Saray Khumalo breaking barriers in quest to change world

13 January 2020 - 13:09
By Linda Kea Moreotsene

The first time Saray Khumalo defied the odds, she was a young girl whose neighbours in KwaZulu-Natal told her and her sisters they were destined to become prostitutes.

The second time she did it, the whole world was watching. Instead of the isolation she had earlier experienced after being shamed for being one of seven girls raised by a single mother, her victories were lived proudly and out loud, with millions across the globe watching in admiration.

The plaudits show no signs of ending - the adventurer roared into 2020 in style: At about 3am on January 1, Khumalo became the first black African woman to reach the South Pole.

Khumalo shared the good news on her Facebook page, saying, "Happy new year good people...I made it! Am at the South Pole. Here is to an amazing 2020 and beyond. Let's keep stepping."

The explorer and mountaineer grabbed global headlines in June when she became the first black woman to summit Mount Everest.

Khumalo is a self-possessed mother of two who is quietly but fiercely strong-minded and takes her barrier-breaking platform in her stride.

Before leaving on her mission, summitting Mount Vinson in Antarctica, as well as the North and South Pole, which are part of the Explorer Grand Slam, she spoke of the driving force behind embarking on these often dangerous adventures and raising funds towards education.

"I know I am blessed. I take nothing for granted and as someone who has been given this platform, what I say, what I do matters," says Khumalo, who is Partner Management head at Momentum Multiply.

"Summitting all these peaks is a great challenge and I'm very excited about it. Only 67 people have been able to do it, with five being South African men. Sibusiso Vilane is the only black person on that list. There is one other female climber from China. No black woman has done this in 66 years," says Khumalo.

The Explorer Grand Slam entails reaching the seven peaks of the Seven Summits, as well as the North Pole and South Pole, and with the South Pole dealt with, Khumalo now has five peaks under her belt.

Her success will be a boon for 300 matriculants, whose tertiary expenses will be taken care of by the funds raised on the mission.

This was made possible by her partnership with sponsor and employer Momentum Multiply.

"I always said I will do this climb in my 60s because it is a really expensive sport, and the partnership is a Godsend. And since I have this opportunity, it is my duty to impact others, try and level the playing fields for our kids. I was only able to chase my dreams because somebody invested in me, my education, my passion and my career. The scourge of inequality will continue as long as we Africans continue to let it."

In her quest to inspire others, the 47-year-old uses her journey of breaking through barriers that dogged her and her sister's formative lives as a touchstone for what's possible.

"We can change the narrative, and my experience growing up, and as a mother of boys is that our children need to be taught how to see opportunities instead of obstacles.

"The only thing that distinguishes our children from others is access to opportunities, and we sorely need to raise people who can come with African perspectives to change how the African continent is perceived. Show a sense of urgency and never wait around for someone to give you permission. I'm proud of all my sisters, and watching one of them, who is now a chief operations officer, makes me so proud," says Khumalo.

Enduring the training required before her trip was nothing to sneeze at, seeing as the peak stands 4,892m above sea level.

"There has been a lot of pulling tyres on the street to build upper-body strength. The clothing is different and I learnt to ski. There isn't as much help available, and there are fewer of us in the group. So, there is no place to hide. I'm very excited though," she says.

Khumalo is the mother of Azinkosi, 22, and 16-year-old Ocacile, and like any working mother, she experiences some anxiety when she leaves them, probably more than most, since the risks she takes are higher than most.

For instance, on her first attempt to conquer Mount Everest, she fell and hit her head, and was in a coma for 10 days.

"I am sad every time I have to leave my boys, even though they are now grown up. There are risks, but fear is a part of life. I do not live my life frozen in fear, though.

"I am not careless about my life and the dangers that goes with what I do. The fact of the matter is we are going to die, I am going to die. I would hate to die having achieved nothing when my time comes," she says.

Not bad for someone who was predicted to end up hawking her wares in the mean streets of SA.