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South Africa's first Black hot air balloon pilot shakes up once-exclusive sport

Semakaleng Mathebula, South Africa's first Black female hot-air balloon pilot, along with ground crew, prepare a hot-air balloon before take off in Johannesburg. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Semakaleng Mathebula, South Africa's first Black female hot-air balloon pilot, along with ground crew, prepare a hot-air balloon before take off in Johannesburg. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Published May 19, 2022

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Cape Town - Semakaleng Mathebula fires up the burner, aims a giant blue-orange flame toward a multicoloured balloon and watches as it fills with hot air and begins to lift off the ground.

The 27-year-old is South Africa's first Black hot air balloon pilot and one of few women participating in the niche sport, which traditionally has been the domain of the white and privileged.

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''Growing up, I had never seen a hot air balloon. My interests were cooking, accounting, but ballooning was not something that was in reach for me,'' said Mathebula, standing in a field in Hartbeespoort, a small town north of Johannesburg.

She got into ballooning by accident. When she was struggling to find employment a few years ago, a recruitment agency helped her get a job as a marketing assistant at a hot air balloon tour company.

''As soon as I stepped on the field and saw eight balloons, I fell completely in love. I haven't looked back since,'' she said.

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Mathebula got a scholarship to do her pilot training from the Department of Sport and Recreation and the Balloon and Airship Federation of South Africa (BAFSA) and earned her licence last year.

She will compete for the first time in the South African Hot Air Balloon Championship in June.

In competitive ballooning, pilots use wind and altitude to navigate to fixed targets, where they drop a weighted marker. They are scored on how close they get.

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''We really need new blood, younger blood in the sport, because a bunch of us are growing old, and we need to get new people in,'' said Mathebula's coach, Flip Steyn.

''I think years back, ballooning was a very exclusive club, whereas now, it's becoming more open,'' he said.

Mathebula also said she is keen to be an ambassador for international sport and hopes to bring in more youth and diversity.

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''When you don't have a point of reference, you always doubt if you'll be able to achieve what you're doing,'' she said.

''Once you feel like you belong, everything else comes in naturally.

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