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SAReunited co-founder Amanda Tsinonis

Amanda Tsinonis co-founded SAReunited seven years ago. Within weeks it became South Africa’s largest social-networking site. She talks to us about nuns, plump purple figs and how to pick your battles. Read more…

Amanda Tsinonis (34) co-founded www.SAReunited.com back in July 2002. Within weeks it became South Africa’s largest social-networking site…

1. You had always had a high-flying career in advertising. So what made you create SAReunited?

Amanda Tsinonis, co-founder SAReunited
Amanda Tsinonis - SAReunited co-founder, staunch Springbok supporter. Credit: Anthoni Panayis

I had been living in London for a few years, I’d had one baby and gave up work to look after her.  All of a sudden my social circle got smaller, and I guess it was quite lonely having no family and good old friends around me to share the experience – or just to visit and get out of a small flat.  I wished I could hook up with other South Africans in my area who were also new moms.  I took note of the emerging  concept of social networks 1.0 (the very basic versions) taking off in the US and the UK, and I thought to myself that South Africans would really benefit from a website like that because so many South Africans leave SA to live and work abroad.   My hunch was right, we had 10 000 people register in the first week it went live and  50 000 in the second week – purely by viral power – or  word of mouth.  We have never spent any money on advertising SAReunited, it’s always been referrals.  In the beginning, 70 % of SAReunited’s members were resident overseas (UK, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada etc) but after 2 years that  changed and now 65 % of the members live in SA and 35 % abroad.

2. What’s the biggest sacrifice you’ve had to make to run SAReunited?

My sleep!   I work the most ungodly hours.  Right now I am in bed with right hand man, my AppleMac – and its exactly 1.35 am on a Monday night.

Amanda with best school friends Penny Mockford, Chantel Kriel & Carmen Robinson at a get-together in Cape Town last year. It was her friendships like this that inspired SAReunited.
Amanda with best school friends Penny Mockford, Chantel Kriel & Carmen Robinson at a get-together in Cape Town last year. It was her friendships like this that inspired SAReunited.

3. Who’s the most surprising person you’ve caught up with on SAReunited?

I had a very sweet girl friend in primary school, we were very close friends.  In fact she even lived with us for a short time when her parents had an acrimonious divorce – and we were there for eachother through some tough teenage years. Unfortunately a business partnership between our two fathers went belly up and my father pulled out.   They moved to another part of South Africa and I heard that a few years later, sadly her father committed suicide.  I then moved abroad and  for many many years I lost touch with her. I had no idea where she was, if she was happy after such a tough and sometimes unfair time as a kid.  And then, after many years she found me and my brother on SAReunited.  We were very pleased to hear from her, she has a baby and a wonderful husband, and she looks fabulous too.  She has now moved to Australia and we keep in touch. I’ve not seen her since we were about 15, but soon!

4. What was the most inspiring thing a teacher ever said to you?

It was something so simple.  Someone I respected hugely for her patience and tolerance of children said to me “Amanda, just learn in life to pick your battles” – it really stuck with me as a simple but fantastic mantra to have.

5. What was a life changing moment for you during your youth?

The day I came back from school to find that my parents had split.  As kids, it’s invariable that the day will come when your little bubble bursts.  Perhaps your best friend tells on you or your first love decides to love someone else instead of you, or your mum forgets to fetch you from karate.  Whatever it is, it’s going to happen.  That was my bubble – POP – and it dawned on me  “hang on a minute, life is not fair”. That…and the day I knocked back a tablespoon of vanilla essence.  It was really disappointing!

6. What’s your most useful character trait?

Tenacity.  I never give up and whatever I do, even if its to wrap a birthday present, I’ll do the best I can with the means I have.

7. Who’s the most admirable person you’ve ever met?

Claire Dancaster. She’s a good friend who I met about 10 years ago at a party in an advertising agency in London. She is South African too, originally from Hout Bay.  When I met Claire she was naughty, a pretty girl with lots of suitors and a little glint in her eye.  Over the years as our friendship deepened, so did her relationship with God. I watched Claire transform into the most peaceful, warm loving, non-judgemental and special person I could every have the fortune of calling my friend. While I believe, I would not say I am extremely religious.  Claire followed her calling and has given up  all her personal possessions, her home, her car – every material thing including her relationships with all the people she loves (nephew, sister, friends etc) in order to serve God.  She now lives in Galway (Ireland)  in a closed community that pray for people that need their prayers (they even have prayers and vigils through many nights). Complete strangers do not know that these people pray for them, when they need it most.  Claire will spend the rest of her life in this community as a nun in seclusion, following her calling to pray for people in need.  Imagine the strength to give up so much for others! I find that devotion utterly unselfish.

8. Bravest thing you’ve done to date?

Resuscitate my 6-month-old baby when she stopped breathing. She had an allergic reaction to egg, where her airways swelled shut and and she lapsed into unconsciousness. For 14 minutes I fought to keep her alive while the ambulance came.  That was a life changing moment for me – life is precious- and a gift –  we’re all so vulnerable.

9. Proudest achievement?

It has to be being a mom to 3 gorgeous girls.  Nothing compares to the satisfaction I get from seeing them happy and balanced (most of the time!).

Amanda with some of the children at the Mzamomhle creche before rebuilding began. And the happy children in their new classroom (right).
Amanda with some of the children at the Mzamomhle creche before rebuilding began. And the happy children in their new classroom (right). Credit: Anthoni Panayis

And something else that’s close to my heart is a nursery school in South Africa that we’ve helped to improve. Two years ago I went on a tour with Habitat for Humanity (a charity where volunteers rebuild shacks into proper homes). I was so moved by their work, as well as the DIRE state of the surrounding daycare centres with no running water or toilets. These little children are the future of South Africa and deserve a better start to life, so I’ve been working with UK and SA schools to raise funds for these children. So far SAReunited has raised over R20,000 towards the rebuild and we’d like to raise more to move onto the next equally desperate nursery school, but we need funding – so if you can help in anyway (skills, clothes, food, toys) please contact admin@sareunited.com. We need your help – every little helps!

10. Favourite holiday destination…

Amanda with her three gorgeous daughters in Greece, Summer of 2009
Amanda with her three gorgeous daughters in Greece, Summer of 2009

Other than home (Cape Town), year after year I find myself returning to Greece – in specific lately we’ve been going back to my grandfather’s birthplace which is an old fishing village called Plomari. I love the guaranteed predictability  of summer in Greece.  Long, hot sunny days, fragrant peaches, juicy watermelons, plump purple figs  and tomatoes so delicious you can eat them like apples.  For 3 weeks each year,  we stay in an unassuming little 2 bedroom house in a quiet olive grove, surrounded by family and friends drinking ouzo into the small hours of the night.  Each day, upon waking, my hubby George and I go for a kilometre long swim in the ocean, and then order a frappe (iced coffee).  What a way to wake up!  The rest of the days are filled with pebble beaches, taverna lunches in wet costumes and sarongs, happy laughing brown little kids, a few good books and afternoon siestas. I am almost certain we’ll go through the motions next year of “where shall we go next August ” and invariably, we’ll just go straight back there…again – quite happily so!

Please finish the sentences…

a) South Africans are so…

friendly and approachable

b) I wish  “fresh off the boat” South Africans in London wouldn’t…

…speak so loudly on their mobile phones (or urm, ‘cell phones’) on public transport.  I do cringe at that. The old timers quickly get the hang of being more subtle (or British!).

Something where the Brits really take the mickey out of South Africans, is how crass some can be. There is even a character called Pik Reading,  on a comedy show (Harry and Paul) dedicated to this type of South African, which seems to be how we are stereotyped in the UK.  (See YouTube video below.)


c) I love being South African because…

…we really do have such a tapestry nation – full of diversity and tolerance despite so many odds – and we really do laugh at ourselves. We recognize our faults and frustrations as a nation, and we make light of it. Can’t fix it, let’s joke about it! Living abroad has made me notice how amazing South Africans are, most of them are just such nice people.  For example – for even the most simplest thing like getting to work in SA, it’s so hard for thousands of people. Yet I see more people smiling and belly-laughing in South Africa than in any first world country!

d) If I hadn’t moved to London, I wouldn’t have learnt…

1. …to walk everywhere.  Now that I’ve been here 15 years, I can remember when I thought the distance from the station to home was “far”. Now my four-year-old skips that distance without batting an eyelid and I walk the kids to school almost every single day, come rain, snow – and sometimes – sunshine! I used to hate walking in the cold/rain or in heels.   Now – we walk absolutely everywhere – and it’s great!
2.  …how to garden.  Chances are if I lived in SA, we’d have a bit of help with the gardening.  Here I was forced to learn the ropes, and now I love it.  Mowing the lawn is therapeutic; so is weeding and pruning and planting from seedlings. In fact my ideal weekend includes at least a half a day pottering in the garden, it’s like an art of the most natural kind.
3.  …how to let go. I also have to admit I am a bit of a “clean freak” – I like things tidy – but with very little domestic  help, 3 kids and a business to run – I have to turn a blind eye  and live with a bit of chaos sometimes.  I am trying teach the kids how to be self-sufficient  – that’s such a lovely (and rare) habit to have.   They are 4, 6 and 8 – they have to make their own beds, pack the dishwasher, help sort and load laundry, and other tasks like set up their cereal bowls etc the night before.  Sometimes it takes bribery (!), but they know the drill now – “you mess, you clean”.  I feel like living in London has made me far more self-sufficient in many ways, something I’d like to instill in the kids.