The atmosphere inside Alexandra Palace in north London, England, is already sizzling when the unmistakable beat and bassline of Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) blasts out from the speakers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, he is South Africa’s No. 1,” the announcer roars. “Making his sixth World Championship appearance. A World Cup representative. The African Warrior. Devon Petersen!”
Shakira declares “This is Africa” as Petersen, flanked by two stern looking security guards, walks down the runway, high-fiving screaming fans with both hands. He drinks in the adoration and climbs the stairs to the stage. Barely dressed dancers waving pom-poms greet him with broad smiles as they gyrate to the music.
Freshlyground’s Zolani Mahola reiterates that “This is Africa”. And then Petersen gives the people what they want.
He wiggles his arm, flips his wrist and mimes an act of self-grooming as if his cocked hand was a mirror. A raised eyebrow, a cheeky smirk, one more twirl, one louder cheer from the crowd and Petersen is ready to do the job that has earned him a reported R1.3 million over the past two years. That job? Throwing darts.
“I can’t quite believe it,” said Petersen from his home in Bradford, Yorkshire. “I’m just a kid from Mitchells Plain. Today, I’m the only darts player from Africa competing at this level and thousands of people dance in the crowd when I’m on stage. Grown men and women stop me and ask for my autograph. It still blows my mind.”
Petersen was raised by working-class parents who ran an upholstery company on the Cape Flats. “It wasn’t luxurious, but we had enough,” he said.
With the ever-looming threat of gangsterism and drug use threatening to pick off strays like a hyena would a struggling calf, the Petersens closed ranks and developed a tightknit unit.
Cousins, aunts, and grandparents would regularly share dinner tables and church benches. But the greatest tonic for the ills of the outside world was sport. It brought the family together as they huddled around the television on weekends, especially when English side Liverpool were playing.
“I had friends who dipped their toes in with the gangs and got sucked in,” Petersen said. “There was a lot of struggle around, so I understand the temptation. But it’s impossible to be a casual gangster. You’re in or you’re out. I’m just grateful that I was raised with a strong character.”
That psychological fortitude was honed through a competitive spirit. It wasn’t just watching sport that occupied the Petersen’s time. Football, table tennis, badminton, basketball… like so many South African families, differences were settled with bat, boot and racket. One sport, though, set them apart.
“Darts has always been a major factor in my family,” Petersen explained. “My dad played since he was 11 and he was introduced to the sport by his dad. They played in a team as a family. There were eight brothers and between them, they fielded two teams in the local leagues in Athlone and Bonteheuwel. They would regularly win and bring home big trophies and prize money. At family braais and birthdays we would all play. We were proud that we were a family of darts players.”
Petersen showed promise from a young age, but his father wasn’t about to let sentimentality get in the way of his winning streak. A young Petersen was instructed to practice three hours a day before he could even think of joining the family team. He needed to show that he was taking it seriously, as seriously as his father did.
Soon, he started beating his relatives. Then, once he had earned the trust of his father, he started beating strangers. “People think that I am naturally talented, that somehow I’ve been lucky to have what I have,” Petersen said. “I’m blessed, that’s for sure. But lucky? No ways. Let me tell you, there is no such thing as natural talent in darts. I worked incredibly hard for this and once I got a taste of winning, I knew I’d never want to lose it.”
Petersen won the 2010 South African Masters and ended the season as the No. 1 ranked player in Africa. Firmly up against a glass ceiling, he had two options: find a way of getting comfortable or shatter through into unchartered territory. There was only ever one choice.
Adjusting to life in the United Kingdom was not easy at first. London felt like a gargantuan megalopolis compared with the comparative dorp of Cape Town. But the new sights and frenetic pace excited the 24-year-old trailblazer.
The 2010 Fifa World Cup had already concluded by the time Petersen arrived in the UK, but the echoes of Waka Waka still reverberated.
“Sometimes I feel like the song was written for me,” he said. “Listen to the words. It builds a narrative from an African’s perspective. It’s proud to be associated with the continent and speaks about getting back up after you’ve been knocked down. That spirit speaks to me, it always has.”
With the beat and words coursing through his veins, Petersen was backstage one night before a competition when his body began expressing the rhythm inside him. Stage dancers noticed and asked him to teach them some tricks. This caught the eye of the stage manager, who wanted to know if Petersen would be willing to replicate the moves in front of thousands of people. Petersen did not hesitate.
“I’ve never been shy and I back my dancing,” he said with a laugh. “And to get the chance to show off my culture was an added bonus.”
Winning people over
Darts is unlike most sports in the sense that there is little separating the athletes when it comes to a style of play. A squat holding midfielder and a lanky striker in football are as different from each other as an opening batter and a menacing fast bowler in cricket. Even individualised sports such as tennis, boxing, golf or athletics allow for enough nuance between the athletes for the initiated to notice. In darts, one’s personality is the differentiator.
“I came here to stand out, not blend in,” Petersen said. “I wear funky clothes and make sure my shirt displays the shape of Africa and the words ‘South Africa’. I changed the game. Now loads of players have colourful and loud walk-ons. Some even dance. But no one else has the same African flavour.”
Petersen has yet to leave a mark on tournaments as he would like to once the darts start flying. He is currently ranked 60th on the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) Order of Merit and has not progressed beyond the quarterfinals in any of the four premier events held annually. At the most recent World Championships at Alexandra Palace, Petersen made a disappointing early exit, losing to Englishman Luke Humphries in the first round. And though he is ambitious and adamant to improve on this record, his journey has come to represent more than the pursuit of hitting 180 on the board.
“I feel I have an opportunity to make a difference,” he said. “I could focus on myself. On making more money and just living selfishly. But I have a duty to my country and to my sport. I am an ambassador. I promised I would not waste this platform once I reached it.”
True to his word, Petersen established the Last Man Standing (LMS) competition in 2016 to help develop South African talent. He has contributed from his own pocket – up to R10 000 a tournament – with players paying a R100 entry fee for the chance to claim the R4 000 winners’ purse. No other darts competition in the country matches this.
“There is so much talent in South Africa, but the guys struggle with limited resources,” Petersen explained. “We can’t take too much credit for unearthing the talent, but we can say we have provided incentive to keep going. Too many guys can’t sustain their careers without being rewarded.”
There are talks to form the African Darts Corporation, in association with the PDC, from the LMS, although this has yet to happen. But with four events every year and regular coaching clinics, the LMS has provided a launchpad for budding darts players while also changing perceptions around the sport in South Africa.
“It’s an indoor sport and not seen as particularly challenging athletically,” Petersen said. “That’s why prize money is important. We’re trying to infiltrate schools so kids have other options besides soccer, rugby and cricket. It’s about perceptions and education and changing people’s mindset.”
One way he hopes to achieve this is through philanthropic venture the HANDS Project, which stands for Helping African Nations Develop Through Sports. Inspired by the JP21 Foundation of fellow Mitchells Plain native and former Proteas allrounder JP Duminy, Petersen’s initiative is using darts to give back to his community.
“We’re going to local schools and showing kids that there are other paths they can go down that don’t involve crime and drugs,” Petersen said. “JP is an inspiration. He used his profile for good. I want to help change people’s lives the way my life has been changed. I’m living my dream.”