Lee and I (Toni) began South Africa’s original backpacker back in 1990, after Lee had to leave Australia due to visa constraints and I was tired of working with heartless people! I moved onto Lee’s turf in Sea Point when I was 14 and 30 years later we have proved the books wrong – that best friends can do business together.
With a mere 3000 Euros we fearlessly bought the first house, which had been a commune for 25 years and housed a few political activists in the 70’s. The 80’s saw the house transform into some party place. Timing and luck was on our side –after 3 weeks we were full – all 13 beds! Work was easy in those days… we were closed between 10 and 2 everyday. Lee and I would have gardening competitions and clean the house with Margie (whom you will find behind the bar and reception and has looked after Lee and her family for more than 37 years)!
There were not too many backpackers around in the early 90’s. South Africa was not a free country, but Nelson Mandela had just been released! The majority of South Africans were ecstatic! We used to bribe the train master with a 6 pack of beer ever Friday, to lure anyone sporting a backpack to come our way. Our little VW beetle was the shuttle. The traveler had time – staying with us for 3 months or more….the average stay in Cape Town is now 3 days!
Nearly 20 years later, we have managed to stay friends, grown from 13 to 100 beds, hire more than 25 staff, and we own (or should I say the Bank owns), 4 beautiful Victorian houses.
The story of ‘Giving Back’ at The Backpack
As the saying goes ‘life is all about choices’, and making a difference through good business practice is at the heart of how we operate at The Backpack. We promote a strong value system and work with every member of our team to instil the importance of honesty, trust, integrity, respect, service, good health, recognition, upliftment and responsibility.
Our philosophy is that by doing one small thing, its ripple effect will lead to bigger change. In fact, corporate social responsibility is not an optional add on, it is part of our core business practice and has helped us to accomplish incredible things. Since 2010 alone our guests have generously donated R55000.00 — and collectively by March 2011 we had generated over R350000.00 of independent funding that has gone towards helping others.
We have always felt a natural responsibility to the people and environment around us. We are committed to ‘fair trade’ and its principles of creating benefits beyond the boundaries of The Backpack. Over the years we have discovered a number of unforgettable projects in and around the city of Cape Town that we simply cannot walk away from. As a fast developing country there are always going to be challenges to overcome, but by the same token we have a unique opportunity to bring about positive change by participating, giving of ourselves and considering the broader impact of what we do. This is a factual account of how our story unfolded and about the initiatives we have taken under our wing.
Our first project came about at the turn of the millennium in the year 2000 when we built Masikhule Crèche in Khayelitsha, a township community near Cape Town. We came away so inspired by the experience, it motivated us to continue to be involved in helping communities. Whether it is knitting blankets for sick babies, helping young children with HIV, or trying to amass used soccer boots for kids with nothing but a passion for the game, we have found ourselves trying to help with everything that comes our way and encouraging others to do the same.
In 2009 we began a new project working to support children whose lives are affected by gangs. We have invested in a number of sports based projects such as soccer and rope skipping, as well as supporting education and literacy programmes. Our efforts are currently focusing on a school in the Cape Flats that is one of the lowest academic performers in the Western Cape.
Education is key to poverty alleviation, but good schooling remains beyond the reach of many children in poor areas around the city. At Woodlands Primary School in Heideveld, we can see that things are changing for the better thanks to a local hero called Mario van Niekerk. An ex-gang leader from the Cape Flats, Mario made a life changing decision to turn away from gangsterism to become a mentor and guardian in his community. His dream is to create a better future for the children attending this primary school as well as the youth living in the area. Many are affected by drugs, alcohol abuse and gang related activities. Mario established himself as a co-ordinator for introducing various sports projects at the school and founded an organisation called ‘Greater Commission United’. GCU projects receive ongoing financial support from The Backpack and Mario receives a regular salary, which means he can continue to reach for his goal.
This is a particularly heart-warming story. As a passionate soccer player himself who left gang life voluntarily after his own son was born, Mario identified the power of sport to lure young people away from making bad life choices. Gangs are often seen as role models and provide a sense of belonging, especially in fragmented family dynamics. Mario sees sport as a way to transform negative behaviours into positive emotions so that young people realise that there are alternatives out in the real world. Mario and his team of coaches are working hard to unite people in the communities so that they can experience how sport helps to build friendships, raise self-esteem, improve self– discipline and create a new sense of family.
One of the most inspiring sports that has been introduced at the school is rope skipping. A sport that is rapidly gaining popularity around the country, and being recognised competitively. It requires little in the way of equipment and is therefore easier to roll out across a range of age groups. We support this project by way of a monthly donation to make this valuable opportunity available to as many children as possible. Due to financial constraints, many impoverished schools are not able to offer any kind of physical education to their learners and we see this as the perfect solution.
Mario’s dream is to extend his personal contribution into the education arena, establishing support for academically challenged learners by improving literacy and numeracy with the help of a team of qualified assistants. His wish is to provide a library and a life skills centre for the school that will assist the teachers at grass routes level to keep the children on the straight and narrow. It is well known that education can be a path out of poverty, so the stakes are high for ensuring its success.
Our campaign to keep youngsters warm, especially children suffering from HIV, is called the ‘Vallies Stitch and Bitch Programme’, which involves residents at old age homes. By encouraging this sector of society to get active, it creates a renewed interest in life and a feeling of being valued for many elderly people. It also provides a sociable past time. Collectively we have knitted over one hundred blankets for AIDS orphans at Baphumelele Crèche in Khayelitsha. A growing number of old age homes contribute to this valuable project with their fantastic knitting skills. Visitors to The Backpack are equally invited to get knitting and, while relaxing in the lounge or bar, it is easy to create a square or two. To further the cause we regularly seek out donations of wool wherever we can find them.
We firmly believe that from the personal efforts we continually invest at The Backpack, we have the privilege of running a holistic, sustainable business operation where ‘what comes around goes around’ in the truest sense of the word.
Interview done August 2011.
“Choose a meaningful experience and make a difference with The Backpack & Africa Travel Centre”
We are proud of our Fair Trade Accreditation – a trademark awarded to Tourism businesses adhering to Fair Trade principles: fair wages and working conditions; fair operations in the purchasing and distribution of benefits; ethical business practice; respect for human rights; culture and the environment.
We are so grateful to all our fantastic staff – Mary who has been Lee’s friend since they were 5 years old (heads up all the front of house staff), Jane in Housekeeping and Brendan taking charge of the bar, restaurant and entertainment. We proudly hire many refugees from Africa –Malawi; The Democratic Republic of Congo; Zimbabwe and Tanzania.
We have invested in a Value Program whereby all the staff were involved in the process of selecting 8 values by which they work; Honesty, Trust, Integrity, Responsibility, Health, Recognition, Service and Upliftment. An ongoing program, with workshops in literacy, health and social welfare. Upliftment and training are essential to our success.
If you are deciding where to stay on your travels in Cape Town, we hope you choose us. By doing so, you will be making a difference to many of our lives. Thank you to those thousands who already have!
“Choose to make a difference”
Lee and Toni.