“Women hold only 4.4% of CEO/MD positions, 5.3% of chairperson positions and 15.8% of all directorships” — BWA South African Women in Leadership Census 2011


In aviation, the pilot is in control of her plane: the take-off and landing, the direction of flight and the heights to which the plane climbs; the fates of all passengers rest in her hands. A company’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) may be likened to a pilot, and if so, Siza Mzimela, CEO of South African Airways, deserves the rank of Captain. As the highest ranking corporate officer in an organisation, the CEO is the leader, communicator, director, decision-maker and manager. Siza Mzimela has successfully played all parts in her 16-year career in aviation.  As one of the 4.4% of female CEOs, Siza’s journey sheds light on what it takes.

After graduating with a degree in Economics and Statistics, Mzimela joined the staff of Standard Bank of South Africa in 1991 and later moved to Total SA as a corporate planning analyst where she managed capital projects. She joined South African Airways (SAA) in 1996 as a research analyst and worked her way up to the Executive Vice-Presidency of Global passenger Services and later took on Global Sales and Voyager portfolios. The main focus of her position was to generate revenue, a high-pressure role during challenging financial times. However under her leadership, SAA recorded an operating profit for the first time in 10 years. As a leader who knew what the times called for, her strategies described as aggressive proved very rewarding for the company.

She was then appointed CEO of South African Express Airways (SAX) from 2003, the state-owned domestic and regional airline. Mzimela expertly manoeuvred the company from an undesirable financial position to one of growth and stability. SAX acquired new domestic and regional routes, even becoming known as the fastest growing regional airline in Southern Africa. In an innovative move, SAX acquired the first set of new generation aircrafts in Africa and started a new airline, Congo Express in the Democratic Republic of Congo, showing Mzimela’s forward-thinking and visionary leadership in what remains a fast-changing industry. As a result of Mzimela’s stellar management, SAX remains profitable and financially strong today.

Siza’s excellence in business and high-level negotiations is widely recognised in the industry. It was therefore not surprising that SAA turned to an ‘old hand’ to run the company, after ousting the former Chief Executive Khaya Ngqula for fraud. They needed someone with a proven record of strong financial management and leadership, qualities they found in Mzimela.

Siza sets an example, claiming several ‘firsts’. She is the first female CEO of SAA and also the first female member on the Board of Directors for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in its 67-year history. She was a finalist for the NedBank Businesswoman of the Year Award in 2002 and was appointed as a member of the board for Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy. Her experience, positive attitude, strong negotiation skills and intelligence coupled with hard work and commitment have paved the way to a successful career in aviation. She may not be flying any planes, but there’s no doubt about her success as the pilot of this company.

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