TAKING ON HEADS OF THE TABLE: Stud owner Phindi Kema strokes one of her favourite horses.Photo: Bonile Bam
A FARM girl from the rural heartlands of Qumra in the Eastern Cape has defied all odds to make a name for herself in the male-dominated gaming and leisure industry.

Phindi Kema not only pushed the boundaries to become a racehorse breeder, but she also founded one of the few female-led companies, Africa Race Group, in the industry.

Kema describes herself as the queen of African horse racing.

“What I have been doing for almost 11 years is helping to drive a process of reformation in the industry, to ensure that a new era has emerged, so South African racing could actually get competitive and prosper, and that is the focus.”

The 45-year old mother of three says she went into the industry after dumping her love of citrus farming for an opportunity in horse breeding when she arrived in Addo, Port Elizabeth, to farm in 2006.

She says she is inspired by how other countries have taken their racing from its very stiff colonial culture into a 21st century lucrative sector, which is increasingly becoming relevant to their economies. But she admits the industry can be very ruthless, more so for a woman.

“Quite frankly, I am not in a caring industry or career. The game is cutthroat and anyone who actually brings passion into it is making a big mistake. I’ve sat at auctions in which I was selling a horse and I didn’t expect anyone to be nice to me because I am a woman. I expect people, though, to actually value what I am putting in the ring.”

She says she has learned good lessons over the years. “I’ve come to understand where I’ve made mistakes and where I’ve misjudged a situation or entered one unprepared and underestimated my opponents,” Kema tells Business Report.

“I’ve come to understand the misconception about the horse racing industry. People think it is about gambling and when you are part of the industry, you understand that gambling is just a platform that brings in revenues to the industry.”

In 2008, Kema won the Nelson Mandela Business School Absa Herald Business Person of the Year award.

She says her first appearance in the industry was a wake-up call, as she had to contend with both chauvinism and racism.

Kema, however, is not a pushover. Six years ago, she decided to take on one of the biggest names in the industry, asking former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to investigate how JSE-listed racing and betting company Phumelela Gaming and Leisure had been granted exclusive licensing rights to manage horse racing in Gauteng without a transparent, public or parliamentary process.

“That process is obviously questionable. I call it in a simple terms a ‘smash and grab’ that was orchestrated by the Gauteng provincial government, which allowed the racing bandits to rape South Africa’s entire racing efforts.

“When we as Africa Race Group talk about structural changes, we are actually talking about changes that could undo that process and bring in a little bit of order.”

She has also written to Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies about what she describes as bandits occupying the head of the table in the industry.

“We can’t accept being plucked alive.”

Kema says she has since received emails from Public Protector Busi Mkhwebane about her complaint.

“Where we at right now, we know that we are nearly at the end. This is the reason why I’m saying that time is not against me.

“I’m not worried about that (time). I would rather spend time looking at making strategic moves quietly at this point, until the new era has emerged.” Kema says.

She believes that women are not visible in the horse racing sector.

“In this sector, there is a need for women to come in, especially black women.

“I don’t believe that any of these smash and grab (events) would not have happened when women were visible and occupying strategic roles within the sector.”

Apart from horse racing, Kema is also interested in motorsport.

She says the last time she attended a South African race was seven years ago. “I was with a good friend, who heads one of the prominent racing authorities overseas, together with the now deceased Lord John Fitzgerald, a key international horse racing figure who established the now famous Dubai World Cup with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.”