CityLife Arts

The tale of a would-be social worker who became an accidental tour operator

By Edward Tsumele

Her journey of how she got into tourism is as interesting as the stories she likes to tell about her experiences with international tourists visiting South Africa’s most famous township, Soweto, for the first time.

A tuk Tuk transporting guests at Lebo’s Soweto
Tour Operator Khosi Zikalala By sculptural piece at the Lebo’s Soweto campsite in Soweto. Picture By Edward Tsumele

I found myself fighting the urge to break into a loud laughter when I shared a Tuk Tuk with the garrulous tour operator Khosi Zikalala as she regaled us about stories of the cultural shock experienced by some of her clients as she took them around the township.

“Some were really shocked to see so many goats roaming about, grazing and unbothered in the township, while others would genuinely be traumatized when they saw dogs tied to a tree in homes by their owners who did not want them to stray. They did not understand it is normal for such things to happen in the township. One tourist even insisted that I should stop the vehicle so that she could call SPCA to rescue the animal from its loving owners,” she said about some of her experiences.

Today, Zikalala is one of the successful Soweto tour operators whose company Emthunzini operates in all the country’s nine provinces, mainly organizing tours for schools from Grade R right up to tertiary level. Yesterday Zikalala was one of the tourism business owners  who participated in the official launch of tourism activities around the city by Joburg Tourism. The Soweto launch was attended by the media, tour operators and officials from Joburg Tourism to reactivate tourism activities around the City now that the country is in Level 1 of Covid 19 lockdown regulations.

The dynamic tour operator whose success is attested to by the tourism awards that she wins, such as being declared Female Tour Operator of the Year by Gauteng Tourism Authority last month, and was last Year a Runner up for the same category of the Lilizela awards, organized by South African Tourism, got into tourism by accident. The Soweto born  businesswoman had wanted to become a social worker. But that changed one day when a friend told her about a vacancy for volunteer guides at the Mandela House on the famous Vilakazi Street in Soweto. Her fate in tourism was in fact sealed from there as she has never looked back.

“I loved my volunteer job so much that I connected easily with people that I never knew, international tourists. Then one day, one of them told me straight that I did not belong to that house. I belonged to something bigger, such as working as a tour operator. It is then that I got to know about courses in tourism offered by Wits University part-time. I enrolled and after which I worked for other tour operators before launching Emthunzini six years ago. I first operated as a tour operator targeting the corporate, but have since moved into the schools sector,’ she told me.

A group of guests at hectro Petrson Museum in Sowteo. Picture By Edward Tsumele

But like other businesses, when Covid19 struck, schools were closed and she could not do anything about it.

“You must remember schools are divided into terms and once you lose those holidays, that is it.”

 However, like many others in the sector, she hopes that the re-opening of tourism activities will help to reignite the tourism sector again.

Zikalala however bemoans the fact that tourism business is still dominated by men, and as women tour operators, they sometimes feel vulnerable.

“Some people sometimes try to take advantage . Sometimes the concerns are safety related. Sometimes some female tour operators give away business to their male counterparts, especially If you have to travel for say 10 days with tourists,” Zikalala reveals.

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