Having been brought to South Africa in the early 20th century by the British military, squash began as an elitist sport in private schools. As is the case in any sport with such a history, transformation requires a deliberate effort to make the game more inclusive.
That’s where Egoli Squash comes into the picture. After years of persisting in its efforts to change the lives of its athletes off the court, the non-profit organisation is beginning to reap the rewards.
In a decade of existence, the brains behind Egoli Squash have sought to grow the game in disadvantaged areas where children would previously not have been exposed to the sport. The organisation’s focus is on Soweto and the Johannesburg inner city. It has mentored its athletes on and off the court, providing coaching, homework support and life skills training.
“Basically, what prevented most people from knowing the game of squash was [a lack of] facilities and equipment,” said Egoli Squash co-ordinator Sharon Sibanda. “You will find most of the squash courts are located in suburbs. For other players who aren’t players in suburbs, they are not able to get a taxi and go to practice sessions. We’ve seen that with our players. Whenever they go for tournaments, we have to transport them from Hillbrow, Berea and Soweto areas to play at Wanderers and all the other different places.
“I’d say that is a challenge. Also, the other challenge for the game of squash is it has been perceived as a Cinderella sport – a sport for the privileged. That is not the case. It’s basically that it hasn’t gained much traction in the media.”
Egoli Squash has taken on the task of raising awareness of the sport. “Most of the schools we work with do not have sporting facilities,” said Sibanda. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s squash facilities – any sporting facilities [are lacking].
“Take, for instance, the inner city. Most of the schools are within flat buildings, so they do not have enough space in the schools to set up any sporting facilities. What they do is they actually source sporting facilities outside – it might be municipal sport and recreation facilities – just so they are able to get their learners to participate in a sport.
“So, for us, what we do is we basically approach the schools through what we call road shows. A road show is a 15-minute presentation where we go to the schools and introduce the game during assembly time. We show them a bit of racquet skills to get learners interested in the game. At times, we also carry our mobile squash court to the schools.
“Afterwards, the learners and sports coordinators would register. We not only introduce the sport to the learners, we also introduce the sport to the sport coordinators. When they come for the sessions, it’s not only about them accompanying the learners to the squash court. They also get to train and assist our senior coaches as well.
“The schools do not pay any amount to be part of the programme. For us, basically, it’s all about changing lives and grooming youths to become responsible adults. That’s the passion that keeps us going – and getting as many learners as possible to participate in the game of squash.”
Development on and off the court
Sibanda explains that the organisation’s recruitment of schoolchildren is done with an eye to potentially producing top competitors. However, rather than scouting and grooming already established squash players, it has to start from scratch, teaching the basics of the game and encouraging youngsters to get involved. Aside from its ambitions on the court, Egoli Squash hopes to achieve plenty off it too.
“Basically, our programme is focused [mostly] on promoting the game – also with the vision of producing elite players who not only represent our province, but can also get to play and compete for national rankings. Also, we want to empower them not only from a squash perspective [but] in life skills, and to develop them into responsible young adults,” explained Sibanda.
“We do have players who have evolved from just being grassroots junior players, who came into the programme without even having an idea of what squash is.
“I remember some of the players, when we introduced the game to their schools, were saying: ‘Oh, squash? Is it some form of juice, or what is it?’ Squash, basically, in the inner-city and Soweto schools, does not exist. They do not have the facilities and the sports coordinators also do not know about the game of squash,” said Sibanda.
“We had to start from scratch and build up from there – introducing the game and promoting it to the players who had never heard of squash in their lives. After introducing the game, we saw that our players thrived.
“We decided to filter them into our Colts Future Champions programme. Basically, it’s our high-performance programme. Once we have identified the players, we groom them using all the different high-performance techniques. We partnered with the UJ [University of Johannesburg] Sports Sciences Institution. They [help us] equip these players to be elite players.”
Preparing young athletes for life both on the court and off it is easier said than done, as many in South African sport have discovered. Fortunately for Sibanda, she is able to combine her training as a psychologist with her squash coaching qualifications.
“I have a background in psycho-social support for players. That was how I got involved [in] the programme. I did basic level one coaching. It’s just that if I am to interrupt the kids, I have to know more about the game. This will ensure that I can easily relate to the kids and whatever day-to-day issues they face, at least in the programme,” she said.
Egoli starlets going for gold
The investments Egoli Squash have made into its top athletes are beginning to pay off. Muzi Buthelezi was the top-ranked Central Gauteng Under-16 squash player in 2019, also ranking fourth in South Africa in his age category. His father passed on when he was 10 years old, but Egoli Squash ensured that he remained cared for, helping him secure a bursary at King Edward VII School. Buthelezi aims to become a professional squash player.
“I didn’t really know what squash was, but at my old school I wanted to try something new, because I was playing soccer and tennis before squash. When I went to squash, I didn’t really know that you were using a racquet like tennis,” said Buthelezi.
“What the Egoli Squash programme did was they went to each and every school. That’s where they started introducing squash and they told us more about squash, which I started liking. I obviously went to the organisation and then I started playing. The coaches really helped me to improve my squash and everything has been great since then.
“In the next two to four years, I want to be in the South African national team. If not, I want to be in the top 20 in South Africa. After that, I want to be a professional squash player and get SA colours, and to qualify into the Professional Squash Association and be in the top 50.”
It is inevitable that not every squash player will achieve the ambitious targets that Buthelezi has set. Fortunately for its players who fall short, Egoli Squash’s support is not wholly dependent on success on the court.
One of the programme’s stalwarts, Clinton Ndebele, who joined in 2011 and learned the game from scratch, has played squash at junior and senior provincial level but decided to pursue a career in education. Egoli Squash used his skills off the court to its advantage, bringing him in as a facilitator. By his own admission, Ndebele was not as talented as Buthelezi is, but Egoli Squash still covered his high school fees.
“Coach Lawrence [Dlamini] and Coach Sharon were like mother and father figures to me. Being with a single mother, Lawrence was the one guy who was literally our father. He coached us and disciplined us and all of these things. Even Sharon was like a mother,” Ndebele said.
“I think when I pursued teaching, the programme saw someone [who could] elevate the homework support side of things.
“The programme paid for my entire high school. My mother was struggling with the school fees. Sharon, on one of the days, said: ‘Show me your report and I’ll see what I can do.’ That took me all the way from grade 9 to matric. This, I guess, is my way of giving back to a programme that has done so much for me.”
Ndebele is a prime example of what Egoli Squash’s off-court endeavours aim to achieve. The Covid-19 pandemic also affected the organisation, which adapted by devising both short-term and long-term strategies to combat food shortages.
Egoli Squash sought to address its members’ immediate needs by initiating the Ubuntu Drive, seeking donations for food parcels along with sanitary and cleaning products. In the long run, it aims to promote food sustainability to avoid an overreliance on donors.
“We are growing it [the Ubuntu Drive] into a long-term programme. Our long-term programme will be implementing urban farming. Most of our players, especially in the inner city, stay in flats. They do not have areas to cultivate any plants where they stay because they do not have enough space,” Sibanda said.
“We’ve already set up our strategic plan and everything. We’ll be rolling out the urban farming project hopefully next year… We want to set up a sustainability plan. What if the donors are no longer able to fund our Ubuntu Drive? Would that mean that we were not going to continue feeding our players and families? That’s why we are coming up with this long-term strategy.”
The seeds of change have been planted in communities which may otherwise never have learnt about the game of squash. Whether or not they will spread quite enough to become endemic across Johannesburg’s race and class divides remains to be seen.