Life under lockdown has been a series of ups and downs for one of tourism’s everyday heroines, Mpho Tsotetsi. But she found her voice and found hope amid the darkness.
This is Women’s Month and, as part of the #IamTourism campaign, Tourism Update will share the stories of the everyday heroines of the industry.
This is the story of how Tsotetsi made sure she was heard:
Tsotetsi has a way with words and exudes warmth and a casual friendliness – a perfect fit for the hospitality industry – so it’s no surprise that she studied travel and tourism after school and, on graduating, joined the Orient Express Group in its reservations department.
She slowly but surely worked her way through various positions in tourism, landing a job in Cape Town where she was exposed to different parts of the travel industry and had the opportunity to work with some well-known international brands.
The COVID-19 bombshell
It was at the end of March that the reality of COVID-19 hit, and the company she was working for decided to close up shop for good.
“I knew by March 15 that I no longer had a job,” says Tsotetsi, “and of course at that time everyone stopped hiring and there were no other opportunities to speak of. But a part of me still believed there was going to be some kind of turnaround, and perhaps I would be able to find another job to be able to sustain myself.”
She says it was about the same time that a number of ‘save tourism’-type social media groups began to make a noise. At first the industry efforts were inspirational, but being without a job with no real Plan B in place to pay her bills, Tsotetsi was extremely anxious.
“I was scared, I didn’t know how I was going to make it through this thing (the COVID-19 lockdown), or how long it was going to take,” she says. “At the time I didn’t realise the implications of it all… the closing of the borders meant no business coming in, but with all the restrictions on people travelling inside our country meant another big hurdle. It felt like all the doors were shutting and they were going to stay shut for good.”
South Africa went into ‘hard lockdown’ and it was a very difficult time for Tsotetsi, who says the stories of the impact of the pandemic on friends, colleagues and businesses just got worse and worse, making her more and more despondent.
She felt totally defeated, and while colleagues in the tourism industry were shouting loudly from their Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter soapboxes, Tsotetsi retreated into her own space.
“People were busy making plans and I was just defeated… My spirit was down, I just couldn’t any more… I spent my days during hard lockdown waking up, being on the phone, on Facebook, watching Netflix and eating quite a lot and I was just numbed by the whole experience – it was all too loud. I just shut down.
“I thought to myself, maybe this is the time to pack in being in the tourism industry and just go in a different direction altogether.”
Tsotetsi says she remained in a numbed and despondent state for a whole month, and nothing could make her feel better, until a text arrived from a friend asking her how she was.
“I’m good,” she responded to her friend… “and also not so good,” she texted. In retrospect she says she had all but given up at the time.
A spark of possibility
Offering a possible career opportunity in the tourism industry, her friend provided the much-needed inspiration and Tsotetsi was inspired to find her own way out of a dark space. She says she recognises that during the early stages of lockdown when the industry ‘big guns’ were making a noise to save the industry, she felt that she didn’t have voice.
“I had silenced myself, but then I said no, enough is enough. I want to be involved! I am able to contribute to this industry, I need to be heard now and I need to be part of the solution and I am ready to do whatever it takes.”
And as her enthusiasm for life emerged, so did her need to find solutions to make some kind of difference to the industry that had supported her for so many years. She says the time on her own has given her the space to realise that many people don’t understand how far and wide the tourism industry stretches and how it impacts on so many lives, particularly young women like herself.
“If you look at what the industry has done for the average person on the street, the communities that have been benefactors of the industry… I have been so fortunate to have gone on safari and have seen the contribution that tourism makes to the lives of the communities.
Being proud, being alive
“The support that tourism bring to anyone around it and part of it is inspiring. Coming from a black community with many limitations, now kids in those communities know they can benefit. They know the world is bigger, because we (the tourism players) are bringing tourists that they end up interacting with. It gives life to the slogan Ummuntu ngumuntu nagabantu, or ‘people first’ and that’s exactly what we are contributing towards.”
She says for her tourism is also about being proudly South African and African, and she feels proud of the warmth of South Africans, and their ability to make anyone feel at home.
“There really is more to tourism, it’s about the human spirit,” she says.
Things are still not easy for Tsotetsi, but she is looking for opportunities around every corner and since that phone call from her friend, promising possibilities are on the horizon.
“People ask me how I am now, and I say I really am fine. I am so grateful for so many things. I am grateful for the fact that I am healthy, and I am even more grateful that I have learnt beautiful lessons throughout this pandemic. I also know that I can survive with what little I have, and that for me is the most important lesson.”
Lessons from lockdown
She says allowing people into her space and life after lockdown was another lesson.
“You may be in a dark space, but as soon as you are willing to listen and invite people in, it can change you and allow you to be part of your community again. Somebody reached out to be, and that’s what I want to do – reach out to others during this time. I may not know how I am next going to pay my rent, but something always comes up.”
And as for the future, she is already doing what she can to spend the positive message about the tourism industry, even if it’s just among friends and colleagues on social media.
Tsotetsi spoke to Natalia Rosa, Big Ambitions MD and one of the drivers of the #IamTourism campaign. Click here to view their #IAmTourism conversation.