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Moments Before An Air Crash

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In a metal tube 40,000 feet above the ground, anything can go horribly wrong. A survivor recounts the moments before her plane crashed, and pilots tell us why we needn’t be as apprehensive today. 

This is your captain speaking, we are about to land,” said the voice on the intercom, as the passengers fastened seat belts.

The plane was descending calmly when it suddenly began to shake – vigorously.

A woman started shrieking.

Shock and horror all around.

Two students held hands in prayer.

In minutes – but what seemed like an eternity – the aircraft crashed into the ground, bursting into flames, killing 108 passengers.

Kechi Okwuchi, one of the two students who prayed, lived to tell the tale.

She was also one of only two survivors.

Thirteen years on, her scars, external and internal, run deep.

On December 10, 2005, 16-year-old Okwuchi, from Imo State in Nigeria, was heading home for Christmas with her school mates.

She was traveling on Sosoliso Airlines Flight 1145 from Abuja to Port Harcourt.

“I remember just being in shock at what was going on and I couldn’t quite grasp that this was reality. You only see these kind of things in the movies. You never actually are involved in it. It is just surreal,” she recounts to FORBES AFRICA.

“I remember the plane was late and when we all boarded, everything was normal.”

Okwuchi was in an aisle seat next to one of her friends.

“It wasn’t until about 15-20 minutes before we landed that things started to get a little crazy and the turbulence kind of got out of hand,” she says.

“People started panicking. I remember a lady in the back who screamed and that was what got everyone in chaos and screaming. The last thing I remember was hearing these metal scrapping sounds, whose origins I didn’t know. It was just this loud sound in my head.”

The plane had crashed.

“My next memory after that was seeing my hand raised up in front of me like I was lying and I could see my skin hanging off my arm. And I was looking at my hand back and forth…My skin was hanging,” she says of the aftermath.

Five weeks later, Okwuchi opened her eyes again for the first time since the crash. She was now at the Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, being treated for third degree burns that scarred her entire body.

Kechi Okwuchi, Air crash survivor. Photo provided

She was told none of her school mates had survived.

“Prior to that time, I thought that I if I was alive, everyone else was alive,” says Okwuchi.

“I just remember feeling shock and my friends’ faces were flashing before my eyes like someone flipping a scrap book in front of me…I was in that state of shock, depression and denial for about two-three days, just crying and crying.

“No one could comfort me from the pit of depression I was in,” she says.

To date, Okwuchi has undergone more than 100 surgeries – she has almost lost count.

At the time of the interview with FORBES AFRICA, she had just undergone yet another surgery in Los Angeles.

Okwuchi’s life is a miracle.

Despite the experience, she says she is not afraid of flying. She is a frequent flyer now pursuing a busy career.

She is studying for an MBA degree at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

She is also a vocalist, and has released her first single after being a finalist on the 12th season of America’s Got Talent last year.

Auditioning in front of thousands, including celebrities Simon Cowell, Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum, she fearlessly performed a rendition of Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud after sharing her life story.

She is also now a motivational speaker and has featured in TED Talks.

Kechi Okwuchi. Photo provided

The same decade as Okwuchi’s crash – the 2000s – Nigeria had experienced five major and fatal plane crashes. Experts suggested they were due to engine failure, bad weather, poor airport design or dysfunctional runway lighting.

Since then, the number of airplane accidents have thankfully declined.

On a continental level, a quick Google search reveals 23 headline-grabbing plane crashes in Africa in the first decade of this century.

Post 2010, there were five, the deadliest being the Algerian Air Force Il-76 crash as recently as April 11, 2018, when all 257 people on board were killed.

One of the reasons airplane accidents have come down today is thanks to the advancement of aviation technology. And thanks to phone cameras and social media, we also have better insight into what happens moments before an air accident.

However, to date, no technology has been able to solve one of the planet’s biggest unsolved mysteries – the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 in 2014 with 239 people on board.

Flying solo

The same year as the Sosoliso plane crash, thousands of kilometers from Nigeria, trainee pilot Noni Radebe was doing her first ‘night test’ in South Africa.

In the pitch-black sky, the 19-year-old was all by herself in the small plane hovering over Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape.

In the middle of the flight, the engines began to fail. Radebe felt unusual vibrations. Some plane components simply stopped working.

Panic and shock consumed her.

The plane began to lose altitude and flew over a dense forest.

Radebe couldn’t see anything and her plane started losing power. Her only hope was to try and somehow land it on any empty stretch of land.

“I had only been taught to respond to [such a situation] in daylight,” she says recalling what she thought would have been the end of her career – and her life.

In the end, with great trepidation, she somehow managed to land the plane on the runway of her training school.

She passed her pilot’s test and went on to become one of South Africa’s pioneering female pilots. Redebe has been flying commercial planes for the last 13 years.

Noni Radebe. Photo provided

She currently flies her dream plane, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 for Comair, which has advanced technological systems.

 “We have reached a point where you can basically land when you cannot see the ground. That’s how good the technology has become,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

She no longer panics in an emergency. She remains calm and reacts quickly to any potential danger in the air.

She finds flying one of the most enjoyable experiences on earth.

“By the time you actually line up on that runway and are ready to take off, it feels like you’ve been orchestrating this humongous stage play,” she says.

Radebe hopes to train young pilots to be better equipped for situations like the one she encountered during her first flight alone.

READ MORE: Heroes In The Sky

‘AT LEAST 500,000 PILOTS OVER THE NEXT 20 YEARS’

In Germiston, a small city in the East Rand region of Gauteng in South Africa, we meet yet another pilot, Rico Botha, who trains young aspirants at the U-Fly Training Academy in what used to be South Africa’s main international airport, the Rand Airport.

We are with Botha in a flight simulation room, and he fishes out his mobile phone.

He shows us an app on it displaying as many as 10,000 planes criss-crossing the globe in real time.

On the app, they are tiny yellow airplane symbols like colonies of ants. The app makes

it easy for anyone to keep track of the planes traveling in and out of various destinations.

“As air travel is predicted to increase over the next couple of years, we are going to have more planes in that same amount of airspace,” says Botha.

“They predict there will be at least 500,000 pilots over the next 20 years.”

Rico Botha. Photo by Motlabanna Monakgotla

He says there have been significant safety improvements with the arrival of advanced technology.

At the moment, a Boeing 737 is produced 47 times every month catering to a strong worldwide demand. The world’s other leading aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, has been flying the A380 for a decade and is the world’s largest passenger jet.

However, with more planes in the sky, pilot-training has to be undertaken with utmost caution and precision.

“One of the worst things to happen to a pilot is when [he/she] has lost a passenger. Nobody dies on your watch. It’s normally a career-breaker for a lot of people because it was your job to keep them safe…that guilt normally ends a lot of careers,” he says.

With the sky as your daily office, being a pilot may seem like one of the most glamorous jobs on the planet, but it comes with its own baggage of stress.

You can hit air pockets anytime in your career if not alert.

Aside from illnesses, if pilots go through any form of depression or trauma, psychometric tests are done and if they fail, they are deemed unfit to fly.

In 2015, a German co-pilot committed suicide by crashing his aircraft, killing all 144 passengers and crew members in the process. He initiated a deliberate descent until the aircraft impacted a mountain and blew up. Doctors had declared him “unfit to work” but he allegedly concealed that information from his employers.

“Family life is also a very big factor – your wife, your kids. You are going to miss birthdays, you are going to miss Christmas, you are going to miss the birth of your kids. These things do affect pilots and they do tend to become a little depressed at times,” Botha explains.

As for the planes, a thorough inspection must be conducted before take-off.

Botha takes us to one of the planes he uses for training purposes and demonstrates how a simple issue such as water mixing with fuel could cause combustion.

“Because fuel is so dense, you need to make sure there isn’t any water that gets in because water actually sinks in the fuel reserve,” Botha says, showing us a fuel test tube with water.

Both Radebe and Botha praise the level of training they have received.

“The training and level of maintenance in South Africa is one of the greatest in the world,” Radebe says.

Botha agrees, saying a majority of his students are overseas students who choose to study aviation in South Africa as opposed to their own countries.

“Africa is very much on par in terms of technology and also in terms of safety and training with the rest of the world,” says Radebe.

“Technology is changing every single day…

“[Planes are] burning less fuel, [there’s] less carbon emissions and they are much better for the environment…we are [using only] half the fuel we used 10 years ago just to get to Durban from Johannesburg…,” she says.

With an estimated 10,000 planes flying at any given moment, there is a sizeable population of humans up in the air, hopeful technology is on their side and that their pilots are not having a bad day.

 

Sit Back, Relax And Enjoy…?

These business travelers and frequent flyers have encountered some nerve-racking moments.

Claudette Thorne

Country General Manager, Southern Africa for Travelport

Before Travelport, her job entailed traveling to over 22 African countries. There’s one particular flying experience she will never forget.

Working in the mining industry, Thorne, only 22 at the time, boarded a chartered plane from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi in the DRC. It was a 45-minute flight.

“I remember it so clearly. It was a Rolls-Royce – the engine was literally almost held together with duct tape. And then I got on to the plane and that was the time I literally saw nuts and bolts next to me. So yes, petrified wasn’t even the word,” she says.

“I still have so much to accomplish in this life,” says the 37-year-old who finds herself on a plane at least four to eight times a month.

 

Thando Hopa

International model, writer, actress, lawyer

Turbulence while on a plane is Hopa’s worst nightmare.

“I suppose in my own mind it would feel like I should say a prayer because I’m about to die. That’s what I at least thought initially,” she says.

“It’s a resilient discomfort, I have to say,” says the 29-year-old.

Her first overseas flight was to the Sundance Film Festival in the United States. It was 23 hours of flying that Hopa had to endure including transit stops.

Due to albinism, Hopa has problems with her eye sight and requested special assistance.

“When I got there, they gave me a wheelchair and said ‘no, if you want special assistance, you have to sit in the wheelchair’,” Hopa laughs.  “I don’t need the wheelchair, I just need somebody to walk with me; the issues are with my eyes and not my legs,” Hopa told them.

In the end, the South African model, known to sashay down the country’s fashion runways, was pushed through the terminal on a wheelchair. It was an amusing on-ground experience.

If anything were to happen mid-flight, Hopa says her first thoughts would be her immediate family.

 

Brian Dodo

CEO and Founder, MAPP Africa and BmDodo Strategic Design

Resident in Canada, Dodo often travels to South Africa for business and to Zimbabwe, his home country.

There was that one flight he was on overseas that failed to take off.

He was headed to Havana from Montreal, and the passengers waited on the plane for two hours due to some technical issues before take-off.

“They didn’t explain why or give us anything to eat or drink that entire time,” he says. It was stressful not knowing the perceived danger.

As a frequent flyer, Dodo says flying is “taken for granted and the experience is no longer special”.

“I remember when people would clap once the plane has landed. Now, it doesn’t happen… it’s become really commuting more than flight travel,” he says.

 

Fred Eboka

Fashion designer

He has dressed up the rich and famous including tech billionaire Mark Shuttleworth, and the first lady of South Africa, Tshepo Ramaphosa.

His work takes him places, and he says he travels on a plane at least eight times a year.

He recalls a flight he once took from Cape Town to Johannesburg in the midst of a raging thunderstorm.

“We were all looking at each other like ‘what next?’ It was very scary. Suddenly you are feeling your stomach, your heart and your head, and praying!” he says.

The pilot had to turn back.

Eboka is grateful aviation technology has come a long way today.

“We feel a lot safer and we feel like the plane is becoming more and more intelligent,” he says.

Eboka’s philosophy has prepared him for any exigency.

“I plan as if I am going to live forever and I live as if I am going to die tomorrow,” he says.

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Going Once, Going Twice! The Evolution Of Auctions

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Online auctions are gaining popularity, but the traditionalists are still sold on the idea of live auctions that guarantee a good show, with emotions and bids running high.


In an industrialized area approximately 30 minutes from Sandton, the commercial hub of Johannesburg, is a shining fleet of trucks, parked and ready to be sold to the highest bidder.

The sun reflects off the windshields in the direction of the registered bidders as they sit under red outdoor umbrellas at the entrance of the property. 

Some opt for refreshments, while others make small talk with their competition.

A man uses this time to make phone calls to a mechanic, who discourages him from making a regrettable bid on a “non-runner”.

He runs towards the towering fleet of trucks, where he joins the eager buyers as they take a final peek before the auction begins.

We are at Aucor Auctioneers’ popular commercial auction, at their head office in Midrand.

After spending four hours traveling to Johannesburg from Nelspruit (in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province), for the auction, Charles Malibe gets into a heated bidding war that lasts no longer than a minute but is packed with plenty of fervent action.

Charles Malibe in a heated bidding war for a truck. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

It is noon and an overjoyed Malibe has just won a R465,000 ($32,401) bid on a second-hand truck.

“I attended my first auction three years ago. Sometimes you get it wrong and sometimes you get the right stuff at the right price. It is good to be exposed to new things. I went to Durban once, but I did not get anything there. It was not a waste. It is not only about getting things, it gives you exposure,” he says.

As Malibe heads back to Nelspruit, the auctioneer remains chanting until the last vehicle is sold, with the crowd getting smaller with each purchase.

Wasim Babamia, Aucor Auctioneers’ multimedia consultant, manages the national marketing for the 51-year-old auctioneering company.

Digitalization has disrupted traditional norms of advertising, and has made the industry more accessible for both buyers and sellers. 

“Selling any asset boils down to supply and demand. The advantage of buying in an auction is cutting out the middleman, saving that money and getting something of real top value,” he says.

Wasim Babamia, Aucor Auctioneers’ multimedia consultant. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

 Marketing the call to action remains a vital component for the business. 

“Social media has to be on point when we market a particular auction,” Babamia says.

Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn are some of the biggest platforms, apart from the traditional pamphlets and website advertising strategies.

According to Babamia, online bidding has pulled in more numbers over the past four years.

He sees a rapid transformation in the auctions landscape in the foreseeable future.

According to a South African Institute of Auctioneers (SAIA) report, Gauteng is the highest province of interest with over 6,000 potential buyers (for all kinds of auctions including residential properties, retail vehicles, jewelry and collectables) on its website, while the Northern Cape is the lowest with just over 1,000 buyers.

The traditional means of auctioning have had to make way for digital platforms that have been steadily increasing over the last decade.

SAIA records close to 100,000 visitors to online auctions in 2010; the first half of 2019 is already at 400,000 visitors.

Last year’s record 600,000 visitors reflect that the online market could be just as lucrative as the live auctions.

READ MORE | ‘Stolen’ Tutankhamun Bust Puts Britain’s Museums And Auctioneers Back Under the Spotlight

As the state of the South African economy remains uncertain, Babamia suggests that auctioneering will always provide a cheaper option to consumers.

An industry that has been in existence for more than 2,000 years continues to grow despite its many iterations over the years.

Ancient Greek records on auctions dating as far back as 500BC show women were auctioned off to become wives.

Auctions were popular for family estates and the selling of war plunder in Rome.

As a result of the great depression in the 1900s, the United States opened auction schools to generate income as businesses and individuals needed to liquidate assets to withstand the economic crisis.

In recent times, market trends have changed dramatically to adapt to socioeconomic norms.

A shift to online auctioneering has been a great development and contributor to the fluid industry.

 Orbis Research reports that the global online auction market is expected to grow during the period 2018-2022 with a 7.2% compound annual growth rate.

“Another major trend witnessed in the online auction is the immense impact of artificial intelligence (AI). AI’s main role in an online auction is to perform different tasks such as processing internal operations, customer-service inquiries, delivery and product packaging. In the last years, AI has instigated a gradual shift, from conventional auction to online auction,” the report states.

The increase in sales of art-based goods through online auctions is a key market driver.

Traditional live auctions, however, are still a preferred option for bargain-hunters, despite the global steer towards digitalization.

This is according to fine art specialist Luke Crossley who manages Stephan Welz & Co. in the affluent northern suburb of Johannesburg, Houghton Estate.  

Fine art specialist Luke Crossley who manages Stephan Welz & Co. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

Moving to simpler models will improve the industry by providing a greater competitive edge, he says.  

“There is a growing interest and understanding of auctions across a broad section of people where, maybe, a couple of decades ago it was seen as just for the very rich people doing very rich things.

“People are realizing that it is a great way of finding weird and beautiful objects, artwork and furniture at quite reasonable prices,” he says.

The increase of auction houses in South Africa offers a variety to buyers and sellers, with SAIA having 80,546 members registered by April 2019. As a result, the art and design market is at an advantage.

“The South African art market on auction is always evolving and broadening. The importance to history and art history is being realized and there is a growing interest and demand for these. It is encouraging a lot of the younger artists working with galleries to look at the history and heritage of artistic practice in this country,” Crossley says.

“With growing appreciation for South African and African art overseas, a couple of international houses based in England regularly do sales of more historical work. The audience overseas means a lot for the artists, the country and the future.”

Selling or buying art on auction engages the audience as well as the creator.

“The gallery, thus, becomes the primary market where young artists can build their careers; whereas auctions and private individuals with a passion for art can sell work they own, re-invest in other artists, or buy.

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‘South Africans Love Martyrs’

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The first 100 days of any presidency are often harshly scrutinized as they set the tone for what citizens expect. South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa is under the magnifying glass as all await his next tactical move.


At the end of May, South Africa’s sixth democratically-elected president, Cyril Ramaphosa, took an oath of office at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria. In his speech, he touched on many issues that resonate with South Africans, including corruption, poverty, equality and youth unemployment.

These burning matters prelude what is to be expected from him in his first 100 days in office.

Ramaphosa’s period at the helm of power (before the elections) has been typified by repeated calls for a ‘New Dawn’. It seems the man who made it to the 2019 Time magazine list of 100 Most Influential in the world has a laundry list of issues to attend to if he is to set the tone for the rest of his presidency.

READ MORE | IN PICTURES | Looking Back At The Vibe Of The South African Elections

The challenge that has deeply affected how South Africans and investors view the country is that of corruption.

“Let us forge a compact for an efficient, capable and ethical state, a state that is free of corruption, for companies that generate social value and propel human development… We must be a society that values excellence, rewards effort and rejects mediocrity,” Ramaphosa said at his inauguration on May 25.

 In the first 100 days, analysts say he needs to demonstrate he is a proactive leader; one who takes decisive action to address the plight of those who live in a society as unequal as South Africa. The gaping chasm between the richest and poorest has widened since the end of apartheid 25 years ago. This information is not lost on citizens whose lived experiences and disenchantment were in evidence during the elections.

A specialist in social economic development and political commentator, Kim Heller, is of the view that Ramaphosa has some way to go to address the resolutions of his party, the African National Congress (ANC).

 “There are critical social maladies that need to be treated with the urgency they deserve… One of the key things people are looking for is a decisive man and decisive leadership,” she says.

Political analyst, Prince Mashele, ventures: “He is yet to act on resolutions because he is navigating complex political infighting in the ANC, which is why he can’t move boldly and faster…”

Economic transformation has been seen to also imply redistribution of the means of production, which currently has been reiterated in the call for land redistribution without compensation. This is among the duties citizens and investors will keep a close eye on as it is a contentious matter.

Leading up to the elections, Ramaphosa said to apprehensive farmers, “the land reform process is something we should never fear. It is going to be done in terms of the constitution”.

Heller says that, “the question of land is unresolved, despite very solid ANC resolutions from branches, and despite extensive consultation”.

The president will to have to choose whether he wants to be investor-friendly or whether he wants the interests of his own political party to find expression in policy.

“The investors have become the supreme branch of the ANC. So Ramaphosa certainly, is spending a lot of time on their concerns rather than ordinary people…,” Heller says.

READ MORE | Poll Position: The South African 2019 Elections

Mashele echoes: “He has been a market-friendly president. He has railed against his comrades calling for the nationalization of the [South African] Reserve Bank”.

Another matter influencing investment into the country is red tape that inhibits instead of encouraging business. South Africa dropped from 34 out of 181 countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking in 2009 to 82 out of 192 countries last year, leaving the country trailing its African peers, including Mauritius (20), Rwanda (29) and Kenya (61).

In his address to the nation, Ramaphosa continued with the mantra thuma mina (which means ‘send me’) and committed to continue to build South Africa. In his rebuilding, he will have to take a closer look at the factors that infringe on those looking to conduct business while straddling the line in ensuring that (natural) resources are not further depleted while failing to trickle down to those who need it the most.

Heller is of the view that the expectations created by the president serve as a double-edged sword: “Some quarters have built him up to be the Messiah we have all been waiting for. He may have embraced that but it’s actually going to damage him. Because there is no individual who can save this country without looking at doing serious things in terms of economic restructuring… Until we address structural issues in this country, shifting the economy to favor ordinary people, not markets, we actually aren’t very benevolent.”

Also affecting business has been the view that South Africa is amongst the most corrupt on the continent and viewed as one of the murder capitals of the world. The Zondo Commission has illustrated the stark reality of the malfeasance the president will have to address to change these perceptions and in so doing, hold high-profile individuals accountable.

READ MORE | Ticking The Right Boxes: Will The South African Elections Come Down To The Wire?

 In line with building an equal society, the president made mention of the prevalence of violence against women at his inauguration.

“Let us end the dominion that men claim over women, the denial of opportunity, the abuse and the violence, the neglect, and the disregard of each person’s equal rights. Let us build a truly non-racial society, one that belongs to all South Africans, and in which all South Africans belong. Let us build a society that protects and values those who are vulnerable and who for too long have been rendered marginal,” Ramaphosa said.

Leading up to the resolution of the president’s first 100 days in office, the public is watching with bated breath. 

“I pity him. He’s made big promises on housing and unemployment. Those are not going to magically change overnight. The problem with South Africa is that we love martyrs and here we have a president that we have martyred and who is actually going to fall on that. To replace one man with another, is not going to replace problematic policies, poor implementation and poor conceptualization of economic solutions. So I think in the next 100 days, I don’t expect to see anything unless the fundamentals are changed,” Heller says.     

No doubt, it is going to take a concerted effort from all institutions, including those that have been revealed to be compromised. The first 100 days will certainly determine the rest of the president’s term in office.

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Lifting The Heavy Veil On Wedding Costs

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With pockets as deep as gold mines, how far are couples willing to go to have the picture-perfect luxe wedding?


The lagoons overlook the snow-white beaches with its swaying coconut trees, embraced by the turquoise waters of the sea in the island nation of Mauritius. It’s a scene straight out of a movie, with a couple cavorting in the distance.

Over 100 guests from South Africa have also gathered on these sands for the weekend wedding of businessman Lebo Gunguluza and his long-term girlfriend Lebo Mokoena. 

The total cost of this union: almost $300,000. 

“I didn’t mind exceeding the budget, because you only do this once,” says new bride Mokoena.

The couple flew over 30 guests and provided them with five-star accommodation at the LUX* Grand Gaube.  Part of the guest contingency included the behind-the-scenes crew for the wedding, as well as the speakers who had to spend four to seven days in Mauritius to prep up.

“We did not want to have a local wedding because we wanted our guests and family to have a different experience. We also wanted our family members who did not have passports and have never flown out of the country to experience a different country,” Gunguluza says.

Snow-white beaches of Mauritius. Picture: Supplied

The weekend celebrations started on a Friday last September with a cocktail meet-and-greet party. Belly dancers who were dressed in floral red and yellow danced the evening away with guests, with a local band taking them to the all-white party on Saturday.

This was just a build-up to the romantic wedding reception with shades of blush, ivory, and gold which was to take place on Sunday at 4PM.

“Every time I think about that day, I want to do it again,” the new bride says.

The couple chose not to have bridesmaids and groomsmen and the guests were encouraged to dress in black and white.

“I didn’t have bridesmaids because it makes you choose between your friends. I felt that if you got an invite to our wedding, you were worthy enough. So, we wanted everyone to be bridesmaids and groomsmen. I think we made it intimate and everybody felt like they were VIPs,” says Mokoena.

Everything fit perfectly as the bride’s two white wedding dresses were designed by Antherline Couture.

For the ceremony, she wore a white ball gown with a diamanté top heavily embellished with beads; while the groom looked dapper in a white tuxedo jacket designed by Master Suit SA.  

The color white was indeed conspicuous.

“I have always felt that white is pure and because I was signing my life away, I felt I needed to be pure, hence I said my husband needed to wear white as well,” she adds.

The lavish white wedding was organized by renowned wedding planner Precious Tumisho Thamaga who ditched her seven-year career in Public Relations & Marketing to become an event planner.

Thamaga organizes events and weddings for affluent clients such as the Gunguluzas.

“They are busy people and they don’t have time to do the administration and the back and forth of vetting in suppliers,” Thamaga says, as she takes over the pain of wedding planning.

Lebo Mokoena and Lebo Gunguluza (middle) with wedding guests in Mauritius. Picture: Supplied

While working in the corporate world, she had attended many weddings that she felt were put together in a way that created a disconnect between the guests and the wedding couple.

“So I saw an opportunity in the fact that there were not a lot of wedding planners that were black,”  Thamaga says. 

She decided to focus on corporate clients in order to turn her passion into a profitable business.

“A lot of people did not expect a black person to be professional and take the business seriously.

“It was not just a hobby or someone helping out a family. It was an actual business and I made sure that I got taken seriously from the onset,” Thamaga says.

In order for Precious Celebrations (the name of her company) to prosper, she had to have a business strategy in place.

“I made sure that I put a lot of time and effort and strategized properly what it was that I wanted to actually focus on, and find a niche [in]. I believed that would separate me from somebody that was already in the industry,” Thamaga says.

However, her job is not always alluring.


Lebo Mokoena and Lebo Gunguluza’s wedding in Mauritius. Picture: Supplied

“When I started in the industry there weren’t so many wedding planners and now it is a different story and everyone thinks it is easy-peasy and it is glamorous,” she says. 

Planning a luxurious wedding takes eight to 12 months and can cost anywhere between R300,000 ($20,813) to R4.5 million ($312,203).

The most expensive wedding Thamaga planned was for a public figure she cannot disclose the name of. 

“It was a destination wedding and the experience from when the guests arrived to the wedding day was memorable. When they arrived, we had a cocktail party and we had activities like canoeing and on Sunday we had an all-white party. [This is] so that people don’t depart on Sunday and may leave on Monday.” 

Only the affluent sign up.

“The smallest wedding that I have had to plan had 80 people and it cost R2 million ($138,000),”  Thamaga says.

She has turned away some clients in the past because their budget was insufficient for the type of wedding they envisioned. 

Thamaga organizes 26 weddings, on average, annually, from countries such as Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Botswana and now she plans on taking her bespoke company global.

One of the unique aspects of her business is that she has maintained a good relationship with the suppliers she has in each country, and has kept her expenses to a minimum.

“The wedding planning-event planning industry is quite lucrative if you do it right. I am not the type that would have too much inventory because I want to feel like the inventory belongs to me; that would limit my creativity,” she says.

“I make sure that I don’t have a lot of expenses, I have coordinators that I have worked with for years and they have full-time jobs.”

Thamaga’s greatest challenge so far was whether or not to outsource other wedding planners when her business was increasing.

“It can be a bit daunting to realize that your business is growing,” she says.

But she opted to remain boutique.

“I had to decide that it is not about the money. I am building an empire where I want a legacy and an ongoing relationship with my clients.” 

She involves her clients every step of the way to bring their vision to an unforgettable reality, and believes that weddings are expensive because of the growing aspirations of the young.

“It is not just in South Africa, it is worldwide,” she says.

Despite the tangible costs of conducting these dream events, the wedding industry in South Africa is largely unregistered as it is a fluid market where services and costs are difficult to track and document accurately.

Fred Elu Eboka, a Nigerian designer who dresses delegates as well as the rich and famous. Picture: Supplied

Africans, no doubt, spend millions per year on costs associated with marital ceremonies. This is the reality of the unregistered wedding industry. Despite the recession and slow economic growth, the wedding industry continues to attract many entrepreneurs to its lucrative opportunities.

As, people never stop getting married.

The Marriages and Divorces report released by Statistics South Africa last May shows an upward trend in civil marriages. Civil marriages increased by 0.6%, from 138,627 marriages registered in 2015 to 139,512 in 2016.

A wedding dress is an important part of a celebration and the bridal couture market continues to show growth.

Wise Guy Reports Database Global Wedding Dress Market Insights, forecast to 2025, states: “The wedding market demand grows continually, and the wedding garments market has notable increase every year. In this case, the competition is also very intense among companies. The involved companies should seize the opportunities to expand the gold mine.”

A previous client of Thamaga’s has spent R200,000 ($13,876) on two wedding dresses and this is nothing for Fred Elu Eboka, a Nigerian designer who dresses delegates as well as the rich and famous. 

He moved to South Africa in 1992 at a time when African designs were not being celebrated globally. 

Twenty years ago, Eboka sold wedding dresses for R15,000 ($1,041) a piece, and now sells for R250,000 ($17,344) a piece, depending on the design. 

“A designer of my caliber in South Africa is undersold because there are people in the United States selling wedding gowns for $250 and I am here selling them for maybe $80, it just doesn’t make sense. It shows that our economy is really bad because a designer of my caliber should be operating on the same level as them, or very close,” Eboka says.

He is a luxury designer. 

“When you think of luxury, it is not just the product, it is not just the textile – it is the whole experience from when you drive in, to when you sit down and have the designer talk to you and learn about your life. The whole artistic process contributes to the cost value of the gown.”

He says that the reason wedding gowns are expensive is because they are meant to be timeless pieces.

“Traditionally, wedding gowns are classical couture. It is not like the normal evening dress that you wear to look beautiful on one night. A wedding dress is like training for the Olympics. You train for them for the rest of your life,” he says.

Eboka also says when designing a wedding gown, you need to take time to know the client, family and their fancies in order to meet the clients’ need.

The material of the wedding gown is usually expensive because he sources the textiles from across the world, and he takes two to three months to create a gown, depending on the embellishments.

Fred Elu Eboka, a Nigerian designer who dresses delegates as well as the rich and famous. Picture: Supplied 

“My designs have a lot of artistry,” he says.

Eboka is a wealthy man but he still believes that the industry is not as lucrative as it could be.

“But we do well, without being arrogant about it… You have to be fully aware of the industry and have the intellectual capacity to understand the potential of the market,” he says.

Pictures are an important element of a wedding because they capture the moment for life.

International award-winning photographer Daniel West meets his clients in a restaurant so he can get to know them better and learn the history of their relationship.

“We, as photographers, need to click with each couple, it is actually vital because we are going to be in their space from the beginning to end.

“So, when we do not gel, we are going to find ourselves in an awkward situation on the day because we, as photographers, are also problem-solvers. We don’t just take pictures on the day,” West says.

His packages start from R18,000 ($1,248) to R60,000 ($4,163) and he says it is because the couple is paying for the quality of the work. His packages include waterproof genuine leather-bound photo albums that he says last a lifetime, as well as 500 images that are both edited and unedited. He also arranges the location for the photoshoots.

“It is more than about taking pictures on the day, anybody can take pictures but the work that I do has more of a boutique feel,” he says.

“You pay to have something like this on the table that will last you a lifetime,” West says.

He does not only take pictures on the day but the photoshoots can take up to three months.

“Each couple that I take pictures of has a different story and that is where I draw my inspiration.”

West says that it takes a while for the business to get to a point that is profitable because photographic equipment is expensive.

“In the beginning, it is unfortunately not lucrative because you have to look into getting the equipment that is up to standard, however, it took me about seven years where I could get to a point that I could make a business out of it,” West says.

International award-winning photographer Daniel West with his clients. Picture: Supplied

His annual turnover before expenses is R800,000 ($55,502) and he has about 25 clients a year.

He believes that the industry is regarded as valuable in South Africa and it is growing because people are becoming more enlightened about the photography industry. And social media has become an important motivator driving this industry.

“It is vital to have a good photographer for your wedding, because you as a bride are not quite educated of what is out there and what is not [in terms of photography].”

A good photographer needs to have foresight.

“The quality and charisma of your photographer is really one of the most important things you pay for because if something were to go wrong on your wedding, like rain, what does your photographer do? Do they stand back or make a plan?” he says.

Other luxe services associated with weddings include limos and chauffeur services, and florists, live music bands and gourmet caterers flown from around the world. The more money you are willing to throw, the more sparkling the champagne, crystal and caviar on the beach

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