When Sophia Williams de Bruyn, then barely 18 years of age, provided leadership at the front line of the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, she laid the foundation for all South Africans to enjoy equal opportunities and reach their full potential.

So did fellow Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph Rahima Moosa, and Albertinah Sisulu.

Sixty years down the line, women are now able to break barriers of prejudice and be in professions considered to be the domain of men.

One of these women is Sarah Thepa, the manager at Grand Central Airport in Johannesburg.

Sarah Thepa, Manager of Grand Central Airport in Johannesburg.

Speaking to the tenants and users of the airport, the general consensus is that “if you want things to be done you call Sarah”. Sarah’s father, Martin Thepa, was the maintenance manager at the airport.

“He worked here for 50 years. He started here at the age of 16 doing various jobs,” she says. He retired in 2010.

Sarah, a great believer in that sometimes things happen for a reason, would often accompany her father to work. That is when she developed a fondness for aviation and airports.

One day she was lucky enough to answer a phone call from the then airport manager, Jeanette Rennie, who was looking for her father. This call changed the course of her life.

“She started asking me questions and a few weeks later she offered me a temporary job to relieve one of the receptionists during the December break,” Sarah says.
At the time she was due to return to Pretoria to complete a Diploma in Cost Management and Accounting.

Jeanette called her again in January to offer her a more permanent shift at the reception desk.

Sarah completed her studies part time and continued to work for the airport.

During the 18 months she was working in reception Sarah was constantly learning more about the airport.

One of her colleagues tells the story of how Sarah dusted off the old wheelchair in the storeroom to make sure it was clean and accessible for disabled visitors, and started offering coffee to airport visitors that arrived in the early morning before the coffee station opened.

Sarah’s generous offer of coffee became such a perk for visitors that soon she was buying coffee out of her own pocket in order to meet the demand.

When Jeanette found out about this, she insisted that Sarah use the coffee supplied by the company.

Eventually visitors insisted on paying for the coffee at which point Sarah was funding the purchasing of coffee from all the coffee she sold.

What also propelled her to greatness was her sharp, enquiring mind. She got curious about the calls she was fielding at reception and started asking questions of the callers.

“A lot of enquiries were about landing fees and I found I could answer these questions myself instead of referring them to my colleague Sandy who was a debtors’ clerk.

Once I had educated myself on the rates. I knew the cat was out of the bag when a caller asked Sandy if they could speak to the lady who gives info on the landing fees,” she says with a chuckle.

And with that Sarah became the office administrator and debtor’s clerk. In 2007 she was promoted to office administrator and public relations manager.

In her new role it became clear that Sarah was good at dealing with the tenants of the terminal building.

She also won favour by taking children on school tours and hosting aviation enthusiasts who came over from as far as the UK every year.

Jeanette continued to be a mentor to Sarah, teaching her everything there was to be known about the airport.
After Jeanette fell ill and passed on in 2009, it was Sarah’s true baptism of fire as she had to fill the void, whilst the recruitment process continued.

The new airport manager, Gary Renault, could only start after two months. So Sarah, the shy but committed young woman who had started out as a temp receptionist on her 21st birthday, was left to run Grand Central Airport single handedly for two months at the age of 34.

She had to manage everything from fuel purchases to invoicing to maintenance to general management

“To this day I don’t know how I did it. What I do know is that it gave me the confidence in myself to realise that I can trust my judgement and make decisions. Jeanette’s guidance was invaluable to me at that time. She was my mentor and she taught me a great deal.”

“After having such a wonderful mentor in Jeanette; Gary also came in as a very helpful mentor. He is my rock. He is more like a good friend than a boss and has helped me a lot to overcome the fears I had about doing things,” she says.

At the end of 2011, Gary returned from a board meeting and told Sarah she had been promoted to Assistant Airport Manager with immediate effect. She excelled on her job until she was promoted in May 2015 to Airport Manager.

Now the only thing that Sarah wishes for, is that she could learn to fly.

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