Xolani Mtshizana had to dig himself out of the clutches of gangsterism and other challenges as a youngster, but it is this rocky road that led him to establish his aptly named design business, Keep Digging Africa, to motivate aspiring entrepreneurs.
Growing up in Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape was not easy for the 35-year-old businessman, who as a teenager became involved in gangsterism to cope with township violence in the 1990s.
During his high school years at David Mama Senior Secondary School, he finally found something he was passionate about – participating as a model in pageants. However, his dreams of furthering this passion were shattered when he was stabbed in his left eye during a gang fight at a school athletics meet in 1996.
“It was while I was recovering in a hospital bed that my life changed course. I was reading a magazine article about the guys from the Bronx, New York behind the Fubu clothing brand, and I realised that in the townships, the youngsters didn’t have a brand like this that they could identify with.”
Fubu stands for “for you by you” and represents the aspirations of youngsters who grew up in the Bronx.
“Although I could no longer participate in pageants, I knew I could still be involved through fashion,” Mtshizana says.
Soon after he recovered and while trying to finish matric, he created his own clothing label, called Mara.
“It is not only my family’s nickname for me, but it also means ‘made alone, ride alone’, signifying my journey out of gangsterism that nearly got me killed,” he says.
While young people were wearing international skating and surfing brands, Mtshizana focused on giving them an African alternative. He used his pageant contacts to reach his target market.
It was not long before his brand became popular among youngsters in the suburbs, and he had to look for a partner company to manufacture his designs. He soon found one in the then manufacturing business the National Converter Industry (NCI).
“As the money started coming into my bank account, Absa noticed that I was doing well and nominated me for their 2001 National Entrepreneur of the Year Award. As my prize, I was asked what I wanted and I said I wanted to learn about fashion in Paris, so they sent me on a study holiday.”
A few years after he returned, Mtshizana, as many others in the textiles industry, felt the pressure of cheap imports when the NCI factory buckled and was forced to close.
“I decided to develop the Mara brand beyond clothing, but my first step was to move to Johannesburg with my family in search of better opportunities.”
Once in Gauteng, he trained himself in design software and decided to establish Mara Comics.
“I wanted to tell my story and decided the best way was through comics.
I created a character called Gulova, meaning thug, to educate youngsters about the dangers of gangsterism. As comics are still a new concept in the townships, I decided to use street vendors to reach my target market,” says Mtshizana.
In 2007, SAB noticed his comics and approached him to create one about alcoholism.
Because of his past success with comics, he was asked to join media agency, The Firehouse, in 2008.
“During this time, I began to lose focus, but this all changed suddenly,” he says. “I was driving my sportscar when I flipped the vehicle and hit a pole. While I was sitting there in the wreck, the only thing I saw was a road sign – a man digging with a shovel – and I knew what I had to do next.”
Mtshizana says he dug himself out of troubled circumstances through entrepreneurship.
“One of the major issues today is youngsters not being able to find jobs even though they are educated. There I was, not educated, but making a way by being an entrepreneur, so I wanted to inspire youngsters to explore their entrepreneurial skills,” he says.
He resigned, got Mara Comics back to its former glory, and then established Keep Digging Africa as a way to give back.
He uses online and print publications as well as motivational talks to reach youngsters and motivate them to become entrepreneurs.
Mtshizana considers education to be crucial. In 2010, Monash South Africa granted him a scholarship, and at 35 he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in International Studies.
- Go to www.keepdiggingafrica.com for more information.