Home » Meet South African tycoon Siza Mzimela: The first Black woman to start an airline

Meet South African tycoon Siza Mzimela: The first Black woman to start an airline

Charting new horizons: Mzimela's aviation odyssey amid challenges

by Omokolade Ajayi
Siza Mzimela

Siza Mzimela, a South African businesswoman and leading executive, shines among the continent’s brightest stars, particularly for her achievements in the aviation industry. Her most celebrated feat came in 2015 when she shattered glass ceilings, becoming the first black woman in Africa to launch an airline, a landmark move that continues to inspire generations.

Mzimela’s journey is an extraordinary tapestry woven through the sometimes turbulent skies of aviation, mirroring the dynamic peaks and valleys of her career. It all began in the late 1990s when she took flight as a research analyst at South African Airways (SAA). Little did the corporate world know that this seemingly ordinary step would spark an incredible narrative destined to soar beyond borders.

From the corridors of the SAA, Mzimela’s trajectory was swift. Her industrious spirit, combined with unwavering dedication and business acumen, propelled her through the ranks. She assumed pivotal roles, steering the global sales division and overseeing the SAA’s Voyager loyalty program. The zenith of her career at SAA came with her tenure as CEO from April 2010 to October 2012.

From SAA triumphs to IATA governance: A pioneering journey in global aviation

Under her leadership, SAA spread its wings internationally, reaching the United States and beyond. This accomplishment wasn’t just a professional milestone—it set the stage for Mzimela’s historic appointment to the board of governors of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), based in the aviation hub of Miami, Florida, USA.

However, the zenith of her career was not only marked by accolades. Mzimela’s audacious step into entrepreneurship came in 2015 when she founded Fly Blue Crane. This move, groundbreaking as it was, faced headwinds, taking 18 months to launch its inaugural flight.

Charting new horizons: Mzimela’s aviation odyssey amid challenges

Undeterred by the challenges, Mzimela went on to consolidate her aviation venture with the establishment of Blue Crane Aviation — a consulting company aimed at fortifying South African airlines in their management, operations, and expansion endeavors. The flight, though ambitious, hit unexpected turbulence. 

On November 14, 2016, Fly Blue Crane entered business rescue, culminating in the discontinuation of flights on February 3, 2017. Yet, true to her resilient spirit, Mzimela regrouped. In 2018, she re-joined SA Express, leading the Ministerial Intervention Task Team. This paved the way for her role as the interim CEO, entrusted with executing a turnaround plan.

Mzimela’s 2020 leadership at Transnet and the unexpected twist in 2023

Mzimela’s narrative took a fresh turn in 2020 when she assumed the role of CEO of Transnet’s freight rail division. A year-long struggle by business and organized labor marked her tenure, but in a surprising twist of events in October 2023, Mzimela resigned from her position, following the departure of Transnet CEO Portia Derby.

As we navigate the pages of Mzimela’s career, her journey emerges as a narrative not just of professional milestones but of resilience and the audacity to reach for the skies, no matter the storms encountered. Breaking barriers and setting precedents, Mzimela’s story is an inspiration that echoes far beyond the boardrooms of South Africa, resonating with anyone daring to dream, breaking molds, and carving their path in the sky.

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