As the United Aviation Group SA Derby kicks off this week, competitors will arrive at Kyalami Equestrian Park to a well coordinated show with excellently-maintained arenas and challenging courses built by excellent course builders. Behind the scenes, there have been months of hard work and effort coordinating all these elements and all the admin that goes with running a show - especially one the size of the UAG SA Derby and with the added complications of strict Covid-19 regulations.

We chat to Heather Mpofu, Show Director for Kyalami Park Club, to find out more about what it takes to coordinate a successful show whilst also juggling motherhood and life during a pandemic.

Tell us who you are? Your likes, dislikes, weaknesses and strengths?

I am a B. Com Industrial and Organizational Psychology graduate and hold a diploma in accounting. A survivor of so many hardships and poverty in my early childhood years. I am a true feminist at heart and a philanthropist of note. I truly believe I haven’t made it if I cannot upskill and support those around me. I believe if there is a way to help someone then I should do so. I don’t believe in the word cannot, I would rather try and fail than not try at all. I am very strong willed, opinionated and attached to my beliefs. It is quite shocking that as a child I was reserved and very anti-social, my poor sister had the not so easy task of always reminding me to acknowledge people and be nice to them, and yet twenty plus years later I have blossomed into a very social individual.

I truly dislike people that give up on themselves and think that drugs and alcohol are the solution to their problems – I am not saying this because I have a solution to all my problems or was born with it all, I say this because I have been to hell and back but one thing is for sure, I always fought and continue to fight to change my destiny and wouldn’t be here if I had given up.

I would say my greatest strengths are my attention to detail and that I take pride and ownership of whatever role or event I am working on. Taking ownership is both my strength and weakness because if anything goes wrong with any event/project I take it and internalize it as a personal failure. I also must constantly remind myself to delegate because I fear that the next person might not understand my true vision and might also not give it their all.

You’re also a mother: Tell us about life at home, your support system, your children and how you juggle work with home life?

I have been with my partner for about 13 years now and we have two beautiful children, a daughter (Zothile Grace -10) and a son (Celukwazi Nathan – 2). Being a mom to two active kids and having a demanding job is not an easy task, but thanks to Sethu who is not just a nanny and housekeeper, but also a sister and second mom to my kids, I am able to find balance and have a bit of me time every now and again. My partner, although mostly based at the farm in Springs, is also quite supportive of my career and the kids. My super proud mom in the UK who never misses any of the KPC live streamed events, my elder sister and brothers are all very supportive and always there when I need them, so I actually have a great physical and emotional support system.

How did you get into your role?

I started off in August 2012 as a temporary receptionist for the Gauteng Horse Society. Four months later I became a permanent receptionist. As a receptionist I constantly asked the admin manager for extra work to do as I had a lot of free time and would often get bored, so I would help her out with all sorts of work. A position opened up for a junior show secretary and I was appointed as a show secretary for carriage driving, showing, and vaulting. As a junior show secretary, I also had to assist at the show office during all the Show jumping shows. I was in the show office at the beginning of the 2014 Easter Festival, and I vividly remember there were so many parents and competitors who were very unhappy with the lack of proper show preparation and the Show jumping secretary got very overwhelmed with all the complaints and packed her bags and left. We later established that she had resigned with immediate effect. At that point I had two options - throw my hands in the air and say it’s not my problem and I don’t know what to do OR dive in and do the best I can to save the situation and keep the show going. I chose the latter although my knowledge of Show jumping was only limited to helping with substitutions and packing rosettes and making copies of the programmes. I had zero knowledge of the rules or the show jumping system.

I am so thankful for Alicia Barnard, Kate Launder and Dianne Baxter who held my hand as I learnt how to run a Show jumping show whilst running one of the biggest shows on the equestrian calendar. After that show EXCO decided to promote me to show jumping secretary. I worked as a show jumping secretary under the mentorship of Dianne Baxter until 2017 when I was appointed as show secretary and show director for our smaller weekend shows. After a year of show directing the smaller shows the KPC EXCO decided that I needed to try my hand at a bigger show and once again it happened to be Easter Festival 2018. The show was a huge success, and I was appointed as the permanent show director for all KPC shows.

What are your daily job responsibilities – the easy one’s; fun one’s; not so easy one’s; and very challenging ones / one’s you dislike the most?

My daily duties range from setting out the show calendar for the year, planning a show with sponsors to preparing schedules, getting these approved and loaded for online entries, approving budgets, planning final timetables and how the show will have to be run based on the entries received and many other ad hoc duties when taking in entries. When the show starts it gets a bit tricky as I must manage and ensure that all day-to-day show admin is done properly and timeously as well as making sure that every single arena is running according to our planned times, managing the officials, the clashes between arenas, the various questions regarding protocols etc. Let’s just say I must find answers to all questions or solutions to all problems. I always somehow try and make my work fun and exciting not only for myself but also the people that assist me otherwise the workload becomes too much to deal with and the long hours become excruciatingly painful.

The biggest challenge that I have faced is implementing and executing the Covid-19 show protocols. It’s not an easy task to deal with unhappiness especially with everyone now so tired of staying at home and wanting a bit of fun and outings. That has been the toughest part of my job, having to deny people access to the shows when sporting events are more fun with spectators and supporters for the athletes. The one thing I dislike most is accidents and more so when an athlete is badly injured, I somehow feel like it’s my fault and that I could have done something to prevent it although I know I probably wouldn’t have been able to.

What is it that you love so much about horses and sport?

Horses are amazing and quite intelligent. I have been so privileged to see these beautiful animals showing off their capabilities, protecting their riders and correcting their errors and when they do so well, they know it and they boldly celebrate their achievement. Have you seen how the horses behave at prize giving ceremonies and how they take off during a lap of honour? it gives me goosebumps all the time! Our sport is the only sport that has 2 athletes that compete at the same time and has many interesting disciplines. You can never get bored at a multi discipline horse show like the SA Derby. You have a choice of watching the flying unicorns in Show jumping, the well-coordinated dancing horses in dressage, the beautiful, bold and showy horses in showing and the fearless ones in complete horse. Which other sport could give you such a variety?

The United Aviation Group Derby starts on 30 September. What are your key roles & responsibilities for this show?

My key role and responsibilities are to plan and run a well-coordinated and well thought out derby with a remarkable flow of events. This derby is unique in that it incorporates two derbies in one; The Adult SA derby as well as the Pony Rider, Children & Junior SA Derby. That said it means that I have double the planning, admin work and double the number of things that could go wrong….😊.

What are your goals for the Derby – what would you like to see happen in order to make the show the best yet?

My goal for the United Aviation Group Derby is to deliver a unique and brilliant derby that unites the vision, scope, and elegance of the sponsor with the merit and stature of the South African Derby as we know it. To coordinate the sponsors, riders and club expectations into a derby that triumphs all other derbies I have coordinated. I would like us to literally take this year’s derby to greater heights… 😊

One thing I truly wish for is the allowance of a few spectators because spectators provide that derby feel, atmosphere and ambience that we cannot replicate.

What is the most stressful part of your job, whilst the Derby is underway? How many years have you been involved in Derby – and in what way has your experience helped you to cope with the pressures of events?

The most stressful part is making sure that every event is run timeously whilst making sure that the admin is done to the T and that every stakeholder is taken care of and enjoying themselves.

I have been involved in one way or the other with derby since 2012 but as show director since 2018. The fact that I have literally climbed the ladder as an equestrian sport administrator means that I have acquired great understanding and knowledge of all the roles and the duties (big and small) involved when it comes to putting a show like derby together. It is not something that I just picked up but acquired from lessons learnt from mistakes made and all the different mentors I have had over the years. It is also knowing when to ask for help whether it’s from those that have more or less experience than I do, it’s a shot of energy boost …. (Trust me you do run out of steam at some point during derby) …, it’s having someone that understands you are not screaming at them but just need to vent and having a team that has your back always.

You must go into derby with the right mindset, knowing that you will have early mornings and late nights, knowing that you may become someone’s punching bag and it’s not personal, knowing how to handle your emotions and how to deal when you are overwhelmed. My team be it my two assistants (Agnes Phiri and Jonathan Harrison) the club manager Jeanette Schulz, maintenance manager Wayne O’Gorman, marketing liaison Madelein de Beer, grounds team leader Milton Kgole, KPC chairlady Anne-Marie Esslinger, SANEC manager Graham Reid and all the officials and different discipline representatives understand and are always there when I call for help in whatever form. I am so blessed to work with KPC staff as they do a lot without me even asking and every time I ask for something its already done, they really do take a lot of my stress away.

Everyone plays their part, if not more and no one sticks to their job description. I think this is mostly because the club manager herself does get stuck in; what manager gets stuck in painting sand green, so it matches the grass in the derby arena and helps fill and stamp the divots in the arena, does all the plants for each and every single jump and leads by example, which takes a lot of pressure of me. I also do a lot of selfcare prior to and during events just so I can centre myself and get focused on the job at hand.

What advice do you have for women in business? Many may be struggling with juggling motherhood and career… or others may be struggling with the self-belief that they can climb the corporate ladder if they are committed enough etc.

The best advice I have ever had was from my late dad who told me to always make sure whatever I do is what makes me happy…. even from my school days if the school asked him if I could do something he always asked what I said first. It was only later that I realised that he didn’t want to commit me to things that I didn’t want for myself. That is the same advice I would give to women in business or those climbing the corporate ladder. Always do what makes you happy first – it’s so much easier to commit to what you love and find your confidence - and if not sure always find that one person who will always tell you the truth even if it’s not something you want to hear. Master your skills and always do your best, no matter what. Create a good reputation for yourself even if it’s something as small as responding to every email, it is true that your reputation supersedes you.

Motherhood is an amazing gift and always remember that your children are not an inconvenience, and you are setting an example for them. They need to look back and be proud to say my mom did all that and yet she never neglected us or our needs. My kids know when I have a hectic show and I can only spare a bit of time with them. They know they have someone that is a second mother to them and that has been there for them since they were born and thus are never alone and without love.

My 10-year-old daughter knows that when mommy is busy at work, and she has homework that she cannot do herself or her nanny cannot help she can send a WhatsApp message with the homework, and I will find the time to help her out no matter what. We also don’t do homework late when I get home, that is family time, so she is independent enough to make sure it’s done during the day. It’s her knowing that my mom drops me off and picks me up from school no matter what and it has to be a crisis for her to send even dad to do it. Why, may you ask? It’s because I want her to know and understand that she is important to me and is never an inconvenience, and my job is not above her needs even though it keeps me away a lot. My son is still young, but he knows that I will always come home and listen to his stories even if it’s in the middle of the night and play cars with him. I make it a point to make them special meals on my days off, so they know they are important and valuable to me and lately my daughter has started making special meals for me when I have to work long hours.

What would you like to say to all those competing in the Derby?

Thank you all for your continued support of KPC events, I really can’t wait to see you all in in the various derby arenas. I can’t even pick a favourite in any of the derby disciplines because so many horse and rider combinations have been in the top positions this year. I also know from the bottom of my heart that there will be no shortage of talent even with all the interruptions to your training schedules caused by the Covid-19 lockdowns. Stay focused, enjoy the ride and let’s make this derby one to remember as we take our sport to greater heights with the support of The United Aviation Group.

Content Credit: Caroline Malan (The PR Machine)

Images supplied.

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