‘There’s so much soul there... the townships are the future’
Wild Geese: Frank Gormley, Cape Town, South Africa
Frank Gormley outside the Rainbow Academy, CBD, Cape Town: ‘I’m an entrepreneur, so I would love to build the first hotel in one of the townships here.’
Originally from Dublin, via Leitrim and Wexford, entrepreneur Frank Gormley first landed on South African shores in 1997 to follow the Great Britain and Ireland rugby lions tour.
“We went to a game in Johannesburg, and I was on a bus going through the city. I was stunned by how deserted the central business district was. It was like a ghost town, with office buildings plastered with ‘to let’ signs, doors chained shut, and windows smashed, devoid of life and development.”
Despite the watershed black majority election of 1994, which saw the end of apartheid, Johannesburg central business district became one of the most violent city centres on the planet as black and white tensions were rife.
“But I wanted to have a closer look and find out more about the people living there.”
Gormley, chose not to let fear or preconceived notions interfere and visited Soweto with a “fantastic” tour guide. “I brought some cigars and whiskey and met the locals. We ended up in a shebeen type place and chatted and exchanged stories. It was amazing.”
In 1998, he came to Cape Town for the first time. Similarly, the downtown area was deserted. “At the time, 80 per cent of buildings in the city centre weren’t occupied and so I started considering possible opportunities in the Mother City.”
The ex-accountant says a chance meeting with renowned anti-apartheid journalist Shaun Johnson, the deputy chief executive of Independent News & Media South Africa was to bear much fruit.
“We had a look at the empty buildings in downtown Cape Town, and put together a plan.”
Gormley founded Eurocape project management and property development company, which was to become one of the driving forces behind the regeneration of Cape Town’s city centre.
He was to become the lead developer in the world famous 200-bed Taj hotel, which was owned by the Tata Group, an Indian multinational conglomerate holding company headquartered in Mumbai, India. By far, his biggest and most prestigious project was the landmark mixed use property next door, Mandela Rhodes Place.
Commencing in 2004, it took up two full city blocks and boasted apartments, boutiques, bars, bistros and restaurants, offices and parking bays.
Prestigiously, it was the only building at the time to which Nelson Mandela lent his name to.
“It was a great honour at the time. I even got to meet Mr Mandela. He was personable and had the ability to make you feel as though you were the only person in the room. An extraordinary man.”
Eurocape also owned a number of other plots of land across the city that it was planning to develop prior to the economic downturn.
But then 2008 happened and his flagship property developments in Cape Town’s central business district had to be sold off to help pay multimillion euro debts. “We had all of our loan faculties and money in Anglo and I, like so many others, lost everything. It was devastating.
“But in 2010, I moved to Cape Town full time. I decided to gather myself up, get fit, go cycling, and try to start again.”
Though he went through difficult times and four years “tidying up the loose ends”, Gormley never lost his desire to help people less well off than him and to work towards a “more equal society”.
He became involved in the hotel business, and is responsible for business planning and implementation at the prestigious President Hotel and the Bantry Bay hotel, in Cape Town’s own Bantry Bay, and other developments in the central business district.
But he had an ambitious social project in mind too.
In 2010, Gormley co-founded the Rainbow Academy non-profit organisation, which runs a vocational training programme in performing arts and business for disadvantaged youths aged 17-25.
Set in the heart of Cape Town’s business district, the students come from townships all around the city. “They take part in an intensive one-year training and job placement programme in entrepreneurship and performing arts. Many graduates have gone on to great things. It’s a massive platform. Last year, we won a BASA award which acknowledges outstanding business support of and partnerships with the arts in South Africa.”
In 2020 they will mark 10 years since its founding and Gormley hopes to bring the performers to Ireland to showcase their talent and perhaps appear on Irish TV. “They are such incredible singers and performers. It’s a privilege to work with them. This year we took in 50 students.”
He has many other plans. “I’m an entrepreneur, so I would love to build the first hotel in one of the townships here. There’s so much soul there, despite the violence and hardship. The townships are the future.”
Gormley says he misses Ireland, “but just look at the weather here”. He says, if you are willing to work hard, South Africa can be a fantastic place. “There are endless opportunities, especially for entrepreneurs.
“It’s not without its red tape, and obviously there are social issues but once you get around them, Cape Town is truly magical. And of course, I know all lots of wonderful Irish people here.”
Having recently been appointed chair of BISA (Business Ireland South Africa) for the Western Cape, Gormley is looking forward to growing business opportunities between the two countries.