We started from the bottom; now we’re here,” says Johanna Mukoki, quoting popular artist Drake. She has hobnobbed with the musician on a visit to the United States, but his lyrics hit closer to home.
Mukoki, who owns Travel With Flair, a top South African tourism company, vividly remembers her years of struggle as a young girl running a rickety Soweto stall with nothing but hope and dreams for a better future.
Baragwanath is South Africa’s biggest public hospital and has its place etched in history as the apartheid era’s ‘black hospital’. Bara sprawls lazily across Soweto and is connected to Soweto’s taxi rank by the ‘Bara Bridge’. Almost 40 years ago, in the sea of human traffic from the taxi rank to the hospital, Mukoki stood, just legs and bones, with a smile, beckoning passersby to try a boiled egg, an apple or any of the edible fare on offer in her little stall.
Seated face-to-face with Mukoki now, it is difficult to imagine her that way on Bara Bridge. Today, she laughs at the incredulity of it.
“When I drive past Bara in my Porsche, I’m reminded of my blessings. That’s where I come from.”
She has an irrepressible get-up-and-go attitude about her. As she talks, her hands animate her words.
We talk about her childhood, and her moeder (Afrikaans for mother) and father come to life. Their influence in the cultivation of her entrepreneurial flair dominates her story-telling.
Her mother was a teacher who she thinks was “probably a business tycoon in her previous life”. Outside of classroom hours, she ensured Mukoki manned the stall at Bara Bridge but it didn’t end there. At the end of each month, with swathes of brightly-colored, newly-sewn curtains, folded with meticulous precision, Mukoki would have to expertly balance the curtains on her head and accompany her mother to Qwa-Qwa to sell the designs.
Her father, on the other hand, made sure she focused on maintaining her straight As in school. Books connected father and daughter.
“Papa made sure that I read white people’s books even in poor and dusty Soweto. We knew that education was the only way out of this poverty thing.”
Her laughter fills the room as she recounts her obsession with saving every cent of her pay on the family business but went about it the wrong way.
“I used to hide my coins under the vinyl tiles in the kitchen. Problem with that was that as people walked over my secret vault, the shape of the coins would become increasingly pronounced…and my balance would somehow start falling.” The qualified accountant knows better now.
From coins under vinyl tiles to holding her own amongst billionaires, kings and queens, to rock stars, Mukoki has certainly arrived. She counts amongst her friends and mentors the late Nelson Mandela, Bono, Sol Kerzner, Bill Clinton, Stephen Kosseff…the list is endless.
The journey from the bottom to now wasn’t a joy ride by any means.
It’s fragile ground as we broach her
It happened in 2006, when the phone rang just as she stepped into her office. It was a frantic call from Moeder.
“Jo, you have to get me out of here or else I’m not going to make it,” she said. Her mother was in Cape Town and had gone in for a routine health checkup, albeit in the care of doctors she wasn’t familiar with. And she was reacting negatively to the medication prescribed to her. Mukoki and her siblings worked round the clock to get their mother checked out and readmitted to another hospital.
“Bureaucracy failed us. We had to fight for hours before she was released.” It was too late. Within hours, Moeder was gone.
“I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut,” says Mukoki. She had to learn to survive without Moeder, there was no other way to deal with it.
“I wanted to fight. I want to sue everyone involved. It took my family to help me accept the victory in walking away.” It has been a long journey for Mukoki since.
Today, she has been leading the tourism company she co-founded, Travel With Flair, in Johannesburg, for more than 18 years. Their wings have spread, pushing past South Africa’s borders and venturing into Africa. Her team has grown relentlessly. She now has 650 employees; 80% are women. Mukoki has won several trophies and awards along the way. She has also recently joined a global alliance which gives her company greater exposure.
“We started from the bottom;
now we’re here!” she says, quoting