There is a unique beauty that comes with being South African – being able to own the history and diverse cultural heritage that comes with this country is something that each and every South African citizen is able to identify with, and share in together. Throughout this country, we come across stories that make us stop in our tracks and listen to the story of the journey being told.
Upon meeting Rita Zwane, I was captivated by the tale she had to tell and humbled by the realisation of what an extraordinary person she is. Rita is the founder and managing director of Imbizo Shisanyama, a restaurant based in Ebony Park, Midrand, which embodies the idea of South African food and celebration. The inspiration behind this cultural hive was born from the need for a truly African food experience in South Africa.
“Anything that has to do with culture and heritage – I love it! My mother used to tell me the history of mogodu (a traditional South African dish of tripe served as a stew with hot pap) and why it’s a part of my culture. I looked for what was available in the world of food that we [as South Africans] can identify with.” And, so, the aptly named ‘authentic African braai experience’ was born. It takes me just a few moments in this buzzing, vibrant restaurant to feel and understand the palpable environment that Rita has created. The journey has been a long one: Rita has worked in almost every industry imaginable – from secretarial work to waitressing, selling clothing on the side of the road and even contracting out her own car (with a driver she had hired) to use as an outsourced delivery service. The blood of entrepreneurship runs thick through Rita’s veins: “The inspiration came from my mom – instead of giving me pocket money, she would give me sweets, which I could eat or sell. If I ate them, I had nothing; if I sold them, I had money. I learnt this skill of making a profit when I was as young as eight years old.” The life-long dream to have her own business was driven by the simplicity of her childhood lessons and the complexity of her situation: “Those basic values my mom taught me were always in my mind.”
While supporting herself and her son, as well as holding down three jobs, Rita learnt the tricks of the hospitality trade in her waitressing position. “It was there that I learnt the importance of customer service and the actual monetary advantage that came from giving good service.” Rita soon found out that, by giving the best service possible, she could get higher tips, which meant making rent at the end of the month. “What is it they say? Good service can substitute bad food? Not that we have bad food here!” she adds. Part of the dream in running her own business was the opportunity and ability to give back to her community. Currently, Rita supports a permanent team of 50 people, with extra temporary staff being used over the busier seasons. She realises that it is only with the support of her patrons that she can give back to the community. Imbizo runs its own Bursary Programme, which offers the youth the opportunity to pursue a career in the food-and-beverage industry in South Africa.
Since its inception, Imbizo Shisanyama has highlighted Heritage Day (24 September) as a landmark date on their calendar. “Part of our history may not be that great, but it is still ours. How can we then celebrate that? Through food! Inspired by the people and their cultures!” Rita’s warm attitude towards her work and her staff can be felt everywhere.
She reprimands and praises her team as if they were her children, and the privilege of being in her company is humbled by her easy and welcoming demeanour. I cannot help but feel like I will be back here, bringing my friends and family to gather with the company at Imbizo Shisanyama. “This is the space where you’re able to celebrate your culture and heritage in true African class, style and dignity.”
Imbizo Shisanyama, 29 September Street, Ebony Park, Midrand; 011-312-0630; imbizoshisanyama.co.za