From lawyer to running Africa’s top airport

Pityi-Vokwana flies the Eastern Cape flag high


She was once a high court lawyer but today Bongiwe Pityi-Vokwana is the woman behind SA’s biggest and busiest port of entry, the OR Tambo International Airport.
And at this week’s Air Cargo Africa conference and exhibition it was named the African Airport of the Year for the fourth time.
Pityi-Vokwana is the general manager at the airport which boasts a staff of more than 1,300.
The Air Cargo Africa 2019 event in Ekurhuleni attracted more than 80 international exhibiting companies and more than 3,000 trade visitors from 60 countries including from 30 African nations.
“There are some 38,000 people working in different capacities. But only about 1,300 of these are actually employed by the airport.
“This means that one of the biggest tasks is to manage people, suppliers and airline customers so that everyone performs their jobs at the right times and in the most effective way,” Pityi-Vokwana said.
“This can get complicated, but I enjoy the complexity and the challenges that come with it,” said Pityi.
The Bhisho-born manager said she never imagined life would open her up to a world of opportunities that would eventually see her where she is.
She attributed her success to people who pointed her in the right direction and supported her over the years.
“As with most executive positions, there is no single set of qualifications required. Someone could have a technical or engineering background, or be qualified in commerce, finance or law.
“Executives tend to move through different parts of organisations over their careers. So, a great deal depends on the individual and how you set your goals and manage your career,” she added. “Personally, I was admitted as an attorney of the high court of South Africa but I kept myself abreast of developments in aviation by reading, researching and attending relevant aviation courses,” she said. Pityi-Vokwana said she had found that the way to achieve buy-in and loyalty from her team was to provide them with the context for what needed to be done.
“Providing clarity and setting direction, followed by a well communicated plan on how to progress and execution against set targets that are monitored and tracked is non-negotiable in my working environment.
“I invest a lot of my time building my team and embedding a culture of cohesiveness and trust. Continuous learning is encouraged and supported by investing in formal and informal mentoring and coaching programmes.”
The University of Fort Hare alumna, said the key to success was to take everybody along with you.
“Seek feedback and genuinely empower others to trust that their opinions and contributions matter and always remind the team that while success belongs to us as a team, we will equally own up to our mistakes and hold each other accountable when things go wrong,” she said. Other prerequisites in her field include stakeholder management and alignment, proven ability to work in a pressured environment, analytical and critical thinking skills, and managing projects and budgets.
“Like any job, there are challenges and for me I do not enjoy it when there are operational gaps or failures in processes, or when people do not perform as expected. “When this happens there is typically an impact on passengers, who are the reason for our existence. It changes the mood at the airport, because people become frustrated, angry and upset.”
Pityi-Vokwano encouraged people looking for jobs to explore opportunities available in different parts of the aviation sector.
“Regardless of the course of study you choose, it is essential that you commit to it and focus on being the very best you can. “There are many distractions when we are young, but try to figure out whether these are really important enough for you to let your studies suffer.
“The most critical thing is your own assessment of yourself – your strengths, weaknesses and ambitions in life.
“Nothing comes easy and nothing should be taken for granted. It [career] has ups and downs and sometimes strange turns. Do not give up, for the tough times give us some of the most valuable lessons we will learn,” she said.
To find information about opportunities at Airports Company South Africa, please visit and

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