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Joel Mhlangu

Joel MarchOwner, Utha Store

Every once in a while you come across people who will have an enormous impact on your life and become a hugely positive influence on everything you do. Just ask Joel Mahlangu, proprietor and owner of Utha Store, whose business has flourished thanks to the support he has received over the last 27 years from Djuma’s owners, Pippa and Jurie Moolman.

Now in his 76th year, Joel was born and raised in the small town of Sabie. His father bought the store in the village of Utha (also variously spelled Utah) in 1984. It’s a quiet community not far from the Sabi Sands game reserve’s Gowrie Gate which Djuma guests invariably pass through.

“I’d made a good life for myself in Sabie,” recalls Joel. “I was a panel-beater and spray painter for Sappi – the big paper manufacturers with plantations all around Sabie and the surrounding area. I always loved farming and looking after livestock, so I had always helped my father with his cattle. But by the end of 1990s my father had decided to go on pension to look after his cows and sent my mother to tell me that I must come and take over the shop. I was almost 50 years old.

“So I came to Utha and in January 1991 I started working with my mother here in the shop, leaving my wife and two children in Sabie. In 1992 a terrible drought struck and and I decided to buy some stricken cattle here in Utha. They were skinny and some couldn’t even stand up, but I knew I could help them recover. In all, I bought 23 animals and built a kraal close to the shop. It kept me very busy. I was working in the shop, looking after the cattle and building myself a house in Thulamashe, which is 32km down the road.”

And so Joel put down roots in the village and dedicated himself to his new life, out in the rural communities far from his hometown.

“Early each morning I would come to open the shop with my mother. Then I would busy myself with the cattle, which gradually recovered. In those days a lot of the owners from the Sabi Sands bought groceries from the store for their staff and lodges. I got to know most of them. And then, towards the end of 1993, Pippa and Jurie arrived on the scene, having started up Djuma,” says Joel.

“I remember the day they first came and we started what has become one of the most wonderful relationships of my life,” he says, wistfully. “Pippa was looking for somewhere to do her artwork (she is a talented mosaic artist) and asked if she could use a spare room in the house adjacent to the shop as a studio. Both she and Jurie were very friendly, and I remember being very impressed by this,” adds Joel with a nod of his silvery head.

“They began to use the store to source the things they needed to get Djuma up and running. I would order things for them and deliver them to Djuma. They became both firm friends and valuable supporters of my business. When Pippa became pregnant with their first daughter, my wife was also expecting our third-born. Their pregancies were very close together and Pippa brought clothes for our baby. They ended up giving birth a matter of a week or so apart, which was very funny as we were all proud parents of our new daughters together.”

Pippa remembers those early days fondly… “The store was so integral in our lives at the start of Djuma,” she says. “I remember doing my screen printing in a little room near the store. We would stop there every day when the kids attended creche in Utha, and we once bathed a litter of tick-infested puppies there,” she recalls. “The girls were horrified – no running water and ticks scattering everywhere all over us!” she laughs.  “Joel’s mum also made the best “slap chips” in little packets that they sold to local school children. They were yummy!”

As Pippa and Jurie expanded with the construction of Vuyatela, they continued to support Utha Store and Joel, ordering construction goods like bricks and cement through the store.

“By then my mother had gone on pension and I was running the store alone. My eldest daughter was in matric in Sabie and she passed with flying colours. Because my business was doing so well, thanks to the support from Pippa and Jurie, I was able to send her to the University of Pretoria where she went to study accounting. I would not have been able to do this without their support. She eventually graduated as a chartered accountant and immediately got a job at OR Tambo International Airport, where she still works to this day.

My third-born daughter has also graduated from the University of Pretoria with a degree in transport logistics. My fourth daughter is in her fourth year at the university’s veterinary school. All of this is because of the support of Jurie and Pippa,” says Joel.

“But more than just supporters of Utha Store, they have become like family to me. And I respect them as such,” adds Joel. “It makes no difference that our skins are different colours, they have been there for me unquestioningly.”

Fast approaching 80, when will it be time for Joel to go on pension and spend his time tending to his cattle? “I don’t know,” he laughs easily. “Only God knows!”

Over the years the store has become the unofficial business centre of Utha. These days it sells hardware and a few groceries, but Joel is able to supply a wide range of goods on order. The only other shops in town are an old butchery and bakery that are now spazas (a spaza is an informal convenience store). So what will happen to the store when Joel eventually steps down?

“I had a meeting with my family,” he explains. “And I told them I want to stop working here and just look after my cattle. My youngest daughter, who is in vet school, said she will help when she has completed her studies. She loves animals, and loves caring for the cattle with me. So she can combine this with running the store. And I will just be happy for a life well-lived – the way I am happy for my friendship with Pippa and Jurie, and for everything they have done for me and my family.”

 

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