ANITHA SONI IS A DYNAMIC woman with a multitude of skills and talents, all earned through sheer determination and the will to succeed. She was born and grew up in Durban, on the Kwazulu-Natal North Coast. Anitha spent much of her childhood in Clairwood but in later days moved to Chatsworth together with her family. However, while still in Clairwood, her parents’ business interests served to stimulate her entrepreneurial spirit.
Her schooling was primarily in Clairwood but she soon began to look for opportunities to do something more substantive and make meaningful contributions to society. At 15 years of age she began working at a Holiday Inn in Durban. However, due to this still being in the early 1970′s in an apartheid South Africa, she was only allowed to work as a cashier. It was at that stage that she began to develop a love for the hospitality industry, in spite of the difficulties of the apartheid environment which, among other things, restricted the movement of people in terms of where they could work and what jobs they could do.
Although her parents wanted her to become a teacher, she was still passionate about the hospitality industry and wanted to pursue a Diploma in Hotel Management. She then went on to M. L. Sultan Technikon to be a part of the first ever batch of ‘black’ students to be allowed to study Hotel Management in the 1970′s. Her studies involved both formal academic as well as practical training.
As fate would have it, she was sent to the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg. This was a foreign-owned hotel, but was still guided by the apartheid laws of the country. The staff of this hotel, being foreign, appreciated her personality and accepted her initiatives. As part of her dissertation for the diploma, she focused on talent development and HR development, a key area of focus of her work at the Carlton Hotel.
At that time, no non-whites were allowed to work at the front desk but Anitha made strides together with the support of the Carlton management.
For the next half of her ‘practical’, she went back to a hotel in Durban, only to return to the Carlton after graduation. She was then put on a management development programme that was also internationally accredited and recognized.
Due to the prevailing unjust laws of the time, she was again not allowed to live within the Johannesburg CBD but had to stay in Lenasia, a suburb in the far south of the city, and commute daily.
In the ensuing years, the company disinvested in the Carlton, and Anitha was invited to join the company in the US. She agreed and then travelled to work and study at one of the prestigious United States Ivy League’s Cornell University. She studied subjects such as labour law, negotiations and industrial relations which were becoming critical factors in successful human resources management in SA.
Later in the 1980′s, she returned to SA to lecture at the then M. L. Sultan Technikon and was soon appointed as the head of the academic staff. She then became involved as Deputy Chairperson of the Academic Staff Association. Some close encounters with the authorities resulted in her meeting her husband, Advocate Vas Soni (SC).
She developed and managed the human resources and training function and after 3 years left the hotel to pursue her own interest in human Resources development for the tourism and hospitality sector. She founded the ASA Tourism Services Group in 1989 and continues to serve as its CEO.
Anitha Soni has held executive management positions in hotel and tourism in South Africa and the United States. She lectured to and trained many of today’s leaders in the South African tourism industry. Her expertise in the area of policy formulation is still in demand!
She was consulted on the drafting of South Africa’s National Tourism Policy White Paper, and led the development of the Tourist Guiding Policy for S.A.
She contributed to the Tourism BEE Charter development and served as Deputy Chair of the Tourism BEE Council .
She served as Special Adviser to the then Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in South Africa, Minister Valli Moosa, and had been instrumental in setting up key tourism institutions and agencies. She acted in the capacity of Deputy Director-General in Tourism.
Anitha had established and served on a number of Tourism Boards and had assisted in the redirection of the National Tourism Strategy within the context of post-apartheid South Africa. This included her role as a Director on the Board of SA Tourism, Tourism Durban and the Hospitality Industry.
She was chosen to participate in the United States – South Africa Executive Leadership Development Program (USSALEP) in Boston, USA, and served on their board as a director.
Anitha is an Associate of Tourism Intelligence International (TII) based in Germany and Trinidad, and was part of the TII team that developed the Tourism Human Resources Development Plan for the government of Mozambique as part of a Commonwealth Secretariat co-operation agreement, and the SADC UNIVISA System, a European Union project.
Her training initiatives focus on developing leadership for the sector, particularly youth and women. She established and funded SA’s first Tourism Incubator in Soweto, and the tourism information programme, Ubuntu Buddies.
To expand her horizons and understand the impact of technology on the African continent, Anitha Soni took on the challenge as Managing Director of the WorldSpace AfriStar Business Unit. She was the first black woman in Africa to hold such a position. Her role was to lead the overall business management of the AfriStar Satellite Business Unit, which included providing leadership and strategic direction in turning the WorldSpace operations in Europe, UK, Africa and Indian Ocean islands into a viable and relevant business. WorldSpace provides direct satellite delivery of digital audio, data and multimedia services to the emerging markets of the world. During Anitha Soni’s term at WorldSpace, she was instrumental in advancing educational projects that provided information, education and entertainment to remote rural villages across Africa. Anitha Soni served as a board member of the Durban Black Business Alliance incorporating the Black Management Forum and Consultative Business Forum enhancing business opportunities for historically disadvantaged companies.
Anitha Soni was awarded the much-coveted and prestigious “2002 Businesswoman of the Year BBQ Award”. The BBQ Awards are a benchmark in the progress of empowered South Africa. It recognizes achievements in black business and honours excellence in 12 categories, among which is Businesswoman of the Year. The award was presented to her by the then Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel who, in presenting the award, recognized Anitha Soni’s exceptional achievements in the field of business and contribution to Pan-African regional integration in post-apartheid South Africa. She was commended for her commitment and loyalty to building businesses and for her dedication to developing strong leadership within businesses on the African continent. In addition to heading up ASA Tourism Services, Anitha manages the Investments of Women in Tourism and Hospitality, a women’s empowerment group that she had incorporated in 1999. W.I.T.H seeks to promote the inclusion of women as investors in tourism supply and demand side enterprises.
She was appointed by Minister van Schalkwyk to serve on an expert panel to develop the new tourism strategy for South Africa.
Anitha has become a role model for other entrepreneurs, especially women in tourism. In response to this, Anitha takes on a role of career counsellor to students and mentor to women entrepreneurs.
The ultimate recognition was bestowed on Anitha when President Jacob Zuma appointed her as a trustee on the International Marketing Council of SA (IMC) in October 2009. The IMC is the custodian of Brand South Africa .
Anitha is Chairperson of the Board of the IMC which is responsible for developing a South African brand identit
y that will advance South Africa’s objectives for investment, trade, tourism and international relations.
Anitha is guided by the basic premise:
“Nothing challenges like knowledge challenges.”
“Nobody should pardon mediocrity.”
“Our two daughters, Nalika (27 years) and Prianka (18 years), also know that these qualities are what we expect from them – that does not mean they accept this. The two girls are as different as children come – and each provides us with moments we savour. They also understand that we can only provide them with what prepares them for the world out there, but they do need to fend for themselves,” said Anitha.
The range of accolades of Anitha are tremendous and a comprehensive listing can be found on www.sutramagazine.net.
Team SUTRA™ asked Anitha the following questions:
What are your favourites and why?
Being on holiday and attending sporting events such as cricket and soccer with my family – it gives us quality time together. My Pilates class is a non-negotiable.
Your favourite local and international destinations? Explain.
Wilderness – God must love us to give us such a great country. It gives the Californian coastline a run for its money.
New York – memories of my weekends while studying in the USA – there is always something to do and shopping is great.
Your favourite meal?
Indian food – going to hotel school subjects you to cuisines of the world, and travelling around the world as I do – and within a couple of days, I am looking out for a curry restaurant. I very quickly start missing the Soni family’s red beans and roti Saturday lunch routine.
What are you reading currently?
Everything to do with the FIFA World Cup. I am enjoying the refreshingly positive media coverage. For once our country is being seen as it rightfully deserves to be seen – as a world class destination with caring, committed and professional people.
Favourite movies? Explain.
I only watch stress-free movies that have happy endings. Our daily lives bring us in contact with too much of the grim. I do not need to subject myself to a movie that perpetuates this notion. My favourite actress is Julia Roberts and actor is Hugh Grant. For me, Invictus captured our national pride and social cohesion that we need to celebrate more often as South Africans. The Fly-the-Flag and Football Friday campaigns run by the IMC gave us the opportunity to do this. But then, let’s not forget that Bollywood never fails to offer a couple hours of escape and I do make the time to indulge.
Most influential politician? Why?
We all regard Madiba as the supreme gift to us as South Africans. The person I must acknowledge and give credit to is Ambassador Andrew Young from Atlanta, USA. His support of our efforts in the early 1990’s was most inspirational and offered me the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to our country’s preparation towards the first democratic elections.
Your favourite colour?
Without doubt – black – and I am not being politically correct – just look at my wardrobe. It is also the colour that works best for packing and travel.
Tell us about your spiritual life?
I am guided by the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Smt Sarada Devi. I relate to the principles and ideals that Sri Ramakrishna and Smt Sarada Devi stood for. It combines the cultural and humanitarian objectives and is universal. It is not defined by race, language, or class. Its teachings also recognises that “Each soul is potentially divine and that doctrines, dogmas, rituals, books, temples or forms are but secondary details.” In Mother Sarada Devi we see a unique combination of roles as perfect wife, nun, mother and teacher- all at the same time – something we should all aspire to. This is not always easy, but it is great to keep on the radar screen to guide you in your daily life. It is profound that His Holiness, Swami Ranganathananda , the 13th President of the Ramakrishna Order said that: “South Africa has a great future. The life and message of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda will help her (South Africa) to face many challenges before her and bring out national integration, harmony and peace.”