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msomi's amazing journey to fame

By unknown | Mar 31, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

The woman at reception who is responsible for more than just taking calls, agonises over the fact that the boardroom was not booked for the interview.

She seems to be of the opinion that it wouldn't be proper for someone of Mr Msomi's calibre to have an audience with newspaper people anywhere but the immaculately appointed boardroom.

But when Msomi finally emerges from the labyrinth that houses Meropa, a one-stop communications consultancy in trendy Hyde Park, he makes light of the fuss and points us in the direction of a smaller - but habitable - office space.

The man behind this firm business handshake is veteran playwright Welcome Msomi.

Best known for adapting Shakespeare's Macbeth into world-beater Umabatha, it suddenly felt odd to ask Msomi questions about the theatre, given the corporate ambience of the rendezvous.

As a legal persona, Meropa sure has its own story to tell.

But this space belongs to the soft-spoken Msomi who will not be swayed into unpacking figures in the "reasonable shares" he holds at Meropa.

But his business interests spread octopus-like well beyond Meropa.

His call centre enterprise operates from Woodmead. Msomi Comprehensive Network runs a myriad errands for employees of subscriber companies, "whatever the employee may need".

US-based Msomi-Dukhart takes care of the arts business across the waters, while Ezinkulu Productions does the same locally. The SABC2 animal programme Bush Radar is another Msomi business venture. He says presenter Michelle Garforth is in partnership with him.

Africa Sports Network will be up and running shortly, he says assuredly.

But it is Ziphathe Empowerment Network which he speaks excitedly about. It has already rolled out to 68 branches across the country.

"It is a major empowerment vehicle for our people. It is based on a simple idea - we have the numbers but do not know how to capitalise on this."

He makes an example of the staples of many black African households, such as mealie meal.

People can save a lot of money if they were to club together and buy directly from the manufacturers. Costs, says Msomi, are escalated by the profits the middleman goes out to make.

He's approached Tiger Brands, with a lot of success, on the business model, and for the numbers he went out to church groups to speak directly to congregants.

Msomi says he also finds our school curriculum bothersome because it does not teach pupils to be creators of jobs, but job-seekers.

He hopes to revitalise the minds of pupils and the looks of their schools.

Selecting 15 schools in Soweto, most of which are dilapidated, is a two-pronged attempt at making things better. Msomi cites the likes of Cyril Ramaphosa, Popo Molefe, Vuyo Mbuli, Reverend Frank Chikane and other high profile personalities in making this point: "Instead of deriving joy from being told that one shares one's birthday with Michael Jackson, we'll encourage people to celebrate theirs with children at their alma mater. They can put up their pictures on refurbished walls."

He's brainstormed the idea with Education Minister Naledi Pandor who, he says, loved it.

As children are bombarded with positive role models on their school premises and their curriculum teaches them life skills, they will grow up with sharpened business minds.

"Companies always brag about profits," he says, "but we rarely hear how much of that profit has gone back to the respective communities."

The consumer in the township must be taught to enquire after such and move their business elsewhere if all companies do is take from them. "That's how the power of numbers works."

This is how the evil system of apartheid rule was brought to its knees by the 1976 uprisings, he says. "It is a proven concept, it is a formula that works."

Ziphathe hopes to empower people, he says using Alexandra as an analogy, so that a rebellion, caused by destitution and poverty, is avoided. "People must not wake up hungry and cross the bridge into Sandton.

"You don't have to toyi-toyi and make a lot of noise," he says to the black majority, "use your brains. You have the power."

This is the business story of a township lad from Chesterville, Durban, whose entrepreneurial life began at age 10 when his father bought him a used typewriter for R21. "It took me many years to repay the money," he says of his late father's gift to him.

This was to be the genesis of his life as a playwright.

It is theatre that has allowed him the kind of life he describes as an amazing journey.

He left in 1977 for exile, spending the bulk of the stay in New York. He lived, interchangeably, in Italy and Scotland.

But it was in the US that his genius conquered the stage with other works and Umabatha, which he rekindled at Nelson Mandela's insistence after a protracted break. It was staged at the Joburg Civic Theatre in 1995 where Mandela, scheduled to attend on opening night, rocked up the night before.

The relationship with Mandela started after a chance encounter when the elder statesman was a guest of Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline. During the behind-the-scenes shaking of hands, Mandela asked the dramatist to return home, permanently.

Back home would mean a job as the brains behind the stage work for the 1994 Presidential Inauguration, a task the well-travelled Msomi considers, with hindsight, to have been daunting.

His expertise was also called upon for the inauguration of Thabo Mbeki.

He now has a chance to work on A Mandela Portrait, a performance adapted around the speeches of democratic South Africa's first head of state.

"This is all part of Madiba's 90th birthday celebrations and has been earmarked for selected cities in America," he says of the 64-piece orchestra.

Theatre has allowed him access into the lives of ordinary people, says the father of four, who still has a house in Umlazi. But business, where he does not deal with actors but real people, offers more.

As the 65-year-old Msomi, still fit as a fiddle, talked on and on about his ideas for advancing the lives of the hoi polloi, the sudden jolt that the raison d'etre for the interview was his recent win at the Naledi Awards, not business, hit like the stab of a blunt object.

He got the Lifetime Achiever's Award at the ill-starred Naledis, where The Lion King's Lebo M spoilt the party by pissing in the teapot.

On the night of the awards, Msomi humbly accepted his award and apologised for having overlooked organising husband-and-wife team Des and Dawn Lindberg in the Presidential Inauguration festivities.

Humility personified.

The boys from Chesterville have made it great before . Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi. Mr Msomi, dear Miss Receptionist, was just another foregone conclusion.

You can call him Welcome; he's cool with it.


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