Shoe No. 14

Bathu: Yoco Merchant #26 828

South Africa has a rich selection of traditional home-grown shoes, but on the streets the familiar names – Nike, Converse, Puma and Adidas – are the staple. For Theo Baloyi, founder of Bathu shoes, this presented a challenge: how do we as South Africans reclaim an important part of our local street culture? From this Bathu was born. A shoe that aims to be for South Africa what Chuck Taylor’s are to urban America.

To understand Bathu you have to go back to where it all started in Alex. In a back room of a small house across the road from the spaza shop, where old men sit on the bench outside and watch the days go by. It’s a long way from where Theo is today, but this is the home of Bathu. Like Soweto, Alex is a font of South African history, with Nelson Mandela, Hugh Masakela and others claiming it as home. Now, on the streetwear front, Theo is making strides as the boy from Alex who gave Alex a shoe of its own.

But not just for Alex: the name Bathu itself is township slang for ‘shoe’.

This is a story of perseverance and making the most of meagre opportunities. Theo recounts an entrepreneurial journey that starts at university, where he studied to be an accountant.

My dad sold his car so that I could get into varsity - just for the first semester. My tuition was not fully paid. In my second year I used to sell perfumes door-to-door in Alex, with my partner Andrew, to make some extra money to make up for it,” he says, “It’s where I learned the art of selling.

From then he knew that his was to be a life of entrepreneurship. But, like Joseph Campbell’s prototypical hero, he at first refused the call for a stint in corporate that took him to the Middle East for three years. For many people this would be enough: from Alex to university to working for PWC abroad is an accomplishment on its own – but Theo had grander plans.

Nqobile of Bathu dancing.
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A chance encounter at Dubai International reminded him of his desire to create a name that South Africans could be proud of on the world stage. As a sneakerhead himself he thought: why not own a sneaker brand?

It seems predestined in hindsight, but the leap from side hustle to business owner can only be made with self belief, purpose and hope. And talking to Theo you sense he has these in abundance. His mantra: always capitalise on small opportunities. After getting into varsity he gets a bursary, he goes on to be the top student, PWC puts him into their trainee program, he gets hired as an employee, he gets the Dubai project, he saves his money and finally Bathu happens. Every step an opportunity leading to another.

“When you get that green light you must maximise on the opportunity, you never know where it is going to take you. Sometimes it takes four red lights until you get the green light, but when you do - maximise,” he says.

For him perseverance is not just a word, it is an experience: it took 13 rejections from manufacturers to find someone who was willing to help make Bathu’s signature shoe. The runaway success that the shoe has had belies the fact that this was Shoe Number 14 – a product of hustle and not accepting ‘no’. Bathu’s motto is ‘Walk your journey’ and Theo’s shows that there are no easy paths to success.

Theo wanted to build something inspirational, that would create employment for the people from Alex and today he employs 22 and on most days 40 pairs of shoes are being sold an hour. This year he is looking forward to opening in more locations, adding to the Pretoria and Newton Mall stores Bathu already has.

One of his first employees, Nqobile Dhladhla, sums up what the Bathu story means for Alex:

To see people wearing this proudly South African sneaker, from the hood, Alex, gives hope to that child sitting on the corner...that you can push to get somewhere one day.