17 April 2014 | Opinion
Frank Magwegwe, executive at Momentum Retail and the founder of Inspire Belief, closed off the first day of the fifth Annual Social Investment Conference on a personal note.
Frank Magwegwe at the Social Investment Conference
The conference was held at the Gordon Institute of Business Science campus in Johannesburg on 2 and 3 April 2014.
The 20th year of democracy in South Africa is a huge milestone for Magwegwe who, two decades ago, was a first-year student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), having overcome many challenges – the biggest being escaping homelessness on the streets of Johannesburg.
“I beat the odds and escaped homelessness. I use the term ‘beat the odds’ because there are many out there who will not beat the odds of being homeless. Some of the people who were living in Park Station when I was there are still there today.”
Magwegwe called Park Station home for about six months after arriving in Johannesburg from Port Elizabeth and finding himself without a place to stay.
Corporate social investment, the main theme of the SSI Conference, played a huge role in Magwegwe’s life. “I see Social Investment as a bridge,” he said. “Without the opportunities that Social Investment provided for me, I honestly wouldn’t be where I am today.” Liberty Life and the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) funded Magwegwe’s university studies.
With no money to go to university after he matriculated in 1991, he got a job as a barman at the Kirkwood Hotel in the Eastern Cape. In September 1992, he was fired from his job. This is when he decided to set out for the City of Gold – Johannesburg.
Before getting to Johannesburg, Magwegwe spent a few weeks in Bloemfontein, involuntarily. He had R72 when he left the Eastern Cape, which was only enough to get him to Bloemfontein. He eventually found a job in Bloem, which enabled him to earn enough money to make the rest of the journey to Johannesburg.
A few weeks after arriving in Johannesburg, he found himself without a place to stay, living at Park Station and about to face the toughest time of his life.
“It was difficult living on the streets of Jozi. I had experienced being homeless for six weeks in Bloemfontein, so I knew a few tricks on how to get food and finding a place to stay.”
When his attempts at finding a job were unsuccessful, he decided to stop looking. “When I connect the dots, the decision to stop looking for work was one of the most important decisions I ever made.”
A few months later, Magwegwe had opened a fruit and vegetable stall that became so successful he was able to employ three people – two to run stalls on other corners in Johannesburg and a third to take his place when he decided to stop selling vegetables.
He also made the acquaintance of a Mrs Zimmerman during one of his visits to the Johannesburg public library – a meeting that would prove pivotal.
“I told her my story and when I was done she looked at me and asked, ‘But why aren’t you in university?’ I then explained to her that I was selling vegetables and had employed people to help me but I couldn’t afford university. Her next words are ones I’ll never forget: ‘But you don’t need money to go to university.’