After squandering his opportunity to make a better life for himself, Sipho Ntoni is grateful to be given a chance to start over. By Nwabisa Ngumbela
When he was 13, Sipho Ntoni’s family moved from their home in Mdantsane to Newbright in Port Elizabeth in search of greener pastures. To make a bit of pocket money and help his family financially, the young man went into town every weekend looking for odd jobs.
Fate steps in
One afternoon, Sipho came across a ‘very big, beautiful building’ emblazoned with the words Gilbert Chemicals.‘I thought the building looked nice and maybe the owner could hire me to clean it for him,’ Sipho recalls of his first encounter with the man who would later inspire him to fall in love with chemistry. ‘When Mr Gilbert came out to meet me downstairs, I told him I was looking for a job. He laughed and told me I was too young to work, but told me to come watch him “play” with chemicals instead. I was blown away and instantly wanted in.’
A clean bill
It was clear from the start that Sipho had a real passion for chemistry, and Mr Gilbert decided to take him under his wing. ‘The only problem was I was terrible at maths. My teachers told me I was stupid and I believed them, but Mr Gilbert thought otherwise. He found me a tutor and my maths started to improve.’ When Sipho matriculated in 1997, Mr Gilbert offered to foot his education bill.
Living the high life
He enrolled for a chemistry diploma and Mr Gilbert also gave him a blank chequebook to take care of all of his needs, including his accommodation, groceries, transport and textbooks.
‘I wasn’t used to having that much money. I left my family, rented a flat in town and I started drinking a lot with all the friends who had appeared out of nowhere.’ Things soon escalated and later that year, Sipho was sentenced to six months in jail for assault. But that still wasn’t enough to bring him to his senses.
A wake-up call
Soon, Sipho dropped out of school. He was no longer in communication with Mr Gilbert. Sipho learnt of his passing, however, when he went to go cash a cheque and was told that the account was closed. He went to Mr Gilbert’s house only to be told that he’d been buried the previous week.
It was at that moment that Sipho came to his senses. He approached the new proprietor of Gilbert Chemicals, who hired him to be a lab assistant, but since he had no qualifications, he was paid the same amount as a cleaner.
Passion is the key
Disillusioned with his financial situation – he hardly made enough to see him through the month – he decided to leave PE and start over in Cape Town, where he found a position as a security guard. He worked night shifts and used the quieter hours to develop his real passion: chemical formulas. He made soaps, fabric softeners, and clothing and shoe dyes – all of which he sold to supplement his meagre income.
No average car washer
One night while on shift, Sipho met Philip. ‘I was dyeing a pair of brown leather shoes for a client when Philip caught me. He asked what I was doing while I should have been watching the building. When I explained to him what I was doing, he asked me to wash his sports car using some of my cleaning chemicals. When I knocked off that morning, I got home and developed a formula for his car. I was terrified because my chemicals had not been SABS approved.’
But after he washed the cars, Philip was so impressed that he told Sipho to quit his job and come to an office building in the city centre where Philip has a business, because he felt Sipho would attract more customers there.
A second chance
And in almost no time at all, Sipho had a booming business. Seeing how effective his chemicals were, Philip decided to help Sipho complete his studies. He owed the college where he started his studies some serious cash and he had to clear that first before he could complete his diploma.
‘I was again reminded of how many good people there are out there when various companies within the office building put together the money so I could pay off my debt. I started going to classes again and I graduate in June.’
He also still washes cars when he’s not in class. ‘Studying is for my future, but washing cars will put food on the table right now.’ Asked whether it is difficult to juggle his studies and his car-washing business, Sipho just grins. ‘I had the chance many years ago to make my life great and I just threw it away. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.’
Where to from here?
Apart from wanting to start his own company, Sipho dreams of doing live shows where he’d revive old clothes and make them look new again. ‘Too often, kids are not interested in maths, because they don’t know what they can do with it. If I host these shows and mix the chemicals right in front of them, they can change their minds like I did all those years ago when Mr Gilbert introduced me to chemistry.’