Changing landscape

Bruce Fraser

Bruce Fraser

Like so many of their generation, Lindiwe Sangweni-Siddo's parents were faced with an agonising choice.

Continue living under the increasingly brutal apartheid laws of the 1960s in the country of their birth, South Africa, or opt for a life of uncertainty in exile.

They opted for the latter and packed their possessions into a couple of suitcases and headed for a new life in Swaziland.

"My parents were just ordinary, hard-working rural folk so it was a major decision to make," says Sangweni-Siddo.

Lindiwe and Dumisani, her brother, were born in Swaziland.

Her parents divided their time between Swaziland, Zambia and Kenya and perhaps it's those early days of living in foreign climes that instilled a degree of wanderlust into who she is today: a major shaker in the South African hotel industry.

After matriculating from Waterford Kamhlaba, just outside the Swaziland capital Mbabane, Sangweni-Siddo decided on a career in the hotel industry.

"My parents thought I was going to be a doctor. I opted for a three year course in Switzerland. My dad was devastated. He imagined me peeling potatoes for the rest of my life."

Sitting in the foyer of the Soweto Holiday Inn, Kliptown, sipping iced water - "one of my new year's resolutions is to drink more water" - Sangweni-Siddo, who is a director of the hotel, describes how she eventually ended up in such an historically rich area of South Africa.

"After graduating in Switzerland I decided to pack my bags and move to America where I completed a BSc in Hotel Management at Pennsylvania State University."

With her diploma and degree successfully completed she thought a job would come easily. Not so. "I applied for a position with the Hyatt group in Washington and couldn't believe it when I was turned down.

"I literally jumped onto the first available Greyhound bus and travelled across state and demanded the reason.

"A quick interview soon followed and there and then I was appointed assistant front-office manager," she says with a grin.

She quickly worked her way up the ranks and when a black political party, the ANC, won the South African elections in 1994, the directors of Hyatt decided the time was right to enter the domestic hotel trade and began to assemble a team.

"I just knew that it was time for me to return home. All those years I spent away from home I remained a South African at heart. I never lost touch with who I was and where I belonged," she relates.

But how did it feel to be back in South Africa?

"It was very emotional. We had to get reacquainted with family and friends. It was almost surreal. While overseas our whole focus was on liberation . about making sure the education we received could be utilised back home."

After five years at the Hyatt Rosebank she decided a change was necessary.

"I didn't last a year at the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism as chief director when a very welcome call came from Southern Sun wanting to know if I would be interested in being the general manager of the Sandton Towers. I jumped at the chance," she says.

Although learning an enormous amount about the hotel industry, the entrepreneurial-side to Sangweni-Siddo was being suppressed.

She decided after three years at the Towers the time was ripe (2004) to launch her own company - Zatic Hotels & Resorts.

"We got the franchise rights to the Holiday Inn brand and it was about this time that the Johannesburg Development Agency was asking for tenders to convert an office block into a hotel at the Walter Sisulu Square. Our tender was approved in 2006."

Sangweni-Siddo insisted that the project team be BEE compliant and when the main contractors began work on site, workers were to be local.

"We spent about R28million and local businesses benefited from about 50percent of this."

But how does it feel to have this luxury hotel less than 50metres from residents who don't have running water and proper sanitation?

"Every day as I drive into Kliptown the reality of life stares back at me. It reminds me of the work that still needs to be done."

Although the hotel takes up most of her time, Sangweni-Siddo still manages to find time to work out at the gym and to spend with her husband Salifou.

Her love of jazz music comes through in the beautiful pictures of local greats that are displayed throughout the hotel. "I hope I'm not imposing this one passion of mine on guests," she suggests.

Believe me, you're not.