Jurni CEO Dr Nomvuselelo Songelwa is no stranger to South Africa’s Tourism Sector and is a champion for transformation, women’s rights and education. With her strong leadership attributes and first-hand tourism industry experience, Dr Songelwa is passionate about driving inclusive economic growth, job creation and transformation for all South Africans.
How did you fall in love with travelling?
My first travel experience brings back really great memories of my childhood with my grandmother. We were travelling from the rural areas by train to Stillfontein and Klerksdorp where my father was working a labourer at the time.
The experience of taking a taxi, a bus and a train past the rural villages to Johannesburg and then Klerksdorp was really special to me, especially since it was the first time I would be seeing my parents. I remember meeting people on the train and eating nicer food than what I used to eat at home along the way in the padkos. Looking out the window and seeing a whole different world.
What kind of traveller are you today?
If you grew up in poverty like many black South Africans, it’s nice to be able to afford some luxuries today. As much as I like adventure – I will go hiking and enjoy the rustic activities on offer in the National Parks – my accommodation is important to me. I would, for example, prefer going glamping than rustic camping, as I associate camping with the poverty in which I grew up.
What is your travel philosophy?
Travel is about exploring different experiences. People are often drawn to a destination as a result of popular marketing messages. We all flock to destinations such as Dubai or Bali because that’s what’s popular at this moment.
For me, however, I enjoy visiting places that are off the beaten track and that offer you real and authentic ‘people’ experience. Museums are great to get a glimpse of a country, but I get more excited about engaging with people and connecting with people.
What are your top travel essentials?
What constitutes a travel essential is very dependent on your destination. You can’t wear bikinis in a game park or wear bright, colourful clothing. Be relevant to the trip you are taking.
Where was your most memorable trip?
The most memorable trip I made was in 1994 when I went to Miami from Cape Town to attend a conference. After the conference, I spent two weeks on holiday and explored the region. I was travelling on my own, but I found a very unlikely travel partner at the conference: a white Afrikaner Boer. We got to talking at the conference and had so much fun, we decided to explore the region together. People were surprised to see a black woman alongside a white Afrikaner man, both from South Africa, but travelling in the same car and staying in the same hotels.
After my travel partner had left, I got stranded in Miami. I didn’t read the return date on my flight ticket. When I arrived at the airport, I was told I was only leaving the next day. However, I had used up all my money and had only US$10 left in my pocket. I went back to the hotel, preparing to sleep in the foyer. However, a South African who was on business fundraising for Mandela, paid for my accommodation and meals. I’d never seen the person before – the receptionist told me everything had been paid. It showed me the kindness of people.
How has travelling changed your life?
Travel has broadened my horizon and demystified some of my perceptions. It has also made me appreciate other people as well as my own country.
When I travelled to the US, I had this glorified image of America as a country where everything was utopic. I saw first-hand what propaganda the media can spread as I realised that even in this country there were racist people and there was poverty.
I travelled throughout the US by myself. I travelled 33 hours on eight different Greyhound buses on my own. Throughout this trip, I met people who knew the history of my country better than I did. Wherever I went, I found people who had music from South Africa, or who were fascinated by our country. These are the connections that allowed me to grow, to learn and appreciate the country I came from.
When borders open again and the world starts to return to ‘a new normal’ what’s your first travel destination on your list?
Before COVID-19, I had two trips planned: to Bali and to Namibia. I still really want to go to Namibia as I want to explore African countries more. I would love to explore Uganda and Kenya and experience their landscape.
And I want to travel to go home and visit my family. I have a new little granddaughter who was born during the lockdown. I can’t wait to see her.
Best travel advice you can share?
Never, ever travel without experiencing the culture of the people and connecting with the people. Those kinds of experiences can’t be found in books or magazines. Talk to the people in the streets and learn from their perspectives. The locals will suggest very unique experiences and activities that brochures tend to overlook. Engage with ordinary people on the streets, ask them questions. You can’t imagine the wisdom and perspective you can gain from talking to people.
Dr Songelwa has fulfilled several critical roles throughout her career, including the role of Chief Operations Officer at Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency, and the role of Senior General Manager of Operations at South African National Parks (SANParks). In addition to holding a PhD in Land and Agrarian Reform, Dr. Songelwa received the Women in Science award from the South African National Department of Science and Technology for her gender-focused research in 2004. In 2000, she was awarded the H. H. Humphrey Fellowship for Professional Development at Cornell University in New York.