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The authority on gender empowerment in business for nearly 20 years.

Meet the two women pilots who proved their mettle and are paving a way for others

Written by Staff Writer

December 13, 2022

By Sinazo Mkoko

On Tuesday, the 25th of October, history was made in South Africa. For the first time, in 88 years, two black women operated a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

The two trailblazers who made history are South African Airways (SAA) pilots, Captain Annabel Vundla and First Officer Refilwe Moreetsi. Read on to find out where it all began. 

Their stories couldn’t be more similar as this was a childhood dream for both of them. For Captain Vundla, it all started when she was only seven years old when she visited the airport for the first time. “When I first got to the airport, I saw the cabin crew looking so smart and asked my mother what they did and she explained it to me. I asked if they travel by plane to which my mother answered ‘yes’. As I was talking to my mother, I noticed two white males behind these cabin crew wearing uniforms, I asked what they did and my mother said they flew the planes and I was amazed. “I told my mother that I wanted to do that instead and get to travel the world,” she says. 

First Officer Refilwe Moreetsi recalls a similar memory, except that she was going on a holiday to Durban when she realised that this is what she wanted to do. “My first flight was on the South African Airways flight to Durban. And at the end of the flight, I went to the flight deck. And I saw that flight deck, all those buttons and for me, that day, in 1994, I decided this is what I wanted to do,” she says. 

Refilwe says she was fortunate to have had the support of her parents. She states: “My parents’ support is what really pushed me and kept me sane, because they encouraged me, although other individuals or teachers weren’t so encouraging, my parents pushed me and as a young kid that is a huge deal when your parents push you up. That’s why I never wanted to do anything else because I had people who believed in me.” 

However, in Annabel’s case, there was a little bit of fear from her mother. “My mother is a traditional woman, she told me that it was too dangerous and it’s a field for men. She asked how was I going to settle down and said I needed to get married and have kids and work in an office. But my father told me that I can do whatever I want,” she shares.

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Sharing the challenges they’ve encountered in the male-dominated industry, the pair say that being constantly undermined remained a challenge for women in this industry. “As a woman and, of course as a black woman, that won’t be taken away anytime soon. And overall, that is the biggest challenge; constantly being undermined because I come from a background of the military. I’m not fazed by it because the training is hard and tough. On top of that, you are learning how to plan everything. So I’m not fazed by that and I know how to address certain situations. Whether you’re a captain or a first officer, you are undermined,” says Annabel. 

Refilwe added that people will tell you directly or indirectly that you do not belong purely based on the agenda of your race. “And one thing I always say is that the aircraft does not know your gender. At the end of the day, when you’re flying that aircraft or when you’re on that flight deck, the only thing that matters is your knowledge, skills and your experience. And so for me, this negativity that came from these certain individuals, only fuelled the fire in me to achieve my dreams and in the process even aim for higher,” she says. 

Despite this, both women proved their mettle and became the first two black women to operate a commercial flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Touching on that historic moment, Refilwe said, while it was long overdue it was a great moment for them and the positive feedback that they got from the public and communities, from villages, townships and schools, showed them how big this was. “It means a lot for a young black girl to see and know that this is attainable for them because they’ve seen somebody that looks like them doing and my race is not a barrier. We are happy that it’s finally out there and it will be an inspiration to not only children but to society as a whole.”

SAA CEO and Chairperson, Professor John Lamola, said this was a milestone in the transformation of the national carrier. “The airline continues to show leadership in transforming the aviation sector and overcoming inequalities in scarce skills and employment opportunities.” 

SAA Executive for Human Resources, Mpho Letlape, added: “South Africans can feel proud of a national carrier that is truly represented of our diversity and we celebrate that. SAA is a non-discriminatory, non-racial, equal opportunities employer with a strategic transformational role.”

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