Picture this: the biggest horse racing event in Africa, with vast prize money and the top riders in the world. This is what Phindi Kema wanted, but a wrangle with the owners of a racecourse soured this dream. This has left the horse breeder frustrated, desperate and packing her bags. She is off to the United Kingdom, taking her skills with her.
Kema grew up on a farm. Her grandparents were farm laborers and her parents bred pigs, but she broke away and pursued a law degree at Fort Hare University—in the Eastern Cape. After she qualified, she worked as a coordinator for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—a restorative judicial body, which was assembled after the abolition of apartheid in South Africa—and in various senior corporate positions, but the pull of the farm was strong and Kema returned to her roots. She bought a citrus farm near Addo Elephant National Park, in the Eastern Cape, through the Land Affairs Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS) program and became a farmer in late 2006. She befriended her neighbor, Elwyn Phillips, who was a horse breeder, and bought his Elandskraal stud farm. She renamed it Iphi’Ntombi—meaning ‘where is the girl?’ in Zulu—after the Zimbabwean-bred champion filly Ipi Tombe.
“She [Ipi Tombe] had a great career and won international races and made a name for Africa. She is now breeding in Kentucky. I suppose, I set a challenge for myself right at the beginning of my career and I’m still at it.”
At the time Kema was the only African Thoroughbred horse breeder in the country. She picked up the trade quickly, but after three years she felt that it was time to move on. She pursued her dream of creating the biggest racing event on the African continent, which led to the start of her company, Africa Race International (ARI). Phumelela Gaming and Leisure, a horse racing and tote betting operator, approached Kema with a deal to buy Arlington Racecourse in the Eastern Cape. The deal was almost complete when Kema became suspicious of certain clauses in the contract. Phumelela wanted all financial guarantees 30 days after signing the agreement even though they had not set an occupation date. The other condition was that Kema had to use Phumelela’s license and was not allowed to purchase her own.
“This was not acceptable to me as it meant that Phumelela would be in control of my entire betting business and fixtures relating to my racing.”
Further research revealed that Phumelela had bought Arlington Racecourse for a mere R1 ($0.10) and expected Kema to pay R50 million ($5.4 million) for it. Kema later found that this was common practice in the industry.
When contacted on the issue, Phumelela declined to comment.
According to Kema, in the past five years, four of the country’s racecourses have been sold for property development. Gosforth Park was sold to Wes Bank and is now a racetrack for motorsport and Newmarket, in Johannesburg, has been sold to retail.
“While other countries are growing the sport, South Africa is stifling the growth of the industry. Other countries look at us and they actually mock South Africa because they understand that this model is not sustainable and this is a recipe for disaster.”
Kema was frustrated with the Arlington Racecourse deal and became vocal, but felt that her words fell on deaf ears. Then she lodged a complaint with the Competition Commission and backed the case with research from her team of lawyers and experts on international horseracing. She lodged another complaint with the public protector to investigate the 1997 agreement, regarding the selling of racecourses between the Gauteng provincial government and the racing industry.
“Further to that, I instituted an R80 million ($8.6 million) civil claim through the Equality Court against the Gauteng provincial government. The respondent failed to oppose the claim and missed the set deadline of October 5, 2012. The matter is still before the courts. I was then invited to Parliament to give the Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry an account of what had happened and put forward recommendations. Lastly, I wrote a letter to the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) to bring the matter to their attention.”
Kema says the government’s lack of knowledge on the subject made the process even longer and the fact that she was more knowledgeable did not go down well.
“Sometimes people with big titles do not enjoy being told that they have been duped, so they take what you say personally and react accordingly. This tends to ruffle more black and white feathers especially when it comes from a black woman.”
“I am appalled by the way the regulator runs the race office. I am resentful that the rich people have actually stolen the racing assets that belong to the country. This is what this whole issue is about […] that is what is killing South African horse racing.”
As things became complicated Kema’s life became court hearings, law suits and travel between Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. She could have easily backed down but the inspiration of her mother’s late father, Joseph Wilcot Kavie, kept her strong.
“He owned properties when black people under apartheid laws were prohibited from owning properties. He never saw himself as a victim; he turned every negative situation to his benefit if he could make it when the odds were against him, why would I fail? … That’s the thought that drives me… I admire so many people but Sol Kerzner, Phuthuma Nhleko and Sir Sam Jonah stand out because they are all groundbreakers, who comfortably transcended so many barriers and Africa has a reason to be proud.”
At the end of February, Kema moved to her spouse’s homeland of the United Kingdom. She’s on familiar ground, having visited the country many times and one of her fondest memories is her visit to the Queen’s stud farm. Her plan is to relax, reflect and possibly write a book.
“I like the British attitude and the UK is my adopted country because it has taught me so much of what I know. In as far as horseracing is concerned, I feel deeply connected with them because they are supportive of my aspirations and do not see me as a threat, precisely because they are experts in this field and therefore have no insecurities.”
So this front runner has removed the blinkers from people’s eyes, even when the odds were against her, she never spit the bit and now it’s time for her to canter.