Millicent Shai hails from Pretoria originally but now lives in Rustenburg. She trained as a dental therapist before the travel industry came calling…
“Hospitality and tourism came into my life through a love of travel,” she says, “My husband, Israel and I love travelling and we went on a group tour to Namibia… We were driving through the desert, staying in different kinds of accommodation from tents to four-star and everything just clicked for and we said, you know what – we can do this.”
Her journey to Namibia was in 2007 and in 2008, Millicent and her husband sought out and bought a 10 hectare plot and established their own guest house outside Rustenburg called Thaba Legae Guest Lodge. The name Thaba Legae means “your home in the mountains”.
“We opened our doors in June 2009 and we have never looked back,” says Millicent. “What I love about this industry is exceeding a guest’s expectations and seeing their smile of contentment and that special ‘thank you’. Not many other words but that thank you, it makes me sleep well.”
As General Manager of her own guesthouse, she lives by the mantra “Taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary’ and Millicent prides herself on homegrown values, inspired by her rural upbringing.
“I was raised by my paternal grandmother, Koko Mokou, on the farms, so when we were looking for a place to set up our guesthouse I told my husband that I wanted a small-holding where we could have chickens and whatever because I love farm life!”
A born storyteller, Millicent says her and her husband negotiated to buy the land with a certain Mr Schoeman, where they bought the plot from his and all negotiations where done over the fence and they could only enter once the land was bought.
“He used the land for grazing cows I think, so there was just field, no water, no electricity and we had to start from scratch…”
Building Dreams for one and all
The couple used this blank slate to create the guest house they dreamt of, and while it has been years of hard work, there have been many rewards.
Millicent says, “From my perspective, as a small guest house owner, I see how it makes a difference to my employees – I have nine permanent employees and two casuals. We are a team and they know that through their hard work, through their meeting our expectations and the guests’ expectations, we can draw in more guests,” she says.
There is a real spirit of team work among her staff and she says the harder everyone works, the greater the level of satisfaction, and of course this also affects their earnings and makes a difference in their lives.
“Out of the employees that I have, four are women and three of them are single mothers. One has a matriculant this year and it’s been hard but we made sure that come what may, even though there has been a reduction in their salary, we are not going to shed any jobs,” she says, “We are struggling, it’s not easy but we make a difference in their lives. One of my male employees has a student in university and it humbles me that the little that they earn, they can do such wonders and feed their families. It makes a difference in our community.”
Lockdown and looking for solutions
When lockdown hit, Millicent and her husband sat down with their employees and had a candid discussion. She says that the UIF payments helped a lot, but everyone had to take a salary cut which means life is a struggle (now and then) – for everyone.
April was financially disastrous, and though she enquired about the possibility of opening her guest house as an isolation or quarantine facility, she was not given the time of day by the powers-that-be.
“Ultimately, it came down to that fact that we are too small of a fish. They are looking at bigger establishments for isolation services. So, it doesn’t’ matter if you have done all the deep cleaning and have all protocols in place, we were still not suitable enough to clench that kind of business.”
The lodge only got one or two guests a week for business (under the previous lockdown rules) due to the fact that Rustenburg is a mining town.
“If we get two or three guests in a week, for two days, we feel like we have worked. So we are drawing on our reserves, but we don’t know how long they will last,” she points out. “But like I said, we made a commitment to our staff that, no matter what, we will keep you. Nobody is going to lose their jobs.”
Millicent had a very wise mentor in her mother, Mmamokgalo, who always told the family that no matter what the situation, they were not born to be quitters.
“I was raised by a mother who was a domestic worker. Even though she only went to school up to Standard 6, she was very wise. She used to tell us as kids, that where there is a will, there’s a way. As a youngster, I would tell her: ‘Mama, a car has wheels and it moves on the road, it cannot move where there is no way’. And she said, when you will grow older you will understand.”
She says she realises now the message from her mother and that if her will is strong enough, it will take her wherever she wants to go in life. She is also inspired by Nelson Mandela.
“How long did he stay in prison, but he never lost the courage that one day he would be out here and he would be free. So this, too, shall pass. We don’t know the consequences, what will happen but if we hold fast and say. This, too, shall pass then we will be able to conquer all.”
Millicent Shai spoke to Danielle Taute, view their #IAmTourism conversation here.