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Khan raising the bar in SA sport


Chief Operating Officer at Sport and Recreation South Africa Sumayya Khan.

port is not just about winning medals and trophies but is also a tool for social cohesion and nation building.

This is according to Sumayya Khan, who is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Sport and Recreation South Africa.

For most of her career, Khan has been involved in sport. She started off as a qualified physical education teacher, both in primary and high schools, and coached netball, volleyball, athletics, gymnastics and cricket for about 17 years.

Khan holds a Diploma in Further Education, a Diploma in Sports Management and various certificates in leadership, sports coaching and administration, including a sports administrator course accredited by the International Olympic Committee.

Through her coaching experience, Khan has realised that sport is a good distraction that prevents people from getting involved in illegal activities and other social ills. This is why the South African National School Sport Championship is one of her favourite programmes led by the department. This annual programme sees top schools participating for national honours in a series of events.

Climbing up the ranks

Khan joined the department in 1998 as a Deputy Director for sport and recreation in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Department of Education and Culture when physical education was phased out of the school curriculum.

“I really wanted to be in sport, so I started looking for new jobs and opportunities in the sporting sector. That is when I applied for the job at the department,” she said.

She worked her way up the ranks to become the Director for Cultural Services in the eThekwini region of the KZN Department of Education, managing sport and recreation development and arts, culture and youth affairs both for schools and communities.

In 2004, when the stand-alone Department of Sport and Recreation in KZN was established, she was appointed as Chief Director and later as the Head of Department of the new department.

“I was on a contract for five years and, just as it was about to end, the national department advertised the COO post in 2010. I applied and got the job,” she said.

Incredibly, Khan has been the first incumbent in all the management posts that she has held, which has meant that she often had to start everything from scratch, including articulating her job description.

She said this has been both challenging and exciting and taught her and her colleagues many valuable lessons.

Her current job involves supporting the Director-General (DG). She explained: “The DG works at a strategic level, and I am expected to take those strategies and directives from the DG and put them into operation. I basically look at planning, managing and coordinating the activities of the department and, most importantly, providing leadership and mentoring to my colleagues,” she added.

Khan referred to herself as a mother hen who is always looking after everything and everyone in the organisation, making sure that they meet timelines and comply with legislative prescripts, and putting in place business processes to streamline operations.

Promoting team spirit, working smart

“Our departmental structure makes provision for about 300 people, but realistically we are just above 180 warm bodies in the organisation. Given the fact that there are cost containments and budget constraints, we have to work very creatively,” she said.

The majority of employees are young and are always ready to put new ideas on the table, Khan added.

Major programmes and projects led by the department include the Andrew Mlangeni Golf Development Programme, Basketball National League, Big Walk, Boxing Is Back!, Indigenous Games Festival, National Recreation Day, National Sports Week, Rural Sport Development Programme, SA National School Sport Championship, SA Sport Awards, the SASReCon conference, Sport in the Struggle Exhibition, and Youth Camp.

To ensure that all these programmes are executed effectively, Khan said the department had to come up with an innovative approach.

“For instance, instead of restricting people to their directorates and professions, we work on a task team basis. In those task teams, we mix people from different directorates and give them tasks to do whenever we have sports projects.

“The amazing thing about this is that some task team members would never have had the opportunity to work outside the office and experience working in the field. They might have never known what their talents and skills are,” she added.

Khan said, fortunately, everyone shows commitment, even when things have to be done at short notice.

Knowing that all personnel will at some stage be deployed to a task team encourages everyone to work as a team to achieve the goals, mission and vision of the department.

“When we are out in the field, we forget about ranks. We are all colleagues on the same level and we all report to the task team convener, who can literally be any staff member and is expected to lead and direct the team,” she added.

However, Khan still has to play an oversight role as the COO to support the task team conveners and address any challenges that may arise.

Telling SA’s good story

What she loves about her job is engaging with different sectors of society, not only in South Africa but internationally as well.

“I am quite honoured that I have been nominated by the Minister to sit on various executive committees and commissions of the African Union Sport Council to engage with other countries in the region.”

She added that the department works with the Commonwealth Games Federation and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and explained that she uses these platforms to speak about some of the best practices that South Africa has in place and also to learn from other countries.

For instance, Khan lets the world know that South Africa has top-class sport infrastructure and the ability to host major international sport events. This, she said, is thanks to the legacy of the 2010 World Cup.

She said South Africa is also the only country in Africa that has a laboratory that tests for banned performance-enhancing drugs sometimes used by athletes.

“We also have the South African Institute of Drug-Free Sport, which is our department’s entity.”

Khan said that South Africa has a capable team of sport administrators and explained that it is because of this human resource capacity that our technical officials are often called on to assist in other African countries.

This was evident when Mozambique hosted the 2011 All-Africa Games and asked for teams of people from South Africa to assist the country with its various needs just weeks before the official programme began.

Lessons learnt from sport

The fact that no two days are the same and that she gets to work with various other government departments, federations and many private sector companies adds to the excitement of Khan’s job. As someone who has worked in the sport arena for the majority of her career, Khan said sport has taught her to be dedicated, passionate and committed to everything that she does.

“Sport requires people to be ethical in their behaviour. Exercising good governance within sport structures is important to me, to ensure that everything I am involved in runs effectively.”

Some of the valuable life lessons she has taken from sport include respect, discipline and how to work in a team.

“It has also taught me that life is about winning and losing; when I win I do so graciously, but when I lose, I also have to accept that it is part of the game,” Khan said.

Celebrating achievements

Highlighting some of the department’s recent achievements, Khan said these include:

• Receiving five clean audits from the Auditor-General of South Africa.

• Signing a Memorandum of Agreement with the Department of Basic Education, which ensures that school sport or physical education becomes part of the school curriculum.

• Releasing the fifth transformation report, which is based on the Transformation Charter wherein the codes of sport now have to report on achieving their targets with regard to transformation.

• The I Choose to be Active Campaign, which encourages all South Africans to be physically active in an effort to promote healthy living.

• Developing a policy for women in sport.

Khan said the department is proud of the progress and achievements that South African women in sport are realising. Athletes and team South Africa made the country proud in 2018 when they competed in various international events, including the Commonwealth Games and Wimbledon.

She also congratulated Banyana Banyana for making history by qualifying for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 and making it to the finals of the African Women’s Cup of Nations.

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