Sindi Mabaso-Koyana, Fifa’s new audit chief, is up for the challenge of cleaning up the corruption-riddled global football governing body.

How do you solve a problem like Sepp Blatter? South African businesswoman Sindi Mabaso-Koyana knows: the first step is to find someone who really, passionately wants to fix it. The world’s favourite sport is in a mess. A series of scandals have plunged football’s global governing body, Fifa, into crisis. Several heads have rolled – including that of Sepp Blatter himself, the once-untouchable president of the association of 17 years standing.

South African businesswoman Sindi Mabaso-Koyana, the recently appointed chair of Fifa’s powerful audit committee, is no football fan. But she has good reason for taking on what some might consider an impossible job. “My nine-year-old son, who loves soccer, said I should,” she tells Dialogue. “He said, ‘Mummy, yeah go for it, then I can be the football player I want to be.’”

As a mother, she cares deeply that her would-be footballer son will one day be able to enjoy his chosen sport under the auspices of a clean, well-regulated umbrella body that attracts respect, not censure. But there’s more to Mabaso-Koyana’s motives than family ties. “Yes my son and husband love football,” she says. “And that’s the softer element to it. But there are hardcore issues as well. Beyond football, there is a lot that an organization like Fifa can do in developing young lives, young communities. As a woman who is passionate about development, I am passionate, too, about education.”

And therein lies a tale, for it was schooling – early and prolonged – that helped this extraordinary woman scale the slippery South African cliff to success. Raised in hardship by a lone parent during the Apartheid-era, Mabaso-Koyana had it drummed into her from an early age how education would provide her only route out, and up. She lived in Umlazi, a township near Durban. Her mother worked as a general labourer in a local hospital – “it was the only job she ever had” – and the family eked out an existence in circumstances that were forever in flux. “For the greater part of my young life we never had a home of our own,” she recalls. “We were at the mercy and grace of the family and friends that would accommodate us. But my mother always ground into us that we should break through our circumstances and make a better life, through a culture of hard work. She was clear that education would be the most important thing in our lives – the father we never had.”

Given that under Apartheid it was almost impossible for black people to be professionally successful in the conventional sense of the phrase, did she ever question whether her mother’s ambitions for her were realistic? “Her ambition for me was probably to go into one of the professions that were generally accepted as opportunities for black people: teaching, nursing, more on the civil side of things, the caring professions,” she says. “You were never expected to go into roles like accounting.”

At school, she was a virtually autodidactic mathematician, aided and abetted by her older brother. “He was an introvert who liked maths and science – he was the nerd of the two of us – and I have continued to give him gratitude because he ground maths into me,” she says. “I was never allowed to do maths in higher grade, because I was black and I was a girl – so there was no way. But I have a rebellious streak – the minute someone says that I can’t do something, I go for it, I go into hiding and make sure I get it right and then come out and show that I can.

“The only white teacher in the school refused to teach me maths at higher grade, and when I insisted he did he chucked me out of the class! Even in standard-grade maths he refused to teach me. He told me, ‘You must walk out of this classroom when I walk into it because you are challenging me.’ But my brother was ahead of me, and he helped me teach myself.”

By the time Mabaso-Koyana completed her schooling in the early 1980s, the first flush of glasnost was seeping under the foundations of the country’s Apartheid system. “The country had come a long way by then,” she says. “Some political groundworkhad been done. Some people had gone ahead of us. There was a feeling that ‘now we can get educated’.” But this was still a bitterly divided, racially segregated nation.

When Mabaso-Koyana attended university in 1986, it was the first year that black students were allowed to share residence on campus with whites. What was that like? “Integration wasn’t easy,” she says. “Even in the dining halls we would always sit in a segregated manner.” That notwithstanding, the very fact that halls were mixed at all was unpopular with many whites. “A number of white people did not come back after the first term break at Easter,” recalls Mabaso-Koyana. “They went into digs – outside accommodation around the campus. I remember waiting to use the telephone booth, and someone had left the door open, and I overheard her telling her mother – ‘I am not coming back here next term because I have to share even the telephone booths – the shower rooms! – with black people.’ When she finished her call, she banged the booth door in front of me.”

It is testament to Mabaso-Koyana’s personal resolve that she didn’t allow experiences like that to push her off course. The early words of her mother still ringing in her ears, she pushed on, determined to exploit the opportunity the university had given her. “I just told myself to remember why I had come to this institution, rather than allow those kind of incidents to get to me,” she says. There was a language barrier too – no longer would she be able to ask her teachers to translate into her native Zulu. “Back at school, even though the teacher taught business, economics and accounting in English, I was able to say to them in my vernacular: ‘Can you explain that for me in my language?’ When I went to university, one of the culture shocks was that I could no longer say to someone, ‘Can you slowly take me through that term?’”

Determined to overcome the twin hurdles of linguistic and racial isolation, she made a nuisance of herself, imposing on tutors who would otherwise have enjoyed a free period. “Most students would walk into a tutorial, pick up the answer book and leave,” she recalls. “I would stay throughout the two hours of my tutorial going through it step by step.

“Years later, when I was a professional businesswoman, I bumped into my tutor at the airport. I said: ‘Michelle do you remember me?’ She looked at me and said, ‘Sindi, how could I forget you? You held me captive for two hours every tutorial!’”

Mabaso-Koyana credits her chutzpah as her strength, but it was interpreted by her family as frivolousness. “I’m a very fun-filled person,” she says. “But my family had a bias and a prejudice that I did not come across as serious – they never expected me to walk the journey that I walked.”

As it was, her sense of humour and easy manner proved crucial tools in helping her pick her way to the top. “I am an extrovert naturally and I am very comfortable in building relationships,” she says. “I am very fortunate that I am not generally a shy person. I can engage at all levels and statuses. When I have to engage with very senior people I’m very comfortable in that – which is what I do when I sit on boards.”

Now her boldness will be put to the ultimate test. It is hard to overestimate the task at hand. In 2015, US government investigators from the FBI and Inland Revenue Service disclosed cases of corruption by Fifa officials and their surrogates. Some 14 people were indicted, most memorably in a dawn raid in Zurich, when seven officials were arrested in their hotel rooms ahead of a Fifa Congress.

What makes Mabaso-Koyana think she is the right person to clean the place up? “As you have heard, I always enjoy a challenge!” she says. The fact that most would fight shy of that challenge is precisely what attracts her to it: “My mother said, ‘You prefer to take the uncharted routes’ – and that has really defined me. If you ask me to do something where there is already a plethora of people following that journey, chances are I will say, ‘no’.”

She seems at once remarkably undaunted by the task and astutely aware of its Herculean scale, comparing it, not unfairly perhaps, to the dismantling of Apartheid. “How do you eat an elephant? By eating it bit by bit,” she says. “The first step has to be taken, and that means being very clear about the ‘why?’. It is important to have vision. Think of how Mandela had the vision of a non-racial society in South Africa. Are we there yet? No, we are not, but it’s a journey. Will I change Fifa in my time as audit chair? They [audit chairmanships] are limited terms. That means it would be egotistic of me to think that I will be the one to deliver a clean slate. But I can be one of the people in the journey that takes us there.”

As her personality dictates that she finds positives in the most adverse circumstances, it should come as no surprise that she credits her status as a football novice as yet another advantage. “It will put me in great stead not to be a football boffin,” she says. “It is going to be very important to keep my independence, by remaining a technocrat in this particular game.”

In many ways, she has the stripes. Blooded in public sector finance early in her career (she was appointed former chief financial officer of state-owned utility Transnet in 2001) she has the credentials to tackle mismanagement in gigantic organizations, whether they be government-owned or otherwise. She says Fifa is more like running a country than a business. “Some jurisdictions and nations do not have the GDP that Fifa commands,” she says. “I was excited to be invited into the organization – they might not be a public agency in the statutory sense, but they are an entity with huge public interest. They were self-regulated – they felt they could do whatever they wanted. But really, they cannot.”

She has learned, over the years, to extend her role beyond that of a technocrat, to consider the corporate lives of organizations, their general management as well as their financial processes: “I have set my foot in Fifa as technocrat but, given my leadership experience, having sat on boards and run businesses, I can see that there are other touch points where I can make a difference.”

So where will she draw the line between auditor and adviser? “When I say to Fifa that international audit committees should be run in this manner, then I am providing advice,” she says, evenly. “The audit committee has been given a very critical role. I come from a profession that is governed by very clear rules, a very clear code of conduct. We are governed by international auditing standards. That assists me. Instead of giving people my opinion, I give people the legislation.”

So she will be a technocrat first and foremost? “There will be an element of going back to [accounting] basics,” she admits. “But we are dealing with human beings here, so there is also an element of getting the buy-in that will make my changes sustainable. I learned early in my career that you have to have a collaborative approach to leadership if you want it to succeed – get that buy-in, and walk with people.”

After Blatter’s high-profile departure, Fifa elected a new president, Gianni Infantino. Following a controversial vote by Fifa Congress to give the Fifa Council the right to fire the head of the audit and compliance committee, the committee’s then-chair, Domenico Scala, resigned in protest. Mabaso-Koyana, his then-deputy, made the step up.

What does she make of Infantino? There’s a pause, and then: “All I can say at this stage is that one has to be optimistic.” It’s an outlook on life that has served her well so far.

An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website