to wash clothes and cook and to work hard for what we have.”
In 1985, with no prospects in Lichtenburg and with children to feed and clothe, Tshaboeng moved to Johannesburg in search of work. She had nowhere to stay; she says she was prepared to do just about any type of honest work. Luck was on her side when, one day, walking through the streets of Norwood she found herself outside the local Pick n Pay. A disabled man she struck up a conversation with told her about two bachelors who were looking for a domestic worker — and that’s when her 15-year journey of servitude began.
Tshaboeng changed jobs several times until she ended up with a long-term employer with whom she finally fell out in 1999. On her last day she was waiting for a bus to take her to work where she planned to leave a resignation note.
“I met this old African-American lady at the bus stop who asked me for the correct bus to her destination,” Tshaboeng says. They ended up having a lengthy chat and the woman asked for Tshaboeng’s address. Three months later, in March 2000, the woman showed up on Tshaboeng’s doorstep and, barely giving her a chance to get ready, took her off to show her Harmonie Hof. When they reached the property the woman put her in touch with the Suid-Afrikaanse Vroue Federasie, which owned the building. Tshaboeng ended up managing the building for five years, until the federation offered to sell it to her for just R450 000.
Struggling to find a bank to fund her Tshaboeng remembered a business card she had been given by an agent for the Trust for Urban Housing Finance (TUHF), a company aimed at providing short- and long-term loans to prospective inner-city property owners.
The organisation, says Pressage Nyoni, TUHF’s liaison officer, focuses on promoting urban regeneration and black economic empowerment through loans ranging from R50 000 to R30-million. It was Nyoni, along with TUHF chief executive Paul Jackson, who helped Tshaboeng to secure the ownership of Harmonie Hof. But her troubles were far from over; the building was later hijacked by errant tenants, who stopped paying rent.
Eviction order after eviction order was quashed, and even with the help of TUHF it took more than three years to get rid of the illegal tenants and squatters. Much of her initial loan was spent on security and court cases.
Like all who have met her, including her children and employees, Nyoni describes Tshaboeng as kind, hardworking and steadfast in her decisions. “At TUHF we only fund people who show passion, and show that they are serious,” says Nyoni. “People need to prove themselves. Josephine’s character was tested through the lengthy process of evicting the hijackers, and she passed our test.”
In June 2009, after Tshaboeng identified the need for additional student accommodation in the area, she was approved for a new multimillion-rand loan and refurbishment began. In 2010 she received a Halala Joburg award from the Johannesburg Development Agency for her contribution towards improving the inner city.
Today she runs her property business with her bubbly daughter, Sandy, who has a human resources diploma and serves as her right-hand woman. Her first-born, Isaac, works as a metallurgical engineer in Middelburg and her second-born son, McDonald, works in the building as a security guard, proudly learning the ropes of managing a business from his mother. Tim, her last-born, is an aspiring civil engineer, still busy with his studies.
Apart from her own children, Tshaboeng also raised a young man called Neo Sthlare, whose father had helped her over the years in Lichtenburg. He has lived with the family since 2003 and now works as a bookkeeper, after completing his studies. Neo moved out this year but Tim remains at home, as does Ratanang Molefe, a 20-year-old whose mother, a family friend, had died and who has been cared for by Tshaboeng since she was about 12. She wants to be a radiographer.
“My children have walked the road with me, always encouraging me and saying, ‘Ma, don’t give up, it will be okay.’ I have taught them the value of hard work.” She says she talks to her children — who range in age from their late 30s to their early 20s — about everything, and says of them: “Their ideas count, not their age. Their opinions count as people.”
Today, Harmony Galz accommodates 130 female students from all over South Africa, all of whom are studying at the University of Johannesburg. The building has single, double and triple rooms and a housemother is employed to look after the young women, together with three cleaners, four security guards and an administrator. Although a somewhat strict family-oriented environment has been created, the individuality and adulthood of the girls are recognised. Some of them say they chose Harmony Galz because of its close proximity to the campus, but most say it’s because it feels like a home away from home, where their parents’ values are reinforced by Mam’ Jos and the housemother.
Tshaboeng’s next project is a men’s residence. But she’s in no hurry — saying she is still learning the ropes on this one. For her retirement, she dreams of a peaceful farm life, away from the city. She can picture herself with cows, talking to her flowers and plants, a welcome rest after growing up in a township and living the fast life in Johannesburg.
— Kay Sexwale