Lebohang Malepa. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA/FINANCIAL MAIL
Lebohang Malepa. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA/FINANCIAL MAIL

Partly because he was deeply frustrated that most tourists were still observing Soweto from the comfort of their tour buses, Lebohang Malepa, now the owner of Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, started selling craftwork near the Hector Pieterson Museum 20 years ago. "We weren’t given the space to tell our story … I wanted them to get out the bus," Malepa says, referring to the 1,000-odd tourists who were passing through SA’s most famous township every day on fleeting trips.

While talking to the FM, recalling his humble beginnings, the laid-back Sowetan is joined by his Swedish wife, Maria, and their two children. Lebo’s is a stone’s throw from Vilakazi Street, said to be the only street in the world where two Nobel laureates have lived: former president Nelson Mandela and archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu.

As Malepa talks, a group of guests — mostly Europeans, an American and a handful of regulars who live in the area — are chatting around the fire after having been served an authentic SA curry. Like the tourists, the local visitors are a motley crew. A Rastafarian musician (aptly nicknamed "Rasta") and several former freedom fighters — all friends of Malepa’s and almost part of the furniture — contribute to the famously warm hospitality.

Malepa explains that while he was still selling curios, he befriended a handful of pioneering European expats, and hosted them at his family home — now the backpackers — for football games and braais.

Then, in 2003, a brief stay at a backpackers in the Drakensberg prompted him to turn his passion for hospitality into a commercial venture.

That same year he converted a section of his home into what’s thought to be SA’s first township backpackers.

In the 15 years since, Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers has achieved almost legendary status among foreign visitors. That’s thanks in part to enticing reviews by The New York Times, the London-based newspaper The Independent and Lonely Planet, among other publications.

Many visitors to Southern Africa now consider Lebo’s a must-see attraction.

One guest — the American — says she "had to visit because the name kept cropping up" during her travels through SA’s neighbouring countries.

Lebo’s, which has expanded over the years into adjacent properties, can now accommodate about 30 guests in private rooms and dormitories.

The company’s nearby campsite, which doubles up as a mini-farm that supplies ingredients for the cooks, can house another 20 or so, Malepa says.

A staff of about 30 now run the business. This includes the guides who take overnight guests and day visitors on tuk-tuk, bicycle and walking tours around Soweto.

In the early days, Malepa borrowed bicycles from friends in the community. Now his establishment owns 100 bikes.

But while Malepa finally got foreign tourists to "get off the bus" and into his home town, he’s still hoping to get South Africans to do the same. Of the 40 people on a morning bicycle tour last Saturday, just two were South African.

Most of the rest were from European countries such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. All overnight guests who had stayed the night before were foreign.

"I want families to come and experience Soweto," Malepa says. Some South Africans do visit when Lebo’s holds events, such as its monthly storytelling evenings or camping excursions, he says.

Just the day before, an SA bank had held a team-building session at the backpackers, which Malepa’s staff keep impressively clean and tidy.

While more needs to be done to encourage South Africans to explore the township, Malepa says he’s satisfied that he’s helped foreigners to understand Soweto better and locals of the community to "love Soweto too".

Malepa has considered opening more backpackers across SA — he and his wife once seriously considered adding a place in the Kruger National Park — but says he eventually decided against that idea as that would have spread their personal touch too thin.

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