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Open Letter to Minister Fikile Mbalula – 2017 Everest Expedition for Women

Lack of support from the Department of Sport and Recreation has thwarted the dreams of a group of women who hope to become the first black women from South Africa to summit Everest.

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Dear Minister Fikile Mbalula,

Afrika Freedom Climbers (AFC) is a non-profit organisation founded in September 2013 by three South African women who identified a gap in participation of women in mountaineering sports.

Since 2012, we have communicated our wish to have the first black women from South Africa to be given the opportunity to scale Mount Everest. There was no response from your Department for over six months.

After numerous follow ups, your Department finally recommended that we reach out to the National Lotteries Commission (NLC), which proceeded to decline two of our applications, and partially funded our third application for the 2015 attempt, which was unfortunately thwarted by a 7.8 Richter scale earthquake that hit the Himalayan region on 25 April 2015.

This event was well documented by broadcast media throughout the world and we are glad that the China Tibet Mountaineering Association shut down the mountain for safety reasons after this disaster.

Despite these explanations, the NLC have declined to fund our next attempt as they could only offer R500,000 for a team of six women that was proposed to go during the 2016 season.

It costs US$75 000 for one person to attempt Mount Everest in 2017. We have requested letters of support from your Department to supplement our applications for funding from the NLC and the only response to these were acknowledgements to our correspondence. However, the requested letter has never been issued.

During April 2016, you made the following announcement: “As part of women empowerment and creating hope for young women all over the country and our quest to expand on the basket of Recreation programmes we offer, we will facilitate an expedition to Mount Everest, where the intention is to have the first black South African to summit #SRSAbudget2016” via Twitter.

Subsequent to this announcement, a few of us were invited to meet with the Director General (DG), the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and the Director of Scientific Programs (DSP) at your offices in Pretoria.

The DSP advised that funding is available and introduced us to the appointed lead who advised that due to varying climbing experiences of the proposed team, he recommends that we go during the 2018 season to allow at least two years of intentional training so that everyone is adequately prepared.

One of the climbers advised that they will proceed and fund their own expedition during 2017 and will also appreciate the opportunity to be part of the 2018 team. Meaning that the team to go in 2018 would no longer be the first team of black women from Africa to summit.

I also advised that I prefer to be part of the first team even if I don’t summit first and therefore if other climbers are proposing to go against the recommended schedule of 2018, considerations to split the team should be made. The DG made assurances that funding will be available whether the team chooses to go in 2017 and 2018. The CFO recommended that we can expand the team to a maximum of six women.

The team lead advised that he would draw up a training plan and communicate further details in a few weeks. The meeting was adjourned.

I followed this up by sending names of women whom AFC had trained and had been fundraising to have as a team to Mt Everest during 2017 season to the team lead and the DSP and suggested that the expedition be split up into the North (Tibet) and South (Nepal) sides so in order to navigate the politics surrounding the mountain. This strategy ensures that some of us can summit should the Sherpas decide to go on a strike as they did in 2014 in Nepal.

Everyone in Tibet summited that year as there were no strikes or natural disasters on their side of the mountain. I also included my opinion that at least 4 climbers, including myself, were ready to go in 2017.

Two months lapsed and there was no further communication from the Department, the team lead or the DSP. Around this time, allegations of match fixing started which included: the climber who proposed to go in 2017 was offered money to delay her efforts to climb so she can be part of the team in 2018; the said climber was also assured that if she goes in 2018 the lead would ensure that she summits firsts; the team I had proposed to the team lead were advised by the team lead that I am not even a contender for the summit despite my climbing credentials etcetera.

I personally escalated these to both the DG and the DSP on numerous occasions and at one point, the DSP advised that priority was the Olympics and we will be given a platform to discuss our grievances once the administration regarding the Olympics were out of the way.

A July meeting invite was extended to the climbers who were present at the initial meeting as well as the team lead. I declined to attend on the basis that I had to prioritise my work as I didn’t see how another meeting was necessary – we had expected a basic selection criteria to be communicated, a training plan, and a confirmation of whether the Department would be willing to split the team to go in 2017 and 2018 as priority is to have the first black South African woman reach the summit of Mt Everest.

At this juncture, the Department’s focus seemed to be on appeasing their appointed team lead, who has never led any team up the Himalayas before. I pause to note that there is a great discrepancy between leading a team in non-technical mountains like Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Aconcagua. Technical mountains require the use of technical climbing equipment, gear, safety ropes etc… and the risk that Mt Everest altitude represents cannot be discounted.

After this meeting, one of the climbers who was in attendance shared the minutes of the meeting with me. The minutes revealed nothing new except that chosen climbers would be subject to a psychological evaluation in addition to physical health check.

I continued to challenge the Department’s decision to support the bid for 2018 climbing season when it was clear that some climbers would pay for the 2017 bid out of pocket and thus likely to break this record. There are fully competent mountain climbers who are ready to attempt this mountain this year albeit not having the funds to. AFC has shared the names of these women with your Department. There has been additional talk that those who pay for their summit attempt during 2017 will be generously rewarded if they achieve this feat. This is a dangerous strategy as it puts unnecessary pressure on climbers. It is also an unrealistic pressure to place on climbers as an average black woman cannot afford to pay for Mt Everest out of pocket so your plan to celebrate achievement when you are intentionally avoiding to support aspiration is an unreasonable tactic in our view.

The latest correspondence from the DSP is that, climbers who are willing to pay for their Mt Everest expedition during 2017 will not be funded despite the Department’s commitment to funding the expedition in 2018, and should the record be broken this year, 2018 funding will be withdrawn and the Department shall get in touch with the climbers after this year’s bid.

There are four concerns with the statement noted above:

  1. While there’s a decision made that the 2018 expedition will be cancelled if the record is broken this year, climbers who are expecting to go in 2018 have not been formally made aware of this fact;
  2. As of March 2017, training has not commenced for climbers who were deemed to be inexperienced and thus the two-year training program proposed will not be possible to allow those climbers without adequate experience for the 2018 attempt;
  3. There’s no explanation of why climbers who are attempting during 2017 cannot be assisted financially with clauses to the effect of forfeiting their position within the 2018 expedition team should things not go well; and
  4. What will be the objective of the Department getting in touch with the climbers if they are successful in their bid?

We have provisionally reserved spaces with the top tier expedition teams and are ready to go as soon as funding is made available and you are the only person with authority to make it possible for us to attempt Mount Everest this year.

On behalf of myself and my team, I would like to request that as the ultimate decision maker you consider the facts regarding what transpired. We are saddened by these events and believe that our only hope at getting funding over the next two weeks is by pleading to you on a public forum.

We look forward to your response.


Katlego Letheo

Afrika Freedom Climbers

The thoughts expressed in the letter above is that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of