Johannesburg - Some donkey’s years ago, I walked into her office in then Pietersburg – now Polokwane – and my eyes were caught by an inscription: “Are you looking for a man or the woman who knows what goes on around here?”
I remind her of this as I walk into her spacious Gree Air Conditioners office in Midrand this week.
She lets out her infectious laugh and responds: “I still have that at home.”
I had gone to talk to her about Ria Stars, but here I was trying to find out how she felt after being elected to be one of four vice-presidents of the SA Football Association (Safa). After almost two hours, it is obvious that it has indeed been a long and winding road from the little girl who started school at a Dutch mission school called Merdingen in rural Limpopo.
Ria Ledwaba is one of the powerhouses of South African football who, as one of four women in the Safa national executive committee alongside Natasha Tsichlas, Mato Madlala and Emma Hendricks, emerged as a vice-president last Sunday.
“I had mixed emotions when my name was first called out by [Safa] president Danny Jordaan that I was a vice-president,” she recalls. “While I was excited, I also questioned whether I had the capability for this important leadership position.”
A business, community and church leader, Ledwaba can easily be said to have earned her spurs.
Ledwaba’s dalliance with football started way back in Seshego township, where she had a stint as an official of Seshego Naughty Boys. She then started her own football club called Ria Stars. The club was so successful that it featured prominently in the then Under-12 national Chappies Little League, where it reached several finals that were televised live on SABC. It grew and eventually was promoted to the National Soccer League, but she sadly had to sell it in 2002 when the Premier Soccer League (PSL) offered to buy out Ria Stars and Qwa Qwa Stars for R8 million each in a bid to trim the league from 18 to 16 clubs.
Both clubs opted to sell and thus ended the era of a club that had represented Limpopo with pride and attracted a number of top players from outside the province, including former Kaizer Chiefs stars Frank Makua and the late Thabang Lebese.
“I felt like I was giving away a baby that I had carried in my womb for nine months,” she reminisces, “but I had no alternative. It was tough as, at that time, we only received a R200 000 monthly grant from the PSL, which was also inconsistent, while our monthly bill was R400 000.”
Ledwaba, who previously served in the PSL executive committee, is passionate about football development, but is of the view that women should not be treated differently.
“Last year, we presented a paper to [the Confederation of African Football], suggesting that we needed to move away from this thing of ‘women’s football’ and adopt a holistic approach to the development of football.”
She shares Safa’s technical master plan – Vision 2022 – and believes that the organisation needs to work harder to meet its targets, including “turning Safa into a R1 billion business by 2022”. Safa reported a R23 million profit in the past, turning around a R45 million deficit.
She says she is highly impressed with the 2026 World Cup bid presentations made by Morocco and the joint US/Canada/Mexico delegates to the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations and Safa executives.
“The Morocco bid promises that it will give Fifa a profit of $5 billion [R65.4 billion], while the US one promises an $11 billion profit. According to the joint bid, each of the 207 Fifa members [of which Safa is one] would get R640 million. This tells me that some countries out there mean business in football and we have to work harder.”
Ledwaba is inundated with congratulatory messages from all sections of the community during our interview. One from PSL chair Irvin Khoza reads: “Congratulations madam for assuming the highest office in football. Nobody can quantify the time and cost you spent in the beautiful game. We now know football is not business, but God’s work. You deserve the honour. Well done!”
Another, from her primary school friend Mamodika Modiba, reads: “Congratulations on your appointment. Well done, girl. If Moselekwa was still alive, he would be very excited, since he regarded you as our ambassador.”
Ledwaba explains: “The late Mr Moselekwa was my principal who used to say I would grow up to be a parliamentarian.”
Wherever Moselekwa is, he must be sporting a smile as wide as the Pacific Ocean and saying to those around him: “I told you so!”