Facing a financial crunch and allegations of racial discrimination from its players, Cricket South Africa (CSA) has turned to Kugandrie Govender, the great granddaughter of an Indian farmer who migrated from Madras to Durban in the late 1800s to work on sugarcane plantations.
The 46-year-old public relations and marketing management graduate was recently appointed acting chief executive officer (CEO) of CSA after her predecessor resigned before the end of his term.
The mother of two teenage daughters says she never thought she would reach this far “even in a million years” when, as a 22-year-old, she succeeded in convincing her textile mill worker parents to allow her to buy a one-way plane ticket from Durban to Johannesburg. Openings for Indians were limited in the post-apartheid period, and she did not want to be stuck in a menial job that would make her university education redundant.
“I grew up in a typical Indian home. I almost expected my parents to say ‘no’ to my career move. But I used the magic word when I spoke to my mother. ‘I need to build a career.’ It struck a chord with her. My mom, despite not having finished school, was a wise woman,” Kugandrie told The Indian Express.
She has her hands full in the new job, working up to 17 hours a day. CSA has been in turmoil since July, when former fast bowling star black sporting icon Makhaya Ntini spoke about being “forever lonely” during his playing days when Graeme Smith, the current director of cricket, was captain. Another black pacer, Lungi Ngidi, was criticised by some former players for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
Growing up in Chatsworth, the township set up by the former apartheid regime to segregate Indian families, Kugandrie witnessed racial tensions and subsequent efforts at reconciliation from close quarters. She went to a school designated for those of Indian origin. “We were only allowed to mix with Indians,” she recalled.
She also remembers spending a lot of time on the farm in Verulam near Durban, owned by her grandfather, Shunmugan Govender.
“My great grandfather came as a labourer and worked on sugarcane farms in Durban. A lot of hard work and many years later, my grandfather ended up buying land. My mom worked on the farms until she got married and moved to the city. Mom and dad worked in a textile factory. It was not a rich upbringing, but it was a happy upbringing. It was about hours of toiling in the sun, toiling in the rain, with the whole family helping,” Kugandrie said.
She developed an early interest in cricket because of her two older brothers who played the game. Later, as a university student, she volunteered at the Kingsmead Stadium in Durban.
Kugandrie is aware that she needs to hit the ground running – and draws inspiration from women leaders around the world. Among the women she admires are New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the former US First Lady Michelle Obama, and Kamala Harris, the vice-presidential running mate of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“The one thing that comes naturally to a woman leader is empathy, and it is a quality that cannot be manufactured. It makes women leaders far more effective in managing crises. We have seen that during the Covid-19 pandemic. We have seen what Merkel has done in Germany and we have seen that with Jacinda in New Zealand,” she said.
On top of Kugandrie’s to-do list is mending relations with sponsors, bringing in transparency, and setting up a meeting with the former captain and director of cricket Smith, who is dealing with “hurtful allegations” of discrimination in team selection during his time as captain.
“We have had some brief discussions, but there will be a conversation in the very near future. I think Lungi didn’t expect the avalanche that came after what he said. I think he is a brave young man and he stood up for what he believed in and I admired that. I think from CSA’s point of view, we have such a large wide voice, and the organisation decided to use that voice to build harmonious relationships between people.”
Kugandrie is optimistic about the future. “I say to myself, ‘If you want change, you must be prepared to be part of the change you want to see.’ I believe in the power of cricket and the power of cricket in uniting our country,” she said.