Tribute to the late Michael Magcaleka Jwambi

In 1997, the Free Market Foundation recognised the achievements of an exceptional entrepreneur. As the year comes to an end, it is fitting that we honour him and acknowledge his courage and clarity of vision. A tribute prepared by Cape Town director, Temba Nolutshungu, follows:

Michael Jwambi was no ordinary mortal. I knew him well, but in giving this account of his life, I have made a conscious effort to be as objective as possible so that who he was, what he meant to the people and how he dealt with the trials and tribulations of his life can serve to inspire and encourage those among us who feel in need of moral guidance in difficult times.

On 12 November 2008 Michael, who was 55 years old, was gunned down at point blank range by an unknown gunman/marksman at his funeral parlour in Khayelitsha. It is important to tell his story so that we can begin to fathom the meaning of his death and the magnitude of the act that ended his life so suddenly and so brutally.

Michael arrived in Cape Town in 1972. He worked first as a cleaner and then as a farm labourer. While on the farm he taught himself to drive and that enabled him to be employed as a bus driver. In 1981 he lost his leg in a bus accident (though he was not driving the bus at the time). When he recovered, despite a severe and awkward limp, he did vehicle maintenance and administration for various bus companies, including Elite Bus Services. His workplace experiences convinced him that he should explore business opportunities for himself and never work for anyone ever again.

In 1985 with R500 stock and a reserve of R200, Michael embarked on his first private venture – a spaza shop in a shack in Khayelitsha. He and his wife named the shop “Lingelethu” (our striving). He started out with a humble daily profit of R4, but his turnover soon exceeded R200 per day. When he realised there was potential for the business to do far better, he dismantled the shack and built a solid double storey corrugated iron and timber structure which comprised a supermarket below and living quarters above, where the family retired at the end of the day. The supermarket was renamed “Sivuyile” (we are happy) and soon it employed eight people, then ten, and then twelve.

Around this time Michael helped set up the Khayelitsha Business Association with Victor Mbauli as chairman. The association comprised pioneering entrepreneurs, the likes of which we may never see in the townships again. They were fiercely independent and worked long and dangerous hours. They were targeted by ruthless and murderous criminals at a time when assault rifles were ubiquitous and often in the wrong hands and the police were perceived as impotent in dealing with crime.

Spurred on by the success of his first business, in 1990 Michael expanded his activities into milk delivery. This business grew to employ twenty people and boasted a fleet of ten trucks, which delivered fresh produce to Khayelitsha, Langa, Gugulethu and Crossroads.

On 21 January 1993 Michael suffered a great personal tragedy. His supermarket in Khayelitsha was attacked by gunmen firing R4 and AK47 rifles. Not satisfied with shooting at the occupants, the attackers set the building alight using paraffin and gas tanks from the shop. When the explosions were over and the relentless shooting ended, Michael was the only one to emerge alive. His wife, son, daughter, brother, sister-in-law, nephew, niece and his youngest child, aged just nine months, perished in the fire. Michael always talked about his late wife Siziwe in superlative terms. She was hard-working with an entrepreneurial zeal that was second to none.

Some time later Michael rebuilt his primary business amongst the ashes, on exactly the spot where the tragedy had occurred. I named him the Phoenix. Soon he established another supermarket in Mfuleni, as well as a fishery and a gas retail outlet. He employed a total of twenty-seven people.

Another tragedy befell him when he temporarily lost the use of his left arm as a result of an armed robbery. Michael told me that the gunmen had held him up at his business and demanded that he open the safe. Michael refused to open his own safe for robbers. He handed them the keys. They demanded again that he open it himself. He refused so they shot him in the arm in an attempt to terrorise him into submission. Michael told them that they could finish him off, but he was not going to open it. They left afterwards after opening it themselves.

In 1997 Michael was awarded the coveted Free Market Award by the Free Market Foundation. Later, his entrepreneurial achievements and fortitude in the face of adversity were recognised by the award of other prizes.

With his second wife, Alice, a graduate of the University of the Western Cape, Michael established the first funeral parlour in the Western Cape to be located within a black township. He then played a crucial role in the establishment of the Unicity Funeral Directors’ Association in 2001. In the midst of this excitement, Michael’s younger brother Zukisa was gunned down in 2003 in a robbery at the very shop that Michael had helped him set up. As if that was not enough, his wife Alice succumbed to breast cancer in 2007.

I recall a visit to his funeral parlour in 2005, in the company of colleagues. As he related some of the major highlights of his life, I saw him shed a tear for the first time as he wondered aloud why all these things had happened to him. We both broke down. How does one account for such cruelty and loss?

However Michael did not indulge in self-pity. He was a deeply religious man and he gave practical effect to his faith. He belonged to the Church of the Assembly of God. After the death of his younger brother he established a gospel-singing group called Youth in Action, which went on to release five CDs. He seemed to remain serene in the face of unspeakable loss.

A self-made man, his is the classic rags to riches story. Michael’s business achievements were anchored in the principles of personal responsibility and integrity, in an unshakeable belief that people can rise above their socio-economic circumstances, that they only need space or be allowed to create space. Despite having been on the receiving end of the harsh apartheid laws Michael believed in himself and that self-confidence and faith resided in every person. It is for me a real wonder that a man who had experienced so much hardship and pain still had the capacity to forgive and could find the energy and fortitude to start all over again. It is unacceptable that he should meet his end in this manner. His life is indeed a story of the triumph of the human soul against all odds.

It is fitting that he be saluted in this extract from the immortal poem of William E Henley:

Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed...

It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul

Michael is survived by his eight children and broader family. His funeral was held at Willowvale in the Eastern Cape on 22 November.

Hamba kakuhle Zondi! Ntsele!

Temba A Nolutshungu
Free Market Foundation

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