Phathokuhle “Patho” Zondi, 40, is a giant in the South African sport arena, and in 2017 she was conferred a Ministerial Recognition Award to acknowledge her vast contribution. Her list of achievements include being appointed chief executive of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa at the age of 33, serving as chief medical officer for Team South Africa at the Commonwealth, Olympics and Paralympics Games, being invited by the International Olympic Committee to help train sports medicine physicians and team doctors around the world, and serving as an expert adviser to Virgin Active South Africa on women’s health.
“A definite highlight of my career as a sports medicine physician has been serving my country as chief medical officer at a Paralympic Games (Rio 2016) and then at one of the most challenging Olympic Games in history (Tokyo 2020),” says Patho. She is the clinical lead and chief operating officer at tech platform Unu Health, and believes that the same principles that lead to success in sport can be used to drive Unu’s vision to transform how people access and experience healthcare in Africa.
Patho has participated in numerous events to uplift women, and particularly to encourage black women to be more active. In 2022, she took part in the world’s toughest eight-day mountain bike race, the Cape Epic, to increase the participation of African women in cycling. Her tactic worked — in 2023, the Epic recorded the highest number of women in the field.
What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
This advice came from my mother: pick your battles. Some battles aren’t worth your energy or tears: walk away. Others are worth every last fight you have in you, every bruise and every metaphorical broken bone. And when those come, you need to be ready, calm and resilient.
Our theme this year is Accelerating Equality & Empowerment in Women. How do you empower yourself and women around you?
I am proudly and passionately involved in numerous initiatives that empower women. My current clinical and research interests are in the area of female health. In the past five years, I have focused my endeavours on bringing to light various inequities in the sport and exercise medicine (SEM) field, while working to improve representation and inclusion of professionals and participants in sport – specifically females and people of colour. My most recent journal publications have all sought to increase awareness about racism, inequity and bias in SEM and, importantly, all include a call to action for readers (references and articles available).
If you could change or achieve one thing for South Africa today, what would it be?
Reducing violence and violent crime in South Africa. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy, after meeting basic physiological needs (food, water, shelter), safety, security and protection are the second layer of fundamental needs that need to be met in order for individuals to flourish. Women don’t feel safe in our country, in their own homes and walking the streets. While I acknowledge that the root cause of violence is multifactorial, with poverty, inequality, unemployment, substance abuse and various other factors at the core, the net effect is violence. This violence leaves all of us (especially women) feeling vulnerable, scared and caged. If we weren’t constrained by these feelings and circumstances, we would be emboldened, we would dream bigger and we would accomplish even more than we already are.