Anthea Rossouw is the founder of the non-profit Dreamcatcher South Africa. Her story is one of individual courage and leadership to break the mould of traditional tourism. Learn about her amazing journey in the video below.
Under Apartheid, law prohibited social integration -and interaction between black and white cultures. This bred mistrust and hostility on both sides. Commercial fishing, Melkhoutfontein’s only sustainable source of livelihood, had all but dried up by mid 1985. Tourism, to Anthea’s mind, (already working in social development and poverty relief there since 1985), with all the attributes the area offered, was the path to the future. Social tourism entrepreneurship was the vehicle to drive it.
Her commitment to break down the many barriers, which includes emotional and lack of confidence, to become part of the economic benefits and the peripheral advantages of tourism, would take years to fulfil. In 1988 Anthea tabled her model of sustainable and responsible community based tourism, in Melkhoutfontein to offer an alternative experience, by the community, to visitors. In 1990 Melkhoutfontein was proclaimed one of the most destitute communities in South Africa by the Human Science Research Council.
The outcome of this research further motivated Anthea to continue in her quest to use what the people of Melkhoutfontein had, (their humanity and history), to offer local engagement encounters, participating in community life, at the heart of this personal experience. These experiences would not be staged cultural experiences traditionally offered. It would engage life as lived and turn create paths to mutual understanding, trust, and respect.
Abandoning a career with lucrative options, in the absence of tangible benefits of tourism evolving in township communities, Anthea chose to commit 90% of her work time as a volunteer since Dreamcatcher’s inception, to facilitate socio-economic transformation through inclusive enterprise participation by predominantly women enterprises. Working tirelessly among the women with the vision to include youth to develop a new generation of enterprises in South Africa, she pioneered various socio-economic development models to turn the impossible into the possible in terms of access to business in a fiercely tourism industry and deliberately including development of peripheral enterprises of which local crafting and creative, the environment.
Anthea’s mission was to ensure that money circulated in communities and that business enterprises, by virtue of the particular poor economic activities in the communities where poverty was rife, to develop pluralistic models which could impact positively on local society. In this time, despite a hostile political and social climate initially she pioneered the concept of townships tours. This was followed by the concept of a unique type of guest house experience was developed: local community based home stays in comfortable local accommodations where guests can participate in family and community life. Ultimately her efforts led to her involvement as founding member of the Global Community Based Tourism Network, initiated under the auspices of the Netherlands Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI). Known as the “mother” of tourism in communities across South Africa, Anthea is currently the elected spokesman for this organisation which, through its visionary founding a decade ago, is currently in the process of developing a new website. This project embarked upon with over a dozen country representatives of community based tourism, initially, the platform will assist the travel industry to find authentic, unpretentious, truly local community based experiences offered by wholly owned local enterprises who contribute to the socio-economic growth, unique culture and day to day lifestyle of their communities. These are the “unstaged”experiences which an ever growing discerning new generation of travellers are seeking.
From inception 30 years ago, her plan and vision was simple: offer tourists the change to engage the “real“ South Africa. Enable visitors discover and become part of the soul of the country, engage and interact with its fascinating people, diversity of traditional lifestyles and to share their own at local level. To make this transition an integral part of the “must do” experience of South Africa (and any country). Passionate about the environment, the abundant wildlife and stunning natural vistas these are not negated. On the contrary Anthea views its sustainable survival dependant on the people of South Africa who are considered the custodians of this environment. For nature to survive, its people must thrive is her ethos. Anthea refers to this shift in orientation within the tourist industry as “Changing Lanes to the true South Africa”. In Anthea’s vision that travellers from around the globe, conscientious of the important positive impact their patronage could have on local communities is all coming into fruition as the numbers of travellers seeking out cultural travel experiences, volunteer and interning opportunities that help them broaden their horizons and become better citizens of the world, continue to grow.
3 decades later, Anthea still spends 80% of her work time as a volunteer at Dreamcatcher, developing sustainable models to improve quality of life and sustainable self-sufficiency in communities. A gifted speaker and tutor, 20% of remaining time is dedicated to delivering keynote addresses and motivational talks drawing on her many years of real world experience in community development from the boot straps, mentoring and tutoring. As an expert community and stakeholder engager, working in diverse, multi-cultural environments, with a significant track record in facilitating sustainable economic growth at the grassroots level, she also provides guest tutorials at universities, schools and educator groups both in South Africa and internationally.
In addition to her work in South Africa, her expertise in stakeholder -and community engagement and behaviour change saw Anthea working part time in behaviour change projects and research with 2 Housing Associations, running trials on community engagement for Defra (Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs) in the United Kingdom, implementing her innovative community and social engagement model and approach to tackle a challenge and turn it into an opportunity. The outcomes of her work earned her the prestigious Gatwick Diamond Green Champion award, as besides addressing key environmental issues in a practical, outcomes-based approach.
Anthea is able to engage with people on all levels of society, including those considered “hard to reach”. Projects she spearheads are characterised by the development of a community spirit among residents, defusing tension and earning her respect among thousands of local people in communities across South Africa and wider afield. With a approach of fostering individual empowerment, collective accountability and an ethos considering the greater good of society, she has the ability of focusing people, even in most conflicting platforms, to work towards sustainable living, addressing poverty, environmental impacts of waste on health and the environment, fair and inclusive access to opportunities for women, youth and those with physical challenges and concerted efforts to promote universal intra-cultural harmony and tolerance. This has earned her the accolade of one of the Top Social Innovators Globally, by the World CSR Organisation.
Key to Anthea’s approach is her gifted leadership of enabling ways to build bridges of understanding which eliminate barriers, instil knowledge and training purposed to practical outcomes purposed to inspire community contributors. A true visionary, those who know Anthea find her unassuming, gracious people oriented leader, unmotivated by accolades, who gets things done, turning impossibilities into probabilities. Her greatest joy is to assist individuals and communities find ways to develop to their full potential in pathways of learning and socio-economic empowerment.
Says Anthea: “Viewing the world around me, I am pleased that I made the choices I did. To use an African word, I am Ubuntu. I am who I am through my association with others. I made the choice consciously to get down to grass roots and remain in touch with the real world and life as truly lived. It is such fun. There is never a dull moment. I chose to share and adhere to ideals of Nelson Mandela: to build bridges of hope and universal understanding, not just by talking about it, but by living it and ensuring a lasting legacy of hope to make his dream and those who struggled for political freedom, work in terms of socio-economic freedom. There is so much to do. Let’s get on with it!”.
Anthea became especially creative to survive the disapproval of the community where she lived, to encourage people who would take notice, to listen. Sticking to her promise to Moses, she managed to recruit and motivate a few white retirees with a range of skills in Stilbaai, to work with her to make the difference she sought. To ensure that the retired white population had access to home care and support in their homes, she spearheaded the development of the Jagersbosch Community Care Centre in Stilbaai. Many of those retirees appreciated her passion to create a better life for them and through their association with her, committed to helping her in the various disciplines she needed assistance in.
Whilst developing Jagersbosch into a model care centre which would lead to her involvement in the development of a post Apartheid Strategy and Policy on Care and Ageing for the new National Department of Social Services: Anthea worked systematically with the impoverished community in Melkhoutfontein as well, focused and on a mission to motivate them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. After training in building skills they joined in to help her build a community care centre called “Soeterus”, also to the benefit of the aged, physically challenged and those at risk. Anthea offered training, skills transfer to a number of women in the community to develop their own tourist product to offer to international tourists. She would eventually duplicate the unique model she developed to 20 other towns and cities on tourist routes in South Africa. Anthea also spearheaded the formation of a strong, forward thinking local tourism bureau to further increase tourism and investment into Stilbaai.
Naming her local economical development plan, “Changing Lanes to make Mandela’s Dream Work”, Anthea’s prime aim was sustainability and self-sufficiency. Entertaining no handouts, but commitment instead, the plan was geared to give the local people (especially women), the confidence, skills and access to opportunities to develop tourism products, become part of that tourism plant as tourism entrepreneurs on the one hand and to diversify the local tourism experience from an environment and nature based experience, to include community based encounters as opposed to staged cultural experiences.
With neither the means nor chance to travel or use the facilities tourists did; all the fledgling entrepreneurs and their community knew about tourists, was that they could get jobs as servants, gardeners and child minders when the tourist came to town during summer and Easter. To become tourist entrepreneurs and services meant that the people of Melkhoutfontein had to reinvent themselves and develop a new tourist offering of Stilbaai to add to its rich environmental and nature based attributes, the chance for visitors to “meet the people”. For the women who signed up as entrepreneurs in Melkhoutfontein, it meant they had start thinking of themselves as a service and no longer a servant. For the tourist fraternity in Stilbaai, with smart houses converted to bed and breakfasts,it was unthinkable that international tourists would want to meet the people and stay with them in the township.
The Dreamcatcher training and mentoring programmes entails significant hands on skills transfer, mentoring and knowledge transfer programmes to which the entrepreneurs commit for at least 5 years. These programmes are updated every year or as the tourism industry and market changes. Commitment to their own respective communities to look back and help out in projects, is a pre-requisite for the entrepreneurs to stay on board. The local communities, the environment and especially the youth, are critical factors which are part of all mentoring programmes.
Most people involved in tourism, considered her daft. (“Clearly some still do, hopefully some changing along the way,..”) an unfazed Anthea said. It was clear to her at the time that the tourism industry in South Africa was not ready to support her and did not recognise the profound importance of what she was proposing. Community development was geared to hand-outs and grants, rather than linked to long term sustainability through stimulating income generated by the people themselves to become entrepreneurs, job creators and improving quality of life themselves instead of waiting for hand outs and menial jobs.
Motivated by the rejection, ridicule and lack of commitment on a wide front to include local community based experiences into a tourism package or route:. Anthea took products she initiated called “Homestays with Kamamma & Cook-up with Kamamma”, into the international marketplace herself, changing this barrier into an opportunity. She was convinced that one could only “develop” for a period; that future plans and funding should be linked to sustainable outcomes. This meant that she had to work towards a “happy ending” from the start and implied that a developed individual and product had to generate income and contribute to grow themselves and the local community as businesses themselves.
Besides dealing with the fiercely protective industry selling a different South Africa, Anthea was proposing and actively pursuing the objective to facilitate opportunities for tourists to visit communities, engage with locals in authentic lifestyle encounters, sleep over, eat and going truly local in townships. This in stark contrast to driving past the communities as as if they did not exist or staring at them through a bus window. She wanted to make it possible for people from abroad to meet the locals and for the locals to become part of the visitor experience.
The Dreamcatcher approach is holistic. It includes as equally important, the people, the local environment and the quality of the experience for the community and the tourist into consideration. A tourism product or entrepreneur is not developed in isolation. This approach is significantly different to that of mainstream tourism product development. It is an approach and philosophy which recognises the importance of a community based approach to tourism development and growth and that this development has significant potential to impact positively on the local people. This approach was particularly important to apply in socio-economically depressed areas situated within an already developed tourist route, which was and still is, the case in South Africa.
The Dreamcatcher thus believed that the value of this as experienced by the people, whether they are the locals or the visitors,will ultimately impact upon tourism in the country as a whole and that the future would prove her right or wrong. She found new ways to deal with adversity, turning barriers into opportunities.