One can’t help noticing the tingle of excitement in Lwandile Simelane’s voice when she talks about sport giant Nike’s top-selling football jersey for 2019 being that of the United States national women’s team.
It’s with that same relish that she mentions the more than 91 000 fans that packed into the Nou Camp to witness Barcelona and Real Madrid women’s teams going head to head in this year’s Uefa Champions League quarterfinal.
These things offer her a glimpse of the possibilities ahead, the dream of what she is striving to achieve in South African sport. To raise the profile of female athletes in South Africa to a similar level will require time and hard work, but that’s not something that scares off the first vice-president of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc).
At just 35, Simelane has certainly got time on her side, and her commitment to the task and the work involved to achieve her goals is palpable. In fact, the Sascoc position, along with her role as vice-president of the SA Hockey federation are roles she fulfils at the same time as holding down a full-time job in the family chicken farming business. She’s also completing a bachelor of laws degree to add to her honours degree in politics.
A big part of Simelane’s role at Sascoc – the body tasked with preparing South African teams for multisports events such as the Olympic Games and looking after the country’s sports federations – involves heading up its gender commission.
“I do all the nice, boring, interesting stuff, which is the governance stuff. Rules, regulations. I handle a lot of disputes here at Sascoc and I’m also chairperson of the Gender Commission. We have a mammoth task ahead of us in trying to reconstitute the idea of women in sport and gender dynamics in general in the sporting sector. We’re trying to drive a new, more modern path, focusing on some of the most topical issues: differences in sex development, the inclusion of transgender athletes, safer environments for women and a more broadscale approach in looking at gender in sport,” she explains.
Simelane is determined that these discussions aren’t just that, but that they shape the lived experiences of women in sport. “You know, you can be saying put more women in leadership positions, but is our thinking directed at being gender representative? Are we spending money in a gender representative way? Are we procuring in a gender representative way? Are we doing activities in a gender representative way?”
A gold mine
Simelane says women’s sport is the next big thing when it comes to corporate sponsorships. She hails companies in South Africa such as Momentum, Sasol and Hollywoodbets that have already recognised this, but says there’s a massive market for those willing to see it. “I think you have maxed out men’s sport … If you are a company with half a brain on you, you understand that the next hottest commodity that is there for developing and for growing is women’s sport, it’s undeniable … I think it’s the greatest gold mine right now.”
Simelane is proud that the majority of the Sascoc board members are women, but is resolved that this should not be an exercise in “ticking a box … I have similar strong feelings about disabled athletes and people with disabilities in leadership structures. It’s the same type of discussion that we need to be having. It can’t be a tick-box exercise, it has to be part and parcel of everything we think.”
Beset by an alarming list of problems, including corruption, mismanagement and infighting, Sascoc has not instilled much confidence in recent years, particularly for potential sponsors. But their newest board, which took over at the end of 2020, is determined to turn the sporting body around – and Simelane is confident the right people are now at the helm.
“I don’t think anybody stood for that election on 7 November without an understanding of what needs to be done and where the organisation was. I think there’s a great deal of stability in the year and a bit that we’ve been here. When we incorporate good corporate governance, a customer-centric type of approach, the customer being the athlete and our members, putting them at the centre of everything that we do, it is providing stability. It’s all a ripple effect. A stable organisation is going to have happier staff, it’s going to have a better image outside and the money is going to come,” she says.
The burning question for South Africa’s top athletes, the majority of whom struggle to make ends meet without funding from their respective federations or from Sascoc, is whether this change in leadership will bring with it the revival of the Operation Excellence (Opex) funding programme for the top-ranked athletes in the country.
While Simelane says the responsibility for supporting athletes ultimately lies with the federations, she is quick to point out that Sascoc is not shirking its obligation. “I think that’s an easy way out. We have an equal responsibility to advocate passionately for our members and to be an influencer in trying to get these funding streams changed, try and get Lotto to do a bit more for athletes and for our federations, and try and get government to assist, and try and get companies in place… I don’t think that this Sascoc that we’re in now is interested in deflecting blame to federations. I think we have a big role to play in advocating for them as our members.
“Opex will be making a comeback before the end of this year, but I think the bigger responsibility that we have is ensuring that we can help athletes become Opex athletes as well.”
You can’t help feeling that coming from a sporting background has helped Simelane gain insight into the needs of athletes. She played provincial-level hockey as a goalkeeper before deciding to focus on the administrative side of sport.
“I am a realistic person, so I realised I am not an Olympic-grade player but I played as long as I could and then I realised when playing wasn’t an option any more, that I don’t really want to leave the sport. So I started in youth structures, locally and internationally.
“I never knew that these types of things existed. The International Hockey Federation had a programme that I entered when I was 18 called The Youth Panel. Basically, the programme was to teach young people what opportunities exist, specifically in hockey, outside of the playing field. We were taught about umpiring, administration, coaching, etc. To just enlighten us as young people, that there’s life beyond the field.”
Simelane has enjoyed a rapid rise up the sporting structures in South Africa and she’s well aware that the positions she holds come with great responsibility. “I don’t even think a scientist in the world could refute when we say representivity matters, without a doubt. I mean I was part of a social discussion about how many Black people have been influenced into Formula One with the rise of Lewis Hamilton because there is a certain familiarity that is needed sometimes for us to be interested.
“And that for me is how I got involved or interested in certain sports. I mean I follow sheep shearing now, because these gentlemen from rural Eastern Cape are winning world titles and they look like my dad and they sound like him.
“It is so important for us to do the best that we can in everything that we do, because we don’t know which Black person is watching or which young woman is watching and seeing that it’s possible. And for me to have been in the leadership positions I’ve been and breaking in at an age group far younger than what anybody else is, is I think inspiring. It should be inspiring for people to come in younger and younger.”
Rules and regulations
Motivated by her position as a role model to others, Simelane has one clear goal in mind. “Before I leave, I definitely want to have proper governed federations, with great corporate governance ideals. That is, after all, the thing I think about before I fall asleep every day, despite my gender activism and all of that.
“I think good corporate governance allows us to move more organically into all of the other things we want to achieve. Because if we are following the rules and the regulations, and our rules and regulations are the correct ones, then everybody will be serviced, everybody will be happy, and everything will just be good, honest and ethical. And I think that’s what sports in this country deserve.”
Asked why she invests so much of her time in these roles for seemingly little reward, Simelane says: “Because I love to sit on a Saturday and switch on my TV and see good sport. And I understand that there’s work that has to happen in the background for me to be able to do that … I don’t want any child to have to experience a world without sport, or sport that isn’t safe, or sport that isn’t inclusive, or sport that isn’t exciting, and I think I have that responsibility.
“Sport can be such a vehicle for social change in this country. We just don’t understand how important it can be. There are girls and boys, I see it in hockey every day, who wouldn’t see the inside of a university if it wasn’t for a sports bursary. There are kids who wouldn’t even see school if it wasn’t for a sports bursary. There are people whose lives would not have been what they are right now, if it wasn’t for sports, because of the other elements of society that they deal with. And I think that’s it, that’s important. I got my chances, somebody else needs to get their chances.”