Semakaleng Mathebula is SA’s first black female hot air balloon pilot

Posted on 27 May 2022 By Anita Froneman

‘Apart from floating in the clouds while other people lie asleep in their beds, on the second or third snooze of their alarms, my favourite part of the job is engaging with different people from all walks of life.’ Semakaleng Mathebula, a 27-year-old from Ga-Rankuwa in Pretoria is South Africa’s first black woman to become a hot air balloon pilot.

Picture: Heather Mason / 2Summers

She didn’t plan on spending her days in the sky for a living, though. She completed her studies and an Honours degree in International Relations and Politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, but later started working as a marketing assistant at Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris. Semakaleng soon realised she was interested in the daily operations outside the office, and the other pilots encouraged her to consider training for a role.

She applied for the Ballooning and Airship Federation of South Africa (BAFSA)’s Department of Sport and Recreation Training Grant, and the flame was lit, so to speak.

Semakaleng qualified as a Free Balloon Pilot in November 2021, and you’ll rarely catch her on the ground nowadays. ‘People are my passion and I’m honoured to be in a field where I meet interesting people, who are as equally excited to engage with me, as I am with them,’ she says. ‘It even has me beating my alarm clock some mornings. This is more than a job. Ballooning holds a very special place in my heart and life that will live on long beyond my flying years.’

When asked about the challenges of the job, she says being a short person is not always helpful. ‘At 158cm, I am not exactly built for ballooning but my assisting crew are always ready to assist when an extra hand or a few centimetres are needed.’ But in all earnest, the biggest challenge to ballooning is the weather, she says. ‘Ballooning requires soft, gentle winds and that isn’t always the case. As balloon pilots, we place our faith in Mother Nature who continues to be kind to us on most days.’

Semakaleng is not currently employed by a commercial hot air ballooning operator, instead she is busy competing locally and earning her flying hours.

She dreams of going hot air ballooning in other parts of the world, too. ‘I hope to join Team South Africa in the World Championships this year [September] in Slovenia,’ she says, adding that she will need help with sponsorships.

The Mondial Ballooning Community in France has also invited her to the 2023 Hot Air Balloon Festival.

You can follow her on Instagram.

Pictures: Supplied


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