How Neliswa Nkani Carved Her Own Table In South Africa's Male-Driven Tourism Space

SheThePeople's exclusive interview with Neliswa Nkani, Hub Head of MEISEA at South African Tourism, reveals her journey as a woman of colour breaking barriers in global leadership, and challenging male dominance in top roles.

Oshi Saxena
New Update
Neliswa Nkani

When it comes to planning a holiday or getaway, it's often women who take charge, meticulously organizing every detail to ensure a seamless experience for everyone involved. From choosing destinations to coordinating schedules, women often bear the responsibility of making sure every aspect of the trip caters to the preferences of family and friends. Yet, despite their pivotal role in shaping our travel experiences, women within the tourism industry frequently find themselves sidelined, facing challenges such as unequal pay, a lack of work-life balance, and a scarcity of leadership opportunities.


In an exclusive interview, SheThePeople spoke with Neliswa Nkani, Hub Head of MEISEA at South African Tourism. As a woman of colour who has risen to a leadership position on the global stage, Nkani has shattered barriers and defied the odds in a field where men often dominate top roles. From her perspective, she shares insights on the relationship between South Africa and India, the role of tourism in strengthening these ties, and the ongoing battle against gender bias and inequality within the industry.

A Woman of Color Embracing Strength

Hailing from South Africa, a country with a complex history of racial oppression, Nkani recalls the challenges faced by women of colour, who were historically marginalized and were entering the tourism industry in the early 2000s. "South Africa is a country that has had a very interesting background where women of colour, as you refer to black women, never occupied a seat at the table," she shares. "It was against the laws of our country, of our predecessors, that black people were not adequate, they were not enough; they were not capable."

Despite the doubts and scepticism she encountered, Nkani persevered, carving out a niche for herself in a field where opportunities for women, especially women of colour, were scarce. Her journey took her to the Netherlands in 2002, where she became part of the first group of women of colour to be posted abroad by South African Tourism. 

Nkani's journey took a new turn in 2018 when she ventured into the Indian market—a move that was met with its own set of challenges and doubts. "There were doubts cast that the Indian community would not be welcoming to a person of colour," she recalls. "Well, with those doubters and haters so wrong, I have received the most amazing welcome in India from the travel fraternity."

In India, Nkani found a kinship rooted in shared values and cultural similarities—a discovery that not only enriched her professional journey but also deepened her understanding of the human experience. "The stereotype question was, am I qualified enough? Do I have what it takes? Is there room for a black person?" she reflects. "It's been an astronomical growth that I have seen personally. In fact, in India, my greatest growth came out of being in India as a woman of colour."


For Nkani, success has never been defined solely by personal achievements but by the doors, she opens for others. "My greatest milestone is opening the doors for India into South Africa," she emphasizes. "To make sure that the Indian travel fraternity gets to see South Africa in the light of making sure that it is the rainbow nation that it always talks about."

It's about the industry being open to receiving and taking a chance on me as a woman, as a South African, but most importantly, as a human being. And that's what India epitomizes: humanity.

Strengthening India-South Africa Ties

As South Africa commemorates its 30-year celebration of freedom, Nkani highlights the importance of consumer activations and trade initiatives in strengthening ties between India and South Africa. "We are celebrating this year our 30-year celebration of freedom as a country," she reveals. "So we're going to be doing major consumer activations, trade activations, and hosting over 200 buyers in one state within India to showcase and increase engagement."

At the heart of these efforts lies a commitment to bridging the gap between Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities in India and the diverse offerings of South Africa, "The biggest initiative that we are going to embark on this year is coming closer to the Tier 2 and Tier 3 city travel fraternity," she reveals. "Bringing South Africa closer to these tier two, tier three cities, but also bringing them to our country so that they can have the first-hand experience."

Furthermore, South African tourism is tapping into niche markets, such as adventure tourism, to cater to the diverse interests of Indian travellers. "We will be leading a mission of bikers into South Africa so that they can get the ride of their lives," she shares. "And it will be done authentically, from coast to desert, showcasing the diversity of our landscapes."


Empowering Women in Tourism

Reflecting on her journey, Nkani acknowledges the inherent challenges of being a woman, especially a woman of colour, in a male-dominated industry. "It is hard to be a woman. It is hard to be a woman of colour," she admits. "But as a woman, I feel empowered, educated, and capable to do anything within the space of tourism that any other gender can."

Despite the progress made, Nkani recognizes that achieving gender equality requires concerted efforts at all levels of society, starting with education and awareness within families and communities. "Those of us who have brothers, sons, or male cousins need to sensitize them about the journey of women," she emphasizes. "We have to start educating our surroundings, and this starts at home."

At the workplace, Nkani stresses the importance of women supporting women—a principle she actively embodies in her leadership role. "Women need to show up for women within the workplace. When you spot talent, you need to nurture it," she asserts. "If they're okay, you're okay. We have to, as women, show up for each other."

However, Nkani emphasizes that empowerment should not be pursued at the expense of quality or ethical standards. "We can never compromise the quality that needs to be delivered in anything that we do," she affirms. "We must also choose which doors we want to break and which doors we want to let them be because you can't change everybody."  Instead, she advocates for a focus on value addition and ethical leadership. 

Role of Mentorship in Shaping Careers


For Neliswa Nkani, Hub Head of MEISEA at South African Tourism, mentorship has been more than just a guiding light—it has been a cornerstone of her professional growth and success. 

Throughout her career, Nkani has had the privilege of being mentored by individuals across genders and levels of management. From seasoned executives to young leaders making their mark, each mentor has played a vital role in shaping her journey and imparting invaluable wisdom along the way.

The greatest mentors for me were my late mothers, both of them. Their mentoring to me was to be the best that you can, open doors for others, make sure that you give opportunity to other people, and learn, continuously learn within whatever you do.

From a tourism perspective, Nkani emphasizes the importance of seeking mentors who possess a wealth of life experiences rather than just academic credentials. "The best university that one has is the university of life," she asserts.

In India, where Nkani has made significant strides in her role at South African Tourism, she has found inspiration in the instinctual wisdom and compassion of women leaders. "When I am in need or looking for advice, I go to women who are very instinctual and instinctive when they come to a response," she explains. "They don't respond thinking that they are going to be They respond for the betterment of society."

Fair Pay and Gender Equality

Indeed, the gender pay gap remains a persistent challenge, with women often trailing behind their male counterparts in terms of compensation and benefits. Yet, amidst the disparities, Nkani sees signs of progress—companies that are taking deliberate steps to address the issue and level the playing field.

"I think there are some companies that have been very deliberate in saying that we will get an executive woman, she will be paid part, and we need to applaud that and give that," she notes. "Has it been an impediment? To some degree, yes. But I think what's nice about the tourism industry, it is a social sector... And I'm seeing more and more women take up the roles in the various companies across the world in the sector."

However, the journey towards gender equality is far from over. Despite the strides being made, there are still gaps that restrict women from fully participating in the tourism industry, perpetuating the cycle of inequality.

It's very heartbreaking at times when you are hosting a group from India and you have two women in the entire fan group and you ask yourself, where are the other women? I'm not sure if we are doing enough as a sector to recruit women or are we recruiting for the sake of a recruitment drive.

Worklife Balance in the Fast-Paced World of Tourism

"Tourism is very addictive. It's you're living what you love," Nkani claims, acknowledging the all-encompassing nature of the profession. "It's sometimes very difficult as a hub or a head of an organization to take time out, but it's very important."

I've spent the last five years, and I almost went into a meltdown from a fatigue perspective. In the end, love is important, inner peace is important, and being able to switch off is important.

She tries to maintain a healthy balance, which also entails setting boundaries and prioritizing personal time, particularly on Sundays—a day reserved for self-reflection and spiritual nourishment. "I try as much as possible to not engage work-wise, particularly on a Sunday," she shares. "It's my time, it's me time, it's my spiritual time, my religious day."

Lessons Learned and Perspectives Gained

With a wealth of experience in destination marketing, including notable projects such as AJAX Amsterdam in 2007 and Cape Winelands for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Nkani reflects on the lessons learned and the values that have guided her throughout her career.

Why Rising Above Rejection Is Important

"I think the greatest challenge that women face is rejection," Nkani reflects candidly. "We don't do well with rejection. Wanting to inject and impose yourself on other people, wanting to be accepted by other people." For Nkani, leadership is not about climbing to the top at the expense of others but rather about lifting others up and creating opportunities for growth and advancement.

You need to always ask yourself, as a human being, as a woman, as a believer, no matter what it is that you believe, Ask yourself on the ladder, what step am I occupying. Do I pull people up or do I pull people down? And if it's the latter, you need to reflect on what your value and your purpose are.

"And therefore, for anybody, whether it's a woman, a young man, or a young boy, I always say to live the best that you can," Nkani concludes. "Give to life, for life will give to you. If you take from life, life will take from you."

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