Thembi Kunene-Msimang completed her bachelor’s degree of communications from the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape. At the time, age 22, she was convinced that she was “the most educated person in South Africa”.
Between chuckles, Thembi tells a story of her younger self, whose naivety led her to apply only for managing director and general manager jobs.
A recruiter soon called after Thembi to check if there had been some mistake on her CV.
“’Is that Thembi Kunene?’ she asked. I said, ‘yes, yes, that’s me!’. ‘According to your CV, you only have a BA in communications’ she said. ‘Yes, yes, yes, absolutely, that’s me!’ I replied, only to have the phone put down with me hanging on eagerly at the other end. She didn’t even explain!”
Thembi laughs uproariously now. “I still talk about this because it was only after that incident that I realised I actually had to start at the bottom!”
About herself, she says “Thembi is a 100 percent South African product”. Born in the country in 1966, she has worked her way up the corridors of tourism and travel since the 1990s.
The eventual “turning point” of her career was when she was hired by Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) as a public relations officer – just before “the very first democratic elections” were held in South Africa. This was the role that was her first introduction to tourism and the reason she was bitten by the “tourism bug”, she explains.
When she finally left ACSA, it was to take advantage of an “incredible opportunity” working for the City of Johannesburg, as “one of the executives when the city was commercialising its entities”. As the CEO Johannesburg Zoo, where she was involved in “domestic tourism, local tourism, conservation management as well as facilities management”.
“This role really rounded out what South Africa has to offer as a rich, rich country and my love for tourism,” she says.
A big picture of Tourism
Weighing in on tourism’s value in South Africa, Thembi insists that it should be viewed “from the perspective of economic development”.
South Africa’s tourism industry employs at least 1.5 million people directly and indirectly, many of which are in rural areas with desperate need. “The whole Kruger Belt is suffering right now due to the vulnerability of 25,000 jobs in that area. Imagine the indirect benefit that each of those jobs has in the South African community?”
From her big-picture perspective, Thembi also values tourism for its “impact on small- and medium-sized enterprises, especially skilled and semi-skilled opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship.”
Finally, Thembi suggests that – however indirectly – to support tourism is to empower women in South Africa. “Many tourism employees are women, so positive change for the industry must start with them.
“We all know South African women are the ones who bear the brunt of a lot of the responsibilities and the pain of actually making South Africa work, making its people work, and making its children alive and healthy. It’s all on the back of women. If you want to empower women, you have to look at the tourism sector. I can’t think of any other sector that has that number of women employed in it,” she says.
Women: Can’t Live Without ‘Em
When asked what words of encouragement she has for other women in tourism, Thembi can’t help but chuckle. “I must be honest;” she replies, “the first thing that comes to mind is that I need those words.”
“Let’s give each other a chance,” she asks of women in tourism, “and let’s give each other a break. There’s nothing worse than women fighting amongst themselves because we are that passionate! You know?” Thembi laughs, “If we’re going to fight, we really fight! So, let’s give each other space to breathe.”
Under the circumstances of the pandemic, Thembi urges women to be kinder to one another. “We are all stressing. We all need a pat on the back. We all need to be encouraged and told that things will get better.”
Thembi goes on to insist that she doesn’t have all the answers, with a pang of regret in her voice. “We all have a lot to learn, and we can only learn by engaging with each other.”
She admits that what’s been grounding for her, psychologically, is to remember why she entered tourism in the first place.
“I chose it for the incredible people that I’ve met. The wonderful relationships that I formed. And the incredibly satisfying feeling and real fulfillment in seeing people enjoying my culture, enjoying the hospitality that we deliver – whether it’s an event, or a meeting, or a post-card, or an award ceremony, or just a couple going to a game lodge for their honeymoon. It’s a feeling of satisfaction in having done something right.”
She reminds tourism employees that they’ve “sold our country and our experiences in a manner that makes people so grateful. Just remember those moments. Try and look back, because that’s the reason that we’re here.”
Thembi Kunene-Msimang spoke to Natalia Rosa. View their #IAmTourism conversation here.