Sumaya Laher, 47, is a professor of psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand and a programme coordinator of the Wits-Edinburgh Programme in Sustainable African Futures for Wits. She served as the head of the department during the Covid-19 pandemic, navigating the challenges of this period so well that she earned the title of “Wits Covid-19 Hero”. Her articles, chapters and books on the teaching of psychology are prescribed reading material for psychology modules.
Her research has contributed to creating a more critical practice of psychology and psychotherapy that is cognisant of indigenous beliefs and practices and their role in understanding the aetiology and treatment of mental illness. She has served as an editor of several academic journals and is a founder of the African Journal of Psychological Assessment, an open access journal that provides a platform for African voices and experiences from marginal contexts.
Sumaya has contributed to the process of inclusion in the higher education space, assisting students who come from schools with little resources with their statistics, research and writing skills, and helping them to source funding, particularly for postgraduate studies. During her term as the president of the Psychological Society of South Africa — one of her many leadership roles — she advocated strongly for opening up the profession,to ensure mental health access for the majority of South Africans who need it, not just the 16% who are on medical aid.
What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
I am because you are
Our theme this year is Accelerating Equality & Empowerment in Women. How do you empower yourself and women around you?
Empowering myself and women is something integral to my work. My work as an academic provides many opportunities to support young female researchers. I am particularly proud of the number of young, dynamic female students I have trained who are working in various fields ranging from marketing and management to public health and governance.
My biggest contribution to my students is to encourage them to be agents of change, to never be afraid to think out of the box, to make their voices heard and to never be afraid of embracing their identity. Quite often women in the workplace don’t give voice to their multiple other roles. I have both by example and in my interactions with my colleagues voiced these dynamics and in my tenure as HoD of the psychology department fostered a climate that continues even now, where colleagues feel safe to raise concerns linked to their multiple identities.
If you could change or achieve one thing for South Africa today, what would it be?
South Africa has so many problems and yet so much potential. I however feel that our conversations are like a collective monologue. This is true for our politics and often in academia. I feel that constructive conversations across society would be a basis for sustainable solutions, and for providing space for young leaders to take the lead. That may sound a bit fuzzy, but it is not. Having constructive conversations are a foundation on which sensible solutions to the deep inequalities we face will be realised.