When Grace Bopape came into the Learn and Teach offices, she was wearing a pretty spotted dress and a big smile. Nobody could believe that she really moved furniture for a living — she didn’t look nearly strong enough.
Finally, one of the comrades in the office, Obed, asked her: “Do you really lift heavy furniture? And dump rubbish?” “Sure,” she answered. “And I lift other things too. Give me a minute to change into my work clothes and I’ll pick you up too!”
Obed soon found himself in the strong arms of Grace Bopape — about one metre above the floor! He was scared, but he tried not to show it. Instead, he smiled for the camera. “You see,” said Grace. “I move anything, big or small!”
GRACE COMES TO JO’BURG
Grace was born in Sovenga near Pietersburg in 1958 to a poor family. When her father died, Grace was forced to leave school. She found work in Pietersburg doing piece-jobs as a domestic worker and made some money to help her mother and two sisters and a brother.
When Grace was 16, she went to Germiston. There she stayed with her aunt and did piece-work in the white suburbs. But she was only earning R24 a month and so she decided to look for a new job.
Her next job was in a garage in Fordsburg, Johannesburg. Grace made tea there for three years. But already she was planning bigger things. She did not want to be a “tea-girl” for ever.
“Every month, I put R10 in the bank,” says Grace. “Then the garage went broke and I found a job as a domestic worker with a family called the Steinbergs. I worked there for seven years, saving all the time. Even though the Steinbergs paid me well, the wages of a domestic worker are not enough to support my family in Pietersburg.”
A HELPING HAND
So Grace decided to speak to the Steinbergs and see if they could help. They suggested that she get a driving licence. Mr. Steinberg taught Grace to drive and soon she was the proud owner of a driving licence.
The Steinbergs helped Grace to buy a van. Now it was time to find a business. “I did not know what I could do. I discussed all sorts of ideas with the Steinbergs. In the end, we came up with the idea of a lift-club.
“By now, I was living at a doctor’s house in Parktown, Johannesburg. There were about 12 children in the area and I started driving the children to school and to their lessons. But I was making only a little money. So I went to talk to the Steinbergs again.”
Grace says she and the Steinberg family have always been very close and friendly. “They are like my family,” she says. Once again, they gave her an idea for a business — taking people to Pietersburg. Every week, she would pack the truck and drive people to Pietersburg. Moving all the suitcases and boxes started Grace thinking. She would start a removal business!
So she put an advertisement in the Star newspaper — “Removals — big and small, heavy and light.” She asked the Steinbergs if they would take telephone messages for her. They agreed happily. Soon the phone calls were pouring in. There were so many people asking for furniture and rubbish removals that Grace could not manage alone. She had to get a helper.
FERNANDO JOINS THE TEAM
Fernando Numaio came from Mozambique to South Africa four years ago. He and Grace made a good team and today they are the best of friends.
Grace and Fernando not only remove furniture, they also dump rubbish. When they started, they charged R30 for one van load of rubbish, but sometimes the dumping grounds were far and they spent more than R30 on petrol. So Grace and Fernando drove around Johannesburg learning where all the dumping grounds were.
Soon people were asking Grace to come and clear their land. So she bought tools and a lawnmower for cutting grass and levelling land. This is hard work, and Grace and Fernando cannot always manage to do this by themselves. Grace employs people without jobs to help for the day. “I help them and they help me,” she says.
Grace’s husband, Obed, is also often there to lend a hand.
Now Grace has regular customers and earns about R1 600 a month. She is able to support her mother and younger sister, who is still in school. And she has saved enough to buy land for a house in Pietersburg.
“NEVER SAY CANT”
To be a mover, you have to be strong. We asked Grace what the secret of her strength is. Lots of mielie-pap, perhaps? “No,” she laughed. “I do exercise a bit, by running in the park. But the secret is to keep trying. Never say you can’t do something until you have tried. When I started, people told me that a woman could never lift these heavy things. But I tried — and I found that I could. And now I am used to it.”
Grace says that she loves her job. “Fernando and I are always happy. We never argue even though we work seven days a week. And we also have free time, because it is not a nine to five job.”
Her message to Learn and Teach readers, especially the women? “Never say you can’t do something. When I started my business, I was one of few black people doing it. And there were no women. Today, there are still no women movers. But it’s a great job. My message is this: if you really want to do something, you must keep trying!”