• Featured: Sizakele Mzimela (Centre) who is the first black woman to launch, own, and run an airline. (Facebook)Source: Facebook
Sizakele Mzimela paved the way for women of colour in aviation. And now she’s launched her own international airline.
Shami Sivasubramanian

19 May 2016 - 1:51 PM  UPDATED 19 May 2016 - 2:03 PM

New South African airline Fly Blue Crane has until now jetted within the country's borders. But last Friday, the airline took its first international flight between the South African city of Cape Town and Windhoek in Namibia.

And it’s all thanks to CEO, co-founder and majority-owner Sizakele Mzimela.

Mzimela is the first black African woman to launch an airline carrier and the first woman to sit on the board of the International Air Transport Association, a 71-year-old institution.

Prior to launching Fly Blue Crane last year, Mzimela has been the head of South Africa Airways (SAA), South African Express and both the African Airlines Association and the Airlines Association of Africa.

But things weren’t always so easy…

Mzimela tells aviation news publication RunwayGirlNetwork how she began her career as an analyst at SAA, motivated by a need to prove the sexist and racist naysayers wrong.

The interview for the analyst role took place during her lunch break while she was working for an oil company. But after an condescending interview experience, Mzimela found a fire in her belly.

“I wanted to work in aviation because these pale white men felt this young African women couldn’t do it. And the most arrogant man on that [interview] panel? In a few years, that man was reporting to me,” she says.


That defiant motivation proved useful. Mzimela found she was promoted to more and more senior roles with every year…

“How did I do it?” asks Mzimela. “I was always brutally honest on where we were with the organisation and where we had to go. The first thing I did was do road shows to introduce myself to the various parts of the business and say what things should be happening.”

She became the first black and the first female executive vice-president for SAA’s global operations. After becoming head of South African Express, she returned to SAA as their CEO.


Once she was CEO, she could start doing things differently…

“I was one of the first CEOs to build a proper relationship with SAA’s pilot union and cabin crew. We got everyone on the same page,” she says.

“There were some workers who said it was the first time in history that they had ever seen the CEO. For me, I thought it was the thing you do. You show your face and let people know who you are and what you’re about before asking them what you need to do."


And eventually she took a leap of faith...

"When I left SAA I always said, my one ambition was to create jobs. I want to feel like I’ve done something. In order to do that, I had to start my own business," says Mzimela.

Mzimela had always found South African airlines lost easy business to other international airlines due to their lower economies of scale. Travellers visiting South Africa frequently struggled to find direct flights, with most taking Air France services or several connecting flights to visit even metropolitan cities such as Cape Town.

However flagging these issues with her superiors proved futile, and it became clear the best way to expand South Africa's air travel services was to start her own airline.


Her advice for other women of colour in male-dominated industries...

Ultimately, Mzimela says women, especially those of colour, need to work twice as hard to achieve half as much as men.

She concedes it isn’t fair, but unfortunately doesn’t see things changing anytime soon.

“You have to accept up front that your road will be more difficult than the pale white male sitting next to you. You will have to always be better than them … they will only ignore you up to a point.

“Understand that we just have to work harder. It’s unfair, but you spend less time complaining and more time finding a way to move on and break through regardless of the difficulties. Be mentally prepared that climbing that mountain will be different,” she says.