For nearly forty years, renowned South African sports administrator, Sumayya Khan, has steadily built a credible portfolio of work that saw her rise up to become acting Director-General of Sport and Recreation South Africa last August.

Khan, who worked as a physical education teacher for 17 years from 1981 to 1998, has always been passionate about sport, and she grabbed opportunities with both hands to contribute from early on.

After leaving teaching in 1998, she was promoted three times until 2005 as she was rewarded for leadership in sport, as it transitioned from volunteer-based to the professional era.

One of her key early leadership in sport positions saw her being appointed the first ever Director-General for KZN Sport in 2005, a role she held for five years until 2010.

Last August, as South Africa commemorated Women’s Month, Sumayya Khan broke new ground when she was appointed Acting Director-General of Sport and Recreation South Africa.

She speaks highly of the entire team at the Ministry and their efforts to contribute meaningfully to the sector.

Khan’s determination to make a difference in sport can be traced back to early career successes including paving the way for women cricket coaches as a Mini Cricket coach. At the time there was no automatic transition for girls to move from Mini Cricket to hard ball like young boys could.  This led to her being the founding member of the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Women’s Cricket Association to pioneer the women’s game in the province.

As you read this, this leading sports administrator is working at the forefront of South Africa’s response to the spread of the deadly Coronavirus, as a leading member of Sport, Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa’s team as they respond to the needs of the sport and arts communities during these uncertain times.

Khan took time out to reflect on her pioneering journey with Kass Naidoo and shares key career learnings that has helped her become one of South Africa’s top sports administrators.

Mrs Khan, how are you managing life under lockdown?

Its been very busy. The time calls for extraordinary leadership from the Public Service. The President has been a shining beacon of hope to South Africans and it is incumbent on us to execute his mandates. I’m fortunate to be part of a hardworking team led by the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, Mr Nathi Mthethwa, in trying to ensure we support our sector who are most affected by the pandemic.

Senior managers need to ensure that there is still business continuity during this time , so it has been much busier working remotely and where absolutely necessary getting into the office to attend to work.

It has also been a time for spiritual reflection. I’m also fortunate to have some family members around so its been great to have company and support at this time.

Like many others, I’m also cooking up a storm, preparing for Ramadaan and getting in much needed physical activity. I’m really impressed by the online offerings and the expertise in the health and fitness sector who are keeping South African physically active.

What is the most significant change for you in terms of work since everyone was forced indoors due to COVID-19?

The realisation of the seriousness of the pandemic and the fact that the virus is transmitted through people has emphasised the importance of protection of life and through the lockdown we contribute to flattening the curve.

Working by remote so frequently is a novel experience. It’s much busier than being in the office or on the field. Virtual meetings, video conferencing is a reality of transcending into the industrial revolution and during this time it’s a valuable lesson we will take into the post COVID -19 era.

What is your advice to everyone living and working in a time of COVID-19?

Where possible, business continuity is encouraged. It’s an opportunity for relevant research, to complete long outstanding tasks but importantly ensure adherence to the COVID -19 protocols. Don’t underestimate this unknown virus that is like no other. The lockdown has been a major factor in flattening the curve. Each of us has a responsibility to contribute towards a virus-free South Africa. Our irresponsible behaviour will cost the lives of innocent people.

We may be in a lockdown, but there are many opportunities to assist the country, as the pandemic has had a devastating effect on the lives of many people and to the economy of the country. Where possible, let’s display our benevolence and assist. We don’t have to look too far. Our family, friends, work colleagues, neighbours may all need our support, lets use the time to help alleviate their challenges.

Where does your passion for sport come from? 

I think the element of play as a child is always fascinating and at school, we were encouraged to be physically active and participate in sport. I must admit I was not a great athlete but I enjoyed sport tremendously, and supported school mates as they excelled.

It was at university actually as a student in Human Movement studies and being in a University Sport environment in the 1970’s and being exposed to sport as a tool for activism that I realised the value and the power of Sport.

Being a physical education teacher for 17 years teaching the skills of different codes of sport and coaching young learners really gave me tremendous joy to see those skills translated into the development of talented athletes. As a teacher my involvement in the school’s sport and other structures provided a great opportunity for me to develop my capacity in Sport Management and Administration.

Tell us about your journey in sport

I studied at the former University of Durban-Westville to become a teacher, specialising in Human movement Studies, Maths and Languages, and I was a PE teacher for 17 years.

I was Deputy Director for Sport and Recreation in KZN Department of Education, overlapping as Director Cultural Services in the KZN Department of Education eThekwini Region, until I was appointed as Director – New Department of Sport and Recreation for KZN in 2004.

Then I spent three days as Chief Director, before I was appointed as the first Head of Department of the KZN Department of Sport and Recreation, a position I developed between 2005 and 2010.

I was appointed as Chief Operations Officer at Sport and Recreation SA in 2010, and remained there until March 2020, another overlapping period between August 2019- March 2020 saw me also serve as Acting Director-General: Sport and Recreation SA.

In all the management posts I have held, I was the first incumbent.

What did it mean to you to be the acting Director-General of Sport and Recreation?

It was a great opportunity to lead the Department that had just received its 6th clean audit. It motivated me to work hard, to main this status. It was also a time of transition into the new Department of Sport Arts and Culture. So, your leadership is being tested.

I’m happy that given the short period of time in this position, we had to work differently to work towards closing a department while creating the new. It was also very rewarding assigning leadership responsibilities to a number of the colleagues, by appointing them into acting positions, and to provide mentorship and support in their professional growth.

I also appreciated the support and guidance from the Minister, Deputy Minister, the former DG of Sport and the DG of the former Department of Arts and Culture.

The team in the DGs office and rest of the team in the Department really worked hard.

Was it in your plans to rise up as high as you have in sports administration in South Africa?

I never thought I would have reached such great heights, and I’m really thankful for all the support and opportunities that have come my way.

I also believe that I’m a very focused person. I don’t believe in doing things by half measures.

My dedication, commitment, loyalty, willingness to learn diligence to duty and the ability to go beyond the call of duty has certainly been a factor in my success. Im grateful for the support and the leadership of the many Ministers, Premiers, MECs, and DGs that I worked under, who gave me the opportunity take decisions, lead and manage.

What is it like working alongside Deputy Minister, Nocawe Mafu, another champion for women’s empowerment?

It has been very empowering working under the leadership of Deputy Minister Mafu. She has been a great mentor and support to many of us in the Department. She has aggressively pursued the consultative process that will assist us in finalising the Policy for Women and Sport.

Both the Minister, Mr Nathi Mthethwa and Deputy Minister Ms Mafu have been strong advocates for gender equity. Amongst other, immediately on taking up their portfolios in 2019, the first assignments of the principals were the provision of support to our women’s team participating in the Football and Netball World Cups.

They have also pledged their commitment in the fight against Gender Based violence, and have aggressively engaged stakeholders in the sector and attend to many of the challenges in the sector.

What is the biggest women’s sport highlight you have been a part of in SA?  

The most gratifying experience for me has been the transformation of Women’s Cricket. I qualified as a Bakers Mini Cricket Coach in 1989 and went on to complete the Level 1 and 2 Coaching courses. At the time there was no automatic transition for girls to move from Mini Cricket to hard ball like young boys could. Hence my quest and engagement with the Cricket Union to ensure that young girls continue to play cricket.

Thankfully I wasn’t a lone voice, the then UCB started a cricket development programme for girls and Women.

It was such an honour being founding member of the provincial Women’s Cricket Association. It was not easy challenging the stereotypes, and getting resources for young girls and women.

Many of us would use our own resources and work tirelessly to get sponsors to take players to tournaments. But we soldiered on. To see where Women’s Cricket now is, makes me very proud that the commitment and dedication of so many women paved the way to Women Cricketers playing at a professional level.

What challenges have you faced as woman in sports administration and how have you overcome these?

Sport has in the main always been a voluntary entity. Everyone got involved because of their passion and sometimes family members became administrators when one of them was an athlete.

At grass roots level there was minimum access to skills development opportunities so that you could contribute meaningfully to built grassroots structures.

My spirit of volunteerism and willingness to learn provided opportunities for me to be nominated onto sport structures. I’m grateful for the support of organisations like the KZN cricket Union, Cricket SA. The Former National Sports Council and SA Sports Commission and Sport and Rection SA for contributing to my growth as an administrator.

Why do you think it is tough for women to rise in sport administration board rooms, with only a handful in key positions in South Africa? 

There are very few compelling instruments that ensure that women take leadership responsibilities.

Fortunately, codes of sport are making constitutional changes in line with international practice, that will ensure that women take up leadership positions. South Africa has made some strides as we note Women as Presidents, Vice President, CEOs of codes of Sport but it is not optimal and more needs to be done.

What is the state of women’s sport in South Africa and how can we change the game for women?

Fortunately, the Report of the Eminent Persons Group on Transformation is a strategic document that provided information on the status of transformation in 20 codes of Sport, and is a good barometer to assess the status of women’s representation within the boards of the sports federations.

From the reports there is still a need to elect women as presidents. Only 1 code of those assessed has a women president, out of 37 CEO’s 7, (9%) are women.  Of 214 board members 42, 20% of the total were reported to be women. Of the 4640 coaches in the federations audited 2850 (61%) were women of the 404 full time staff members, 130 that is 32%, are women.6269 referees/umpires are active in the 20 codes audited of whom 3283 or 52% were reported to be women. Of Specialist Sport Medical and Scientific Support of 251 practitioners 122 (51%) were women.

Participation trends at school sport events indicate that more girls than boys participate at these events.

We need to finalise the policy for Women and Sport, and also ensure Sports organisation amend their constitutions to ensure that Women are elected into decision making positions.

Fortunately , we can rely on various legislative instruments to advocate for gender equity.

How big is it for South Africa that Cape Town will host the 2023 Netball World Cup?

It is the first time the Netball World Cup will be staged in Africa. This is a massive gain for Women’s Sport, and is destined to leave a major legacy of infrastructure and skills development and hopefully exponentially grow the sport in the country and the continent. This is the legacy that won us the bid to host the event.

Who are the women who inspire you? 

I am inspired by the cohort of young women that have been coming to the fore.

We have dynamic women in sports media that have displayed that they can hold their own, especially in reporting on codes of sport that have been pre-dominantly male dominated.

The women who are in leadership at the moment have displayed their ability to take major decisions, have excelled in so many platforms and their efforts in their own organisations have been recognised by the international sports codes and international sporting community to the extent that they now lead these organisations.

I have been fortunate to work with young women in my organisation, and I’m highly impressed with their drive, their positive attitude and willingness to work and learn. It has been absolutely rewarding sometimes placing them in the deep end and watching how they come through.

I’m inspired by my three daughters (2 daughters, and a daughter-in-law) who are young, dynamic assertive women whose talents and diligence to duty makes me positive about the future of women in South Africa

I’m also inspired by the many men who have selflessly mentored many of us, and continue to advocate for gender equity in sport.

What is your advice to women who want to advance in sport?

Work hard!!! Have the right attitude. Be willing to learn from anyone.

My greatest learning has come from subordinates, my younger siblings and my children.

Never think that as women we are inferior. Don’t tolerate abuse of any kind. Research and know everything that you have to deal with so that you are able to engage and debate armed with the best research and information. Treat every human being with respect and dignity.

What do you still hope to do to contribute to sport in South Africa?

Assist with governance matters. Mentoring and coaching young people. Promoting active and healthy lifestyles. Physical activity for young children, as I believe that play and motor skills are such a critical building block towards the development of sport specific skills.


Photo 1 Caption: Sumayya Khan started off as a physical education teacher and served in that role for 17 years before moving into sports administration. She is now Acting Director-General of Sport and Recreation South Africa
Photo 2 Caption: Teamwork is what drives the success of the Sports Ministry and Khan is quick to salute her colleagues for a job well done.
Photo 3 Caption: Khan is a fervent supporter of women’s sport and often uses her voice to champion the women’s game. She is seen here with SA wheelchair tennis ace, KG Montjane, ahead of an interview with SABC News