Born in Soweto in 1953, he was brought up in his late teens by his grandmother in Mamelodi, Pretoria. Nyembe clinched his first job, at 21, as a production planner at German industrial giant Siemens’ Pretoria factory. There were 2 600 applicants. “Getting the job gave me a sense of being a winner,” he says.
But not for long.
Nyembe went to the local bantu affairs department office with a letter from Siemens to have his dompas stamped, a prerequisite to starting a job in those days. Smiling, he handed in his pass and letter. Unsmiling, the official looked through the documents, opened a page of his passbook, pulled a stamp from a shelf and stamped it: “72 hours to leave Pretoria.”
“You can’t do that,” said Nyembe, “I’ve got a job here.”
“You were born in Soweto,” replied the official. “You can’t take a job away from somebody born in Pretoria.”
Nyembe refused to leave until the official had removed the stamp. “I’ll call the police,” said the official.
“Call them,” replied Nyembe.
“Vat hom weg,” said the official to two policemen and Nyembe was manhandled out of the pass office.
But neither Nyembe nor Siemens gave up. They bypassed the prohibition by employing him in their Jo’burg office and sending him to work in Pretoria every day.
Nyembe’s bosses were pleased with his work and six years later, in 1980, Siemens offered to buy him a house. Nyembe went to the housing office with a R2 000 cheque to pay cash for a three-bedroomed home in Soshanguve. Again, he was rejected; this time because he had to work in Pretoria for 10 years before he could buy a house.
“I’m paying cash,” said Nyembe. “I’m not leaving until I have a house.”
The police came. This time they decided he hadn’t committed an offence and they couldn’t remove him.
Nyembe walked out with a compromise: an empty stand costing R450, on which he built his home. It awakened in him a taste for property development.
A year later, a friend suggested he join Southern Life as an insurance salesman because, said his friend: “You get on well across the colour line.”
“That was important in those days,” says Nyembe.
Luckily, he again found a boss who took to him. He also performed. It wasn’t long before he was earning R15 000/month, a fortune 22 years ago. A year later he earned R79 000 in one month.
“I said to myself, I think there is a businessman inside me,” he recalls.
So he left Southern Life in 1991 and became a builder. By 1993, he was heading the 3 000-strong National Association of Black Contractors. By 1999, Nyembe had merged his 25 000-member association with the white Building Industries Federation.
He formed his first black empowerment company with construction company Grinaker. “I really grew as a person, learnt boardroom skills and made firm friendships,” he says.
A directorship of UK-based builder Bovis’s SA operation followed.
Today, Nyembe has a building company, Nu Way; an estate agency, Linda Nyembe Properties; and mortgage originator Finance for Africa – which is why he has separate offices.
While a partner runs Nu Way and his wife, Julia, minds the estate agency, Nyembe’s attention is focused on his summit.