Khanyisa Mhlakaza

Your story is your strength

Set atop a hill against a backdrop of Stellenbosch’s world-renowned wineries is the township of Kayamandi. Sometimes overlooked by Winelands visitors on the hunt for the traditional swirl and sip experience, Kayamandi, which means sweet or nice home in the Xhosa language, teems with warmth and vibrancy and epitomises what it means to be part of a community.

This is Khanyisa Mhlakaza’s community. A social entrepreneur in tourism and hospitality, Khanyisa grew up in Kayamandi, faced and overcame challenges in her youth, found inspiration, persevered, and followed her passion across the country—then across the globe. A decade and a half later, she returned to share her experiences and amplify her message of hope to young girls and women like her.

Your story is your strength

“What I’ve learned, you can have all the qualifications, but if you don’t have your own personal story, trust me, there will be a bump. It’s very important to carry your story because your background and how you grew up, the obstacles and the problems that you faced growing up as a young man or as a young woman, it’s what builds who you are. That becomes your strength in everything—not just in personal life and social life, but in business. It becomes your backbone. It becomes your strength to step up the ladder.”

And if your story is your strength, Khanyisa is strong beyond measure. She grew up in a single-parent home after her mother returned to the Eastern Cape due to domestic violence. In grade ten, Khanyisa fell pregnant with her son, now 21. As challenging as it was to be a young, single mother and continue her schooling, Khanyisa knew that education was key to helping her unlock her dreams.

At the time, however, she probably never could have guessed the impact that her home economics teacher and a stack of old magazines in the classroom would have on her path in life.

Khanyisa recounts: “During that time, in the 90s, we only had one white female teacher, and she was a very old lady teaching home economics. That’s where I developed the passion for tourism and hospitality. She used to bring magazines to school and show us how to cook.”

Khanyisa laughs, remembering her surprise at some of the recipes and how they differed from what she was used to growing up. But the bug had bitten, and her interest grew from there.

After completing high school, Khanyisa pursued her bachelor’s degree in hospitality management at CPUT, then called Cape Technical, under which she attended the Granger Bay Hotel School.

Khanyisa’s journey home

Khanyisa was then snapped up by one of the largest hotel groups in Africa, Protea Hotels and City Lodge Hotel Group where she worked for nearly 15 years. This brought her around the country, stoking her passion for meeting and engaging with people from all types of backgrounds and cultures.

“I thought, you know, travelling and tourism is large. Why not explore?” And so, this Kayamandi-local went overseas and gained experience working in Florida and aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines, doing what she does best: delivering excellent service with her signature warm hospitality.

Lucky for her hometown, though, she didn’t stay away forever. “I returned back to Stellenbosch after 15 years of travelling to start something different, something new and bring about the entire experience that I’ve lent to my community.”

Limitless possibilities

“One of my main reasons to return home is that I’ve always had this passion to uplift [others] because of my experience throughout the years—tough ones, and I mean very challenging. Especially as a woman—and a young woman and a single parent. It has taught me a lot.”

Khanyisa wishes to share this experience with young girls and women who so often lack the confidence to pursue their dreams as she did. “There are limitless possibilities out there, especially in travel, tourism and hospitality.”

While she acknowledges that it’s still not always easy to be recognised as a woman in the tourism and hospitality industry, her message is one of hope and grit. “Keep your head up and stay confident. Stick to your guts and be as strong as you possibly can—because then, anything is possible.”

Khanyisa now wears many different hats. In addition to being a single mother and entrepreneur, she leads tours around Kayamanid showcasing the community’s rich culture and tradition. She gives inspirational talks and is a devoted advocate for the upliftment of youth and women.

But, practising what she preaches, she herself has never stopped growing and dreaming. “I want to be able to open my own wine lounge come one day. It’s one of my dreams, and I know I will do it. I just need to keep my head up high and focus.”

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"Keep your head up and stay confident. Stick to your guts and be as strong as you possibly can—because then, anything is possible."