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Kindred connection


As Judge Mablean Ephriam has developed her business in South Africa, she has reaped much more than financial benefits.

“There was a connection; a kindred spirit,” said the Los Angeles-based lawyer about her first visit to the Southern African nation. “Now I understand why I don’t like shoes, and now I understand my wide hips . . . they look like me.”

Ephriam has made these discoveries as co-owner of a bed and breakfast she opened in 2004 in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the Houghton Estate.

Jubilane Guest House is an eight-bedroom home comparable to the Hancock Park homes, “and those type of homes I’ve dreamed of owning in Los Angeles but haven’t been able to own,” pointed out Ephriam, who said she and her partners, Paulette Brown and Evette Simmons, bought a former Korean Consulate for a very, very, very good price.

“The National Bar Association was involved in the process of the election in South Africa after Apartheid, and we held our convention in Johannesburg after Apartheid. A number of us went over to the continent, and one colleague out of Indiana bought a piece of property and opened a bed and breakfast. We went to visit her, stayed 10 days, and discovered that the economy was down, and our dollars were up in value.”

Combined with “white flight,” Ephriam said there were a number of beautiful, stately homes available for sale in an economic climate that definitely worked to the advantage of Americans.

Recognizing an opportunity, the three lawyers pooled their resources, and spent more than a year researching and creating a corporation that enabled them to purchase the property. Then they spent another two years decorating and refurbishing the home.

“It has eight bedrooms, a living room, family room, bar room, kitchen, formal dining room, and servants quarters for three. There are tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a huge yard for entertaining,” said Ephriam of her property.

Business is very good for Jubilane Guest House, said Ephriam because South Africa is a country where infrastructure development is in full swing.

“Communications companies and technology companies are there to help them build, and they (the company employees) need a place to stay,” explained the former judge, who has also received support from her legal and church connections.

But beyond bringing business for the trio of lawyers, Jubilane has served as a training ground for a number of native South Africans.

“We’ve been able to employ native South Africans. Our home is in an area where there is a great school district. Their children are allowed to go to school in our community because they (the parents) are working there. This means their children are getting a better education . . . In Soweto (the former black township where some employees come from), the schools were inferior quality.

Much like the schools in the back woods of the South. There were crowded classes, no running water etc.,” Ephriam explained.

Additionally, Ephriam said she and her team (including her brother who is a general contractor) have taught the workers skills such as light construction and maintenance, and how to operate an establishment in the hospitality industry. Previously most people were limited to service type jobs.

Jubilane employees have also learned to drive and how to speak English.

Contrary to what many people say, Ephriam has found black South Africans extremely welcoming, and she calls the often-voiced sentiment–Africans do not like African Americans–propaganda spread to keep the two groups separate.

At the same time, the former judge is not blind to the challenges of doing business on the continent. Forming the corporation which purchased the property is a case in point. She said it took a year of researching, forming banking relationships, and cutting through a lot of red tape to finally acquire the property. But what also made a difference was the help of Cora Vaughn, an Indiana lawyer friend, who first took the South African plunge into ownership of a bed and breakfast. Her two years of on-the-ground experience helped them avoid many pitfalls, Ephriam said.

Among the challenges Ephriam and her partners faced was understanding the pace of life in South Africa–it takes a while to get things done, so patience is a must. Also “they are learning and their minds are being transformed. They are so used to bowing and responding to the white man, that sometimes you will experience being overlooked. You just simply bring it to their attention,” added the lawyer.