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A Ride From A Taxi Driver To Legal Eagle

Siphile Buthelezi taxied people around to get himself through university. The journeys ended in his successful law firm.



We wait 20 minutes before Siphile Buthelezi walks into his offices in Sandton sporting a tailored suit. On his table is a pile of documents and files of more than 20 clients of his law business. Not too bad for a young man who grew up in a squatter camp, in Clermont, in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.

“I start my day by going to the gym, then come to the office to check emails, draft legal opinions and, if it’s a day for litigation, I go to court. If I have board meetings I don’t even come to the office, and once I’m done I come and work until midnight,” says Buthelezi, Co-founder and Managing Director of Buthelezi Vilakazi Inc, a corporate and commercial law firm.

Buthelezi talks fast, with his hands, and has many stories to tell of his short but eventful 34 years of life.

“I’m the eldest of three children and we stayed in a one-roomed shack. So, we’d sleep on a mattress on the floor and my parents slept on the bed. So we would hear everything that happened at night,” he says.

His mother, a domestic worker, desperately wanted her son to be educated, and his father, a construction worker, walked him to school.

“My dad didn’t go to school at all. Even today, he can’t write; for him to write his name he needs to look at his ID but what I admire about him is he valued education,” says Buthelezi.

“My mom would come home, and it still pains me that she’d come with what was supposed to be her lunch at work, four slices of bread, and say this was supposed to be my lunch I brought it for you guys.”

According to Buthelezi, the environment made him want to be a gangster.

“In the squatter camp environment; you get exposed to different people and things, for example there’s a sheeben next door and sometimes you find that your understanding of a successful person is a thug who drives a nice car,” says Buthelezi.

Instead Buthelezi left school for music.

“Growing up I did music and danced for kwaito stars, Mzambiya and Msawawa. I enjoyed it but I knew I couldn’t do it for free,” he says.

This led to him buying a bus ticket to Johannesburg.

“I remember at the time a ticket was R100 (around $7.50), so my group and I came here for more gigs and at some point I wanted to be a full time musician.”

Johannesburg changed his mind.

“What was interesting is that when I got to meet more celebrities I realized their lives are not as glamourous as they make it out to be. There was a group called Tribe, one of the members asked us for R5 and for me that was a shock because I’d see these people on T.V. and then one of them was asking us for money. It was a wake-up call,” says Buthelezi.

Buthelezi went home and toiled at a construction company where his father worked. He used his money from music money to register at university. Luckily his mom’s employer also helped.

“My mom packed my bags and took me to the bus station, she gave me R20 and these are the words I’ll never forget, ‘my son this is all I have but there’s one thing I know, God will be with you’. She had tears of joy that I was starting at varsity but also because she couldn’t give me more,” says Buthelezi.

For Buthelezi, going to university was a dream. He knew he’d be better off at campus than at home.

“In the squatter camps people play music until the early hours of the morning. How are you going to study?”

It was four years of struggle, especially with English.

“Having studied at a public school, and not a model C school, there was a culture shock.  And I had to learn everything in English and some of the professors were foreigners who didn’t pronounce words the way they should have,” he says.

As a result, he failed his first test in constitutional law with just 8%. It took him a few months for his grades to improve. Meanwhile the study loan didn’t cover everything.

“I didn’t have money to buy clothes, food and books. I also got a bursary from Cecil Reynolds charity bursary for outstanding academic performer which covered part of my fees,” says Buthelezi.

In his second year, Buthelezi had a plan up his sleeve.

“My plan was to take part of the [student loan] money, get a driver’s license and a professional driving permit. I approached one of the taxi owners; I asked him if he could give me a chance to drive on weekends. I put it in a way that I’d be relieving drivers then I started driving from Friday ‘til Monday. The owner started rotating his drivers and one driver would be off on certain weekends and I’d take over, they’d even bring the taxi to me on campus.”

“In my first load there’s a lady whom I won’t forget, a classmate, when I got into the taxi, she said ‘are we ever going to get where we’re going’.” Buthelezi shakes his heads and grins.

He’d make about $20 a day. His fellow drivers called him Sfundiswa – loosely translated: the learned one.

“I’d carry my books to the rank, and while waiting for my load I would take it out and study and when the taxi is full I’d put it away and drive off to my destination,” he says.

Hardship was just around the corner. It hurt so much when a girlfriend dumped him that he wanted to kill himself.

“I can tell you now I’ve never been heart broken by anyone but that lady. I loved her with all my heart, I wrote her name on each and every book I had.”

Buthelezi met his wife Slindile, a doctor, on Facebook through a friend and realized that their families knew each other.

The years of struggle paid off – a law degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Fresh out of university, Buthelezi was hired as a candidate attorney at Bowman Gilfillan, a large firm based in Johannesburg.

“In my first year of doing articles I paid off the study loan, I did not wait to build a home for my parents, or take care of myself because I knew the difference it made in my life. I knew my first obligation was to think of another Siphile who needs the loan to study,” says Buthelezi.

He spent a year in New York working for Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, a law firm where he worked in the Credit and Capital Markets Departments and at Morgan Stanley, an investment bank.

Later, he built his family a five-roomed house.

In 2015, he started Buthelezi Vilakazi Inc, with Amanda Vilakazi, the company’s Head of Litigation and Dispute Resolution. It has another office in Umhlanga Ridge, in Durban.

“I wanted to do other things, not just law, but get into business that I couldn’t do at the time and to also serve our government in audit committees.”

Buthelezi is also the Co-Founder at RadioVybe, a social media app; Non-Executive Director at South African Airways (SAA); Board Chair at SAA Technical, and Deputy Chair at KZN Growth Fund.

“As a boss, I expect the best from anyone who works for the firm. I expect the best documents to go out to clients.  Clients of the firm are my clients and anyone who works for me needs to treat me as their client. They need to impress me as I impress my clients,” says Buthelezi.

“Never even once undermine any type of work, another person would have said no to taxi driving. Many young people say no to doing odd jobs. In those jobs you meet interesting people; when they see you’re focused, they open doors for you. Opportunities given, grab them with both hands, run and never look back.”

Unlike his first taxi passengers, Buthelezi is certain he will get where he is going.

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Green-Sky Thinking



In Johannesburg, city-dwellers like Linah Moeketsi have taken the future of sustainable farming into their own hands. Where land is becoming scarce, they look to the skies.

Doornfontein is one of Johannesburg’s older inner-city suburbs with decaying buildings and dingy alleys that wear a dour, monochrome look.

Daily commuters and street surfers jostle with delivery vans and mountains of metal scrap but the grey of the concrete city makes it hard to believe that there could be a patch of green in a most unlikely location.

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Above the humdrum of life here is a rooftop hydroponics farm looking down on the city, but upwards to a new route to restoration and urban preservation.

Atop the eight-floor Stanop building – offering a breath-taking view of the city and the landmark Ponte Towers in the distance – one woman has made it her mission to turn a grimy grey terrace into a green lung on the city’s skyline.

“City life is taking on a totally new direction… even people who think they couldn’t one day farm, find themselves on rooftops,” Linah Moeketsi tells FORBES AFRICA.

Moeketsi grows herbs, used to treat non-communicable diseases (NCDs), in a 250m x 500m greenhouse on the building’s terrace. But her rooftop farm is sans any soil – it uses a hydroponics system.

“I think because we are in the city and we would like to produce for people in the city, hydroponic farming is one of the answers because you can actually harvest more than twice the produce, and the growth rate is quicker and there is produce that you can have throughout the year that people demand because it is in a controlled environment,” she says.

On a windy Wednesday morning in October, we meet Moeketsi at her aerial green facility, a couple of days before she is to send some of her plant produce to the market.

She talks about her journey as an offbeat farmer. It all started when her father fell ill in 2013, when doctors failed to correctly diagnose his disease.

“They couldn’t see that he was diabetic. He didn’t show the signs of diabetes, but he had this foot ulcer that just wouldn’t go away,” she says.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle.

Moeketsi decided to do her own research, so she read up books on African medicinal plants and used some herbs that belonged to her late mother, who had been a traditional healer.

“It took me a good eight months to help my dad and I actually saved him from having an amputation.”

The news of Moeketsi curing her dad’s diabetes using herbs spread. Sadly, her father died in 2016, at the age of 87. But she is proud to have helped prolong his life.

“So he passed away in his sleep, not sick, nothing, he was just old. But he was always grateful; he was like, ‘even when I die, I’m going to die with both my limbs’, so we would make a joke about it.”

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After her father’s demise, Moeketsi rented some land and turned her knowledge on natural herbs into a fully-fledged farm. However, when the owner of the land returned, she was forced to vacate.

Land was always going to be a problem in the city. But instead of giving up, Moeketsi looked to the skies.

“Because of this passionate drive for an answer, I found myself researching what’s happening outside Gauteng and South Africa, and I saw in Europe, they were farming on rooftops,” she says.

In 2017, her dream became a reality when she secured a deal with the City of Johannesburg as part of an urban farming program, and started the rooftop project a year later.

When we visit her greenhouse, we are welcomed by the sweet lingering scent of herbs. It’s hot and humid, and two fans whir away to cool the air.

Moeketsi walks around the greenhouse wearing dark glasses and a white jacket, with a syringe in hand – she could easily pass off as a medical doctor.

She elaborates on the hydroponics system. There are four pyramids, each attached to their own reservoirs of water. On each pyramid, different plants, ranging from spinach, lettuce, sage, parsley, basil and dill, rest on beds with pipes connecting them to the reservoirs. Moeketsi plucks out one of the pipes and inserts the syringe; water spouts out of the tube and she returns it to the bed.

“Twice a day, you have to check that water is actually going through the pipes, because that’s how the plants get water and nutrients,” she explains, as she unblocks a pipe using the syringe. She says it’s one of the best ways to farm using little water.

“When you put in certain plants in the greenhouse, you know you are guaranteed sustainable farming because you can produce those plants and harvest them,” she says.

Moeketsi adds that this allows her produce to stay consistent season after season.

“So, from that point of view, it makes the city more sustainable in terms of food produce that is easily accessible and cost-effective for the consumer because not everyone around here can afford the high prices of food but they can at least afford what we sell, whether it is at R10 ($0.5) or R15 ($1).”

As Moekesti continues to tend to the plants, a farmer she works with walks in and begins filling up the reservoirs.

Lethabo Madela has known Moekesti for almost six years.

“When you look around Johannesburg, there is no space, so rooftops have saved us a lot, especially those of us that love farming,” says Madela. “I’m learning a lot and I think she [Moekesti] changed the whole concept of farming for me because I used to farm vegetables. I didn’t know culinary herbs or medicinal herbs.”

Moeketsi speaks of other farmers around the city who have taken to the rooftops to farm plants such as strawberries, lemon balm, spinach and lettuce.

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In a suburb called Marshalltown, a 10-minute drive from Moeketsi’s farm, Kagiso Seleka farms lemon balm also using hydroponics.

He produces sorbet and pesto from his produce which is then used to make ice cream.

“It [hydroponics] is great for farming sensitive plants in terms of temperature. Lemon balm does not like frost. But it’s better to grow even out of season so you can set a higher price,” he tells us.

However, he says hydroponics farming is a luxury not many farmers can afford.

“It [hydroponics] does have a bit of a higher capital upfront, but you get a higher yield and higher quality, so people are willing to pay more. Hydroponic planting saves about ninety five percent of water soil farming in a water-scarce country,” says Seleka.

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“We do have water shortages, and I know people are on the whole ‘organic trip’ but, is it more important to have an organic plant versus a water-saving environment?”

The Program Coordinator for Agriculture at the City of Johannesburg’s Food Resilience Unit, Lindani Sandile Makhanya, says there certainly are more rooftop farmers in Johannesburg now than ever before.

Converting idle terraces into avenues of profit is becoming a norm. There are new rooftop farms being set up every day, offers Makhanya.

He regularly visits Moeketsi’s farm to check on the progress and collect produce to sell.

“Urban farming in Johannesburg is rising, mainly because the idea of producing our own food is very important because most people are moving to urban areas and therefore it stands to reason that we have to try to produce as much as possible,” says Makhanya.

“[There is growth] even in animal production, although we are moving away from the bigger numbers, but we are involving the smaller ones; because of the space issue, they are increasing overall.”

For Moeketsi, her farm has changed her life and given her hope for a better future. In addition to the teas, tinctures, ointments and medicinal products she processes from her plants, she plans to include more by-products such as syrups in the future.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle,” she says. “That is why the city is changing and rooftop farming is going to get bigger and bigger.”

Clearly, farming in Africa is covering exciting new ground.

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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020



FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.

JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.


Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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The Life And Wisdom Of Richard Maponya



He was one of the big names in business in Africa; as gentlemanly. as he was shrewd. He fought the odds and apartheid to stake his place in business and inspire millions of his countrymen to do the same.

Richard Maponya – the doyen of black business in South Africa – passed away in the early hours of January 6, after a short illness. Maponya turned 99 on Christmas Eve near the end of a long and fruitful life that saw him dine with the Queen, laugh with Bill Clinton and chauffer his old friend Nelson Mandela. Mandela asked Maponya, who owned a car dealership, to pick him up at the airport in Johannesburg after his release from prison in 1990.

Ï picked him up at the airport and that was the most frightening time of my life. We were chased by people on foot, helicopters, motorbikes and cars. Everyone just wanted to touch Mandela. They could kill him just trying to touch him,” Maponya recalled to Forbes Africa in a cover story in March 2017.   

Mandela was a close friend of Maponya since the 1950s. The future president, then a young lawyer   helped Maponya set up his first business against the restrictive apartheid laws that shackled black business.

Maponya wanted to open a clothing store in Soweto, Johannesburg; the authorities said no. Mandela lost the fight for the clothing store, but did manage to secure him a license to trade daily necessities. This opened the way for Maponya to start out with a milk delivery business that was to prove the foundation of his fortune.

More than half a century on, Mandela, then a former president of South Africa, beamed with pride, in 2007, as he opened the first shopping mall in Soweto.

Maponya Mall had taken the canny businessman a good deal of patience to put together. He acquired the land in 1979 – the first black man to secure a 100-year lease for land in Soweto – and spent many more years building up the mall.

“Ï fought for 27 years for that mall and was many times denied; they actually thought I was dreaming. When Nelson Mandela cut the ribbon to open the mall, that was the highlight of my life,” Maponya said years later.

It was a mile on a road less travelled by Maponya in a long journey from the tiny township of Lenyenye in Limpopo in northern South Africa where he was born. He moved across the province to Polokwane to train as a teacher and then, like many young men of his generation, moved south to Johannesburg in search of his fortune.

In those days, the gold mining city was booming, but only the few saw the fruits. Maponya was blocked at every turn as he tried to make his way in business; he won through making a fortune from property, horse racing, retail, cars and liquor.

Maponya mentored many black entrepreneurs and inspired many millions more he had never met. One of them was Herman Mashaba, the former mayor of Johannesburg, who made his own fortune with hair care products.

“To myself and the people I grew up with he was an inspiration to all of us to get into business…If he had started out in business in a normal world there is no doubt he would have been even bigger than he was,” Mashaba told CNBC Africa.

Maponya will be mourned by the millions who were inspired to follow him and by a business world that is richer, in more ways than one, for his nearly a century of hard work in which retirement was never an option.

“People who retire are lazy people. You retire and do what? Bask in the sun?  I am not that type of man,” he said in 2017 at the age of 96.

He could never be.

By Chris Bishop  

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