#MelaninMagic: The CEO of the Sports Science Institute is a black woman!

Image: Damon Fourie

Modern day "Gladiator in a White Coat", Dr.  Phathokuhle Zondi is ushering in a fresh new era of change at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA).  As the CEO, she will be following in the footsteps of former Springbok captain and rugby legend Morne du Plessis who was at the helm for over two decades.

Who is Phathokuhle?

I was born and bred eThekwini. I come from a close-knit family and grew up in a home filled with love, passion, and prayer. From a young age, I had a love for sports and participated in any event I could squeeze in; from netball, running, soft ball to synchronised swimming.

So how did you turn that love for sport into an illustrious career?

In high school, I began to take an interest in human biology and decided I wanted to study medicine. A radio interview featuring (scientist) Prof Tim Noakes enlightened me about Sports Medicine and I knew as soon as I heard him speak that that was the career path I wanted to follow.

What are some of the challenges you have faced throughout you career and how did you overcome them?

We all need to overcome a number of internal and external challenges as we progress in life. In terms of external barriers, these will always crop up---especially in our socio-political climate and with our country’s history. One sure way to overcome prejudice is through excellence. Be excellent at what you do and make 200% sure you deliver.

Is it a struggle being a woman in your industry?

It definitely has been at times, but I have been received by colleagues with great mutual respect. My mother – a successful business woman –  taught me never to apologise for being a woman in a “man’s world”, and rather embrace of all that I am in order to best represent myself and add value wherever I go. Also be honest about your limitations. It is incredibly difficult to be prejudiced against someone who demonstrates competence and efficiency but also knows when to ask for help when they are uncertain.

What has been your greatest achievement to date?

I don’t know if being a mother can be called an achievement – maybe keeping my daughter alive, healthy and as happy as she is? No, it isn’t an achievement, but it is my greatest blessing and deepest joy.

You are married with one child. Who is Dr Zondi at home?

I am a mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend. My husband, Andile, is a pillar of strength and a wonderfully kind, fun and generous soul. I grew up in a large and loving extended family, and to this day, I have the best times with them.

How do you balance family life and your career?

I’m not sure I have gotten it right just yet, but I work at it every day. Annabel Crabb, an Australian political journalist, is quoted as saying: “The obligation for working mothers is a very precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one's children as if one did not have a job.’’ It is a daily struggle, but I do think that too often we get caught up in the rat race and consumed by the clutter when in fact life isn’t about the race – it’s about the rollercoaster journey and those journeying with you. I try remind myself of this when I get overwhelmed by the balancing act. Family is my beginning and end.

What advice would you give to someone wanting go down the same career path as you?

To those wanting to fulfill their potential – whatever their career choice – I would say pursue your passion. Live a life of purpose and fun. Seek a mentor – or mentors – and invest in those relationships. Mentors may change depending on where you are in your career and that’s okay. Lastly, bounce back. Never give up.

How will you be affecting change in your field in next few years?

Actions speak louder than words. Watch the space!

This article first appeared in the September 2016 print edition of Sowetan S Mag.

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