South Africa

Fundi Sithebe has the racing plane on course — for now

Fundi Sithebe 1

When in 2021 Fundi Sithebe was appointed CEO of the newly resuscitated horse racing company on the Highveld – freshly branded 4Racing – us writing hacks said lame things about “flying in stormy weather”.

That’s because the woman in question got a private pilot’s licence at the age of 24 and had for three years been boss of the Airports Company of SA – which, incidentally, has been described by Business Day as “one of the few bright spots among state-owned enterprises, having been profitable for most of its three decades in business”.

Of course, the stormy weather was a dark cloud hovering over the racing game in South Africa.

Two years later, Fundi Sithebe Airways is still flying. It is even trying some tricky aerobatics, in the form of this week’s announcement of a major empowerment deal for stable grooms and racecourse employees.

Almost simultaneously, Sithebe issued another media release, with observations from her two years in a hectic industry.

‘Transformation, diversity, inclusion’

In it, she points out a truism: the so-called Sport of Kings is really a Sport of the People because its masses of fans and workers from among the hoi polloi far outnumber the haute monde who ponce about the paddock in high-fashion clobber.

No surprise, Sithebe then raises “transformation, diversity, inclusion” and a need to attract youth. No business exec can avoid talking about these things, even though they might differ widely in how they tackle them.

In racing, says Sithebe, “the representation and high-level participation of women and black people is notably low, and a big part of my mandate and vision is to address these shortcomings.

“Ironically, there are a fair number of women who are breeders and owners of racing horses, some of them are the most powerful figures in the local industry. Women are also fans of the sport: a recent report commissioned by 4Racing found that at least half of our DStv and SABC Sports racing broadcasts’ viewers are female.

“But there are significant shortfalls elsewhere, with very few black female owners and executives, no female grooms, and only one top-level female jockey, the immensely talented Rachel Venniker.

“To change this picture, we must take opportunities to highlight women as part of the sport, at racing events, meetings and in the media. We should introduce the public to star athletes like Venniker and use her story to inspire young women.”

Fresh ideas and energy

These words indicate someone who has made careful notes and taken an analytical approach to her assignment. There’s no talk of wholesale upending of the status quo, or a rant about race, or any brushing aside of demographic imbalances.

When Sithebe was appointed to head up 4Racing, there was tut-tutting that she barely knew the rear end of a horse from the other – and zero about the game itself. Surely background was needed?

Not according to the guiding hands behind the expensive salvage of the company.

Fresh ideas and energy were the prescription for a hidebound situation. After all, the old guard hadn’t done too well with the previous iteration of the firm, Phumelela, which crashed and burned when Covid sparked. Some of that coterie were rogues, others arrogantly misguided, and yet others knowledgeable and competent.

We have to hope the latter were the ones kept on when 4Racing was put together. But the centre-stage leadership job was the key to the new project.

It’s still early days, but there are signs 4Racing might have got the appointment right.

Observers still seeing a “token black woman” syndrome should consider Sithebe’s success at Acsa – and that she nailed rigorous education at Hilton College and Wits Business School. And that it isn’t easy to pilot a plane in stormy weather.