On 26 December 2012, I visited Langa, the oldest town in Cape Town, South Africa. It was started in 1927 predominantly for immigrant workers. Till date, it remained one of the poorest communities and one, which has attracted many squatters.
Gladstone, a friendly and competent tourist guide and someone who grew up in that town gave me a tour of the area. The visit should have been a sad trip as I was seeing poverty at one of its worst. However, it was brightened up by the story that Gladstone told me about his life, how he grew up under difficult circumstances and managed to lift himself out of poverty trap.
There was a spark of hope and optimism as I listened to his story, told in different parts as we walked around the town. In between sharing his story, he introduced various aspects of the neighborhood to me. That day, I saw a distinctive contrast in the living conditions in South Africa and all within the span of about one hour. It brought a tinge of anger in my spirit and made my stomach somewhat sick.
Earlier on, while I was driving to Langa, I had seen a thriving city with attractive properties. But as I walked around Langa, I felt like I had entered another world.
I saw dilapidated houses crammed together in one of the most run-down places that I have come across. I have been to many of such areas and in different countries in the process of providing humanitarian aids in the past.
The living conditions in Langa were definitely not the most appropriate for humans. In fact, many of the houses did not even have basic amenities, including sanitation facilities. I saw many residents tapping electricity from different sources and obviously they were doing it illegally. The whole area was practically a garbage-dumping ground.
Like a true Singaporean, I asked him, “What are your authorities doing about providing proper homes for the citizens. In my mind, I couldn’t help thinking about the news I read in the local newspapers about the current Prime Minister. Apparently, he was building a R203 million (about S$28 million) private home and using mostly taxpayers’ money to pay for it.
Gladstone’s response to my question broke my heart. “There was a budget allocated to upgrade the town. However, due to corruption, the contractors have only completed part of the project and worst, delivered shoddy work for it. They have stopped working and nobody is pursuing the matter on an official basis.”
Deep in my heart, I was grateful and thankful that I lived in Singapore where our government had by and large been responsible, transparent and accountable. As a result, our country is widely admired and respected all over the world.
Being a serial ‘kaypoh’ (busybody), I could not help asking Gladstone to show me his previous and current homes. He brought me to one of the worst parts of the neighborhood and pointed his old house to me. To my surprise, he also made arrangements with the current tenants for me to visit it.
The tour did not take long because the house was small and on top of that, there were quite clearly more residents than it could reasonably accommodate. I did not feel comfortable to intrude into their living spaces. At the front of the house, I saw some young people and elderly men drinking beer together and there were some empty beer bottles on the table. It was morning when I was there, not the most normal time for alcoholic consumption.
I could imagine how challenging life must have been for Gladstone. It was also hard to fathom that anybody growing up in such a place could escape from the clutches of poverty. When I came out of the house, there was a growing smile on Gladstone’s face. He pointed to what looked like the empty shell of a mini bus that was parked at the side of his old house.
Gladstone told me, “This was my second home.”
When he saw the surprised looks on my face, he went on to explain, “I was a kid when I first laid eyes on the bus and I fell in love with it. I asked the owner to sell it to me. He told me I could have it for free. All I had to do was to buy four tires from him.”
At that point, I saw his solemn face changing to one that was filled with pride and joy. He said, “I took on many part-time jobs to earn enough money to purchase it.
“After that, I asked for approval from fellow residents to park the vehicle here. It became my home, a place I could study and live in.”
I could tell there was an entrepreneurial spirit in him. When confronted with problems or opportunities, he would find a way to capitalize on them. He would find a solution and do everything possible to implement it.
My view of him proved to be true as he shared many of his life stories to me.
Gladstone did reasonably well in school and even earned a place in a local university. However, he had to stop his formal education because life became too hard for him. After leaving the university, he managed to find a job that he enjoyed, a job in which he could apply his talents and strengths to good use. Despite going through many obstacles, including being suddenly retrenched, he managed to not only overcome them but also continued to improve himself.
At one point, he predicted that the tourism industry would flourish and he therefore decided to make a complete switch in his life, retraining himself by taking up evening classes in hospitality management. After graduation, he was able to further develop his career. He worked in a new industry so as to improve himself and his standards of living.
When he showed me his new house, there was no doubt in my mind that his life had definitely turned out for the better. He even owned a mini van, one of the few in his neighborhood to do so. With it, he could also provide transportation services to his customers. From the look on his face, I could sense that it was only the beginning of a plan that was cooking in his mind.
When I left him, I saw a twinkle in his eyes. It was a spark of fire, a burning dream that started since he was a kid and it was still burning strong and hard in his mind. Gladstone did not allow anything to hold him back as he persevered to break out of a difficult past. He would not allow anything to stop him from building a brighter future for himself and for his loved ones.
The key for him to do so was through entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is not about starting a business or owning a company. It is about capitalising on opportunities with the least possible resources. The outcome is to develop win-win relationships and results and it can be used by governments, employers, employees, independent contractors and even social workers.
Entrepreneurship is one of the greatest equalisers in life. It is one of the best paths for ordinary persons to achieve true freedom.
True freedom includes financial freedom (having as much money as you need), time freedom (having as much time as you need), lifestyle freedom (having the freedom to do, enjoy and achieve as much as you need), and contribution freedom (having the resources to give as much as you need).
It is not about having everything that you want but having whatever you need so as to achieve a worthwhile goal.
I have always said entrepreneurship is doing the things that most people will not do so that you will not have to do the things that most people have to do to stay alive.
Entrepreneurship is one of the most powerful solutions to eradicate poverty and many other challenges in life. It is about pursuing a meaningful, exciting and fulfilling life.
My wish for Gladstone is that he will continue to dream about the stars in life. He will live out his dream and enjoy the best of life.
It is the same wish I have for you.
You can read more of Mr Patrick’s inspiring essays on http://liewinspiration.wordpress.com