Obtaining your learner’s certificate and then your driver’s licence is probably one of the most important and exciting moments in any person’s life.

For many Stellenbosch residents, waiting at the other end of this achievement is Niklaas Willemse (49), the owner of Niklaas and Nita’s Driving School (Pty) Ltd. Nita is the nickname of Niklaas’ wife, Juanita, who also recently qualified as a driving instructor.

Niklaas’ personality embodies everything one would expect from a driving instructor. He is friendly and patient, his natural calmness shining through during a parking lesson. Learner driver Zacharie Heneke (22) says he was referred to Niklaas by a neighbour and describes him as a “very good instructor”, not only during practical driving lessons, but also during theory lessons in preparation for his learner’s licence test. “I learn something new during every lesson.”

Besides offering online learners’ licence classes and manual driving lessons, Niklaas and Nita’s Driving School takes and prints ID photos, and also offers motorcycle lessons. His clientèle is varied and includes older and younger working people, as well as students.

Niklaas grew up in Cloetesville as the youngest of 10 adopted children. He has had to overcome adversity in his life. He was a teenager when he found out that he had been taken to the local public hospital as a baby after contracting jaundice. He says that his parents did not come back for him, which is how he came to be adopted. Niklaas says that he later discovered his mother’s name and that his birth parents lived on a farm just outside Stellenbosch. “It would have been more difficult to overcome this if I had seen and known my birth parents and was then given up later in life. It was a challenge but every person creates their own identity and where he or she wants to fit in.”

Niklaas did not know he wanted to own a driving school, but knew growing up that he wanted to run his own business. What this business would be, he would only figure out later in life. He started the driving school in 2015 during a challenging time which saw him working one permanent and two part-time jobs to keep his head above water.

According to Niklaas it was a challenge initially to get his business off the ground because most of his income went towards petrol costs. He also later had to budget for maintenance costs due to wear and tear of his cars. “This is a challenge for which you must be prepared,” he said, “and is the reason why my wife and I drive exactly the same car, so that we have a good back-up plan for the learners when one of the cars breaks.”

He and his wife are currently busy implementing one of their short-term goals which is to train and employ instructors who have their own vehicles. Their long-term goal in terms of driver training is to have an instructor in all the towns in the greater Stellenbosch municipal area such as Lanquedoc, Kayamandi and Franschhoek. “I want to establish the business there so that residents from those areas don’t have to come to Stellenbosch for driving lessons. We want to expand into the communities while at the same time creating more jobs.”

Niklaas also refers to sharing skills, such as training other driving instructors, as one of the biggest lessons he has learnt as a small business owner. “Don’t just keep the business or your skills to yourself. Be nice to people and people will be nice to you. Always be friendly and courteous.”

Sharing one’s skills and giving back fits in perfectly when he describes the support received by Ranyaka Community Transformation. He will also soon start with the organisation’s Nedbank-funded Building Business Programme. “During the free workshops made possible by Ranyaka, I have learnt among other things how to keep a diary on Google Calendar as well as practical tips on how to expand and market my business. They even have accountants train us in how to properly keep our books to be tax compliant. I don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for Ranyaka and what they do for small business owners.”

Niklaas advises people who want to start their own businesses to not start by incurring huge debt, but rather try to make do with what they have. For example, instead of buying a new car to start a driving school, use your current roadworthy car as far as possible. “You need capital to start a business, but don’t make a lot of debt because then you first have to use any money you make to pay that back before you start making money for yourself.”

Just like the challenges he faced when he started his businesses, Niklaas had to overcome major Covid-19 related challenges. His business came to a standstill for six months and he had to put all his plans on hold. He says, “It was hard to come to terms with not having an income but no one was prepared for Covid-19. Luckily, my wife was still working as a caregiver.”

Niklaas also looked at ways of earning an income by sending emails on behalf of people who do not have access to the internet and printing documents required to apply for Covid-19 relief grants. Here he followed his own advice by making do with what he had. “It was a small income, but it was enough to survive. Demand for printing services drastically increased during the pandemic.”

He says the impact of the pandemic made him realise the contribution small businesses make in the economy and towards job creation. “Small businesses give a huge boost to the economy and their importance is often underestimated. However, their contribution cannot be undersold.”

Road to success
Niklaas’ motivation and drive for his job has not dissipated over the years. “I am motivated when I see someone who was nervous at first because they have never driven but then start enjoying themselves after a few lessons. It motivates me to keep going. We do the best to ensure people have the necessary skills and information to obtain their licences. As our motto reads: ‘Practice makes perfect.'”

His passion and enthusiasm for working with beginners is also fuelled by the achievements of older drivers. He proudly boasts about his oldest female driver (aged 66) and oldest male driver at 59 years old.

As the quote states that greets you when you get into his car: “No matter how many mistakes you make or how slow you progress, you are still way ahead of everyone who isn’t trying.”