As a little boy, I witnessed my first live sports encounter from the veranda of our humble home in Sada (Hewu). Across the road, and a further 50 or so metres from there, was the rugby field that was home to the Wallabies Rugby Club. The field was hard – pure ground – without a blade of grass. The field was marked using a spade – you just hit the ground hard enough to break the soil – and you do that for all the lines applicable to rugby field configurations. Yes, the field was that hard, and NO, the lines were not straight. But a game of rugby was played.
The home team (Wallabies) wore black and white stripes for their jerseys. The shorts were black. The socks were a medley of combinations. If you were good enough, you were old enough. I saw some lighties play as I did men who would have passed as my father. The crowd that gathered occupied old car tyres or upside-down buckets as seats, otherwise they simply stood along as the game played itself out. The poles held their H-formation, but barely. They slanted precariously and the crossbar could have given way at any time. There was no padding against them and any hard contact with the poles would have caused injury of serious proportions. Not only that, the poles would have to be reconstructed and that would have delayed the game. To boot, there was no medic pitch-side.
This was a social scene. The community came out in numbers and the Wallabies had support.
This game was played over 25 years ago. It was the only game I ever witnessed on this field. Now, the field plays host to a corrugated iron church. If not a church, then homes made of the same substance or mud. Weeds have taken over where there is no immovable property and the Wallabies have long been defunct. Simply, there is no physical memory of the field or the team.
On my way to church on foot, some 5km walk from home, I would pass a typical school for an under-developed village like ours. The school is Sada High. Adjacent to it, were tennis and netball courts. Then, as a lightie, I would always walk past there en route to and from church thinking that I should buy a tennis racket and play there with my many brothers. I had this desire because the courts were in good enough a condition to play host to such grudge encounters. Today, there is no trace whatsoever of there ever being such courts: they simply could not weather the passage of time and storms (rain and dust).
The one cricket field I ever saw was at Ntabelanga High School. Again, this field was hard ground, sparsely habited by weeds and thorns. The one thing that told that this was a cricket field was the PG Bison sponsored cricket nets and pitch (concrete slab with green synthetic mat) on it – otherwise it betrayed it all. The school itself did not play cricket (or they did so after daylight, where there were no floodlights) but one Mr Zandile Gwana (a man who can really be seen and spoken of in the same context as Mr Raymond Booi – the gentleman who unearthed Makhaya Ntini) held 5am sessions on that field – my brother attended these religiously. He went on to earn caps for the Selborne College first eleven. The fruits of Gwana’s efforts saw his protégés (Buntu Ntsaba and Bulelani Booi) earn scholarships to attend Queens College. They went on to earn first team colours for their adopted school and the former went on to play for the national under-15 team. Perhaps of these, Thando Bula stands out as the finest export of the Hewu region. He made his first-class cricket debut in 2001/2 and still plies his trade for Easterns today.
Then the premier league outfit of Queens Primary decided that Mr Gwana could add to their cricket mastery. They duly rescued him from the Mvela league of Sada, and poached him. And with that, the end of cricket in Sada.
Then I went to Selborne Primary in East London. The finest sports facilities were on offer – all in perfect formation. A soccer field (or the Cabbage Patch for cricket’s dirt trackers), two rugby fields (or two cricket fields) – all under the watch of the wonderful Greyhound Pavilion, and five tennis courts (without the slightest hint of a weed cracking its way through) were the facilities on offer for the Model C pupil. Added to this, the school hall multiplied as a gymnastics, indoor volleyball, action cricket or PT class centre. There were jungle gyms, a standard 25m swimming pool and all the equipment to go with these facilities. The expanded fields were fit for athletics, and there was even a sand pit for long jump.
If one, like me, did not have or could not afford a kit to play any of these codes, the school supplied it – pads, ball boxes, bats, cricket, soccer, rugby and volleyball balls, tennis rackets (some were wooden as in 1992 that was not uncommon) and Bakers mini-cricket starter packs. Moreover, the system made it compulsory to take part in at least one sporting code per season (summer or winter sports). It was here that I discovered my passion for sport. I have not lost it since. My favourite sport was rugby, but playing for the school’s third team for two years (although higher honours really should have come my way) told me that this was not going to go too far – at least not as a player. As a referee? Time will tell.
Today, the facilities I grew up seeing in Sada are either still there in the same condition or worse for wear, or not there at all. At Selborne, the opposite applies. The facilities there are still the same or have dramatically improved. For instance, there is now a hockey field at the primary that was not there when I was there (until end of 1997). The swimming pool is now under cover and sports grandstands. And the college has since developed a synthetic AstoTurf hockey field – the first school in East London to do so. These facilities are so good that professional sports outfits have used, and am sure continue to use, them. The one and only time I saw live the likes of Tana Umaga, Kupu Vanisi, Christian Cullen and Glen Osborne (among others) was when the Wellington Hurricanes used the college facilities to train. The Springboks of Nick Mallett and Jake White have also used the college fields. The Border Bears cricket side did likewise when they were champions of the SuperSport Series four-day format. I saw all of these teams in person.
These little anecdotes represent, in the general sense, the reality of the picture of sport in South Afrika. The erstwhile privileged institutions have kept abreast with the demands of the changing landscape of sport. Sadly, the erstwhile under-developed institutions have languished, if not wither away to oblivion. The effect of this has seen the chasms of society either widen or become more glaring for their absence. To cut to the chase, we cannot logically expect a produce from Sada to move from there and into the national team – for any discipline. On the other hand, we have seen young boys become men overnight because they graduate from your Selborne Colleges and become Springboks the next day (Frans Steyn made his Bok debut the year after matric). In exceptional cases some earn senior national colours as scholars – I saw Mark Randall do this as a 15-year-old grade 10 pupil. He was a national swimmer who went to swim at the Commonwealth Games.
These examples are just a diagnosis of the reality. These are not aspersion being cast, but rather an honest account. We can choose to politicise this account (which would be in keeping with the work of the last 22 years) or we can choose to change the narrative. Sports development in South Africa, honestly has not made any significant inroads. A case in point is how Makhaya Ntini – one of our greatest cricketers – struggles to lure money to advance his cricket academy. Why then would we expect Sada’s facilities and players to improve when no backing is offered to a man who brought us many a victory and history?
The real problem, as far as I am concerned, is the lack of investment (infrastructure, skills, administration, equipment, maintenance, fixtures) in the Sadas of South Afrika. Without this, what we see now at national level in terms of the skewed demographic composition, we should not expect to see X coming from Sada and into the 4*100m relay swimming team. With the financial spin-offs of investing in your Selbornes, then the equation is simple – we can expect more of the same with the chasms widening even more.
I was at home over the long weekend. The place offers no inspiration whatsoever to an aspirant sports star. In Pretoria, where I live, I referee at least four to five rugby matches a week. The demographic of the participants is almost exclusively white (with a black person being an oddity), and they are using the finest facilities in the country, including access to the High Performance Centre at Tuks. While this is a serious indictment to business and government for not making the investments at grassroots and Sada-like levels, the administrators of the codes are just as guilty of neglect.
Until such time we are united in our vision, serious about development of sports infrastructure and institutions, and committed to seeing it through (government, business and administrators) – Fikile Mbalula can suspend every code for the rest of time the same discussions and anxieties we have now with transformation will be held by my unborn grandchildren in 50 years from today. That, too, is a reality. A sad one.
Sure, Mbalula has taken a stance: its outcomes are not going to address the core. Accordingly, the real sports transformation project lies not at national level.