Young, clever and African

I could have sent an order for a chain saw, a lie detector test and a PI to unravel the truth about Karabo Mashogane. He gives new meaning to the word enigma.

I could have sent an order for a chain saw, a lie detector test and a PI to unravel the truth about Karabo Mashogane. He gives new meaning to the word enigma.

He, at the young corporate age of 33, is owner of Suite 16, a happening eatery for the well-heeled in the Village Walk.

Mashogane and a silent partner have been in business for the past two years, which means he became something of a merchant at only 30.

When he shook my hand I didn't see the Michel Herbelin on his wrist. Yes, I was expecting a tiny piece of bling.

Still he kind of reminds me of Duke from a canned soapie that launched many famous faces. With a regal aura, not even hypothetic laws could help let his guard down.

What caught my eye, though, was the unapologetic decor elements in this joint. He describes the style as "modern prehistoric" chic.

The walls are robust, with carved or exclusive portraits and photographs of departed South African legends such as Brenda Fassie, Hector Pieterson in the arms of Mbuyisa, Gibson Kente and Mashogane's most revered Bantu Biko.

What impresses immediately is the ease with which he conducts himself. Ask for a cocktail and he glides behind the bar and performs magic.

His eyes are everywhere, always watchful. This is how money is made, I think to myself.

"The idea came gradually," he says. "Friends and I used to frequent the Village Walk and the lack of a hang-out place with an African spirit prompted us to talk about establishing one."

He was working for a bank at the time but it wasn't the stress of dealing with other people's money that drove him to put his plans into motion.

"It's something I've always known I'd wind up doing," he says. "It was also fuelled by the economic tide at the time.

"South Africa was going through an economic roll of good fortune and the president had just made the 'I am An African' speech so everything sort of nudged me to go with my gut feeling."

Failure, he says, is no more than a minute threat he refuses to succumb to.

"As with a lot of ventures and human milestones, everything is trial and error, so I would rather not regret the things I didn't do," he explains.

It must have been in this spirit that Suite 16 added a few dimensions to dining.

Poetry evenings were introduced and though most revellers filled their tummies with just rhyming words and tap water, it got to a point where it caused discord between wordsmiths and fine diners, who wanted peace and quiet with their food and company.

Show me a rich poet and I will show you my salary.

"Dining out is more a social thing than just eating," he says.

That explains why die-hard outing lovers will go out even with only a R20 note to their name. It gets to a point where dining out becomes a cult.

Inflation cuts both ways, though. It has also caused many hospitality businesses to take stock of their position.

"People don't go out as much as they used to and others are mindful of expenditure," Mashogane says. "With food prices so high I have been dealt a shocking reminder of how fragile the industry is.

"But then, again, every time a boy child falls down they pat him on the back and say uyakhula mfana (you are growing up, boy)."

Luckily things in this fraternity aren't always marred by socio-economic turbulence. Despite being his own worst critic, he has hosted the Leverts, Mandelas and Zumas and everyone in between.

Mashogane has also hosted some prestigious launches and corporate events, but being so soft-spoken I wonder how he manages the bustling place.

In the photos he shows me of the events he looks as if he was having a good time even with quiet waters around him.

But when our conversation ventures into African literature and must-see movies, it feels that I have met a friend.

I think I now why people flock to this place: sometimes you want the host to let you let your hair down, not the other way around.