Youngsters in the small town of Tsomo in the Eastern Cape are dismayed that their dreams of participating in structured sport events – or even making it to a professional level one day – are being derailed by the failure of a rural sport development programme.
Launched in 2016, the programme was supposed to make a difference to children living on farms and in rural communities who lack proper playing fields, sport equipment and kits by granting them “the same resources as urban or semi-urban communities”. But it remains non-existent in places like Tsomo, where netball and football are popular in the total absence of sporting codes such as cricket.
Ambeswa Mdingi and Aviwe Sonyabashe, both 15, say their chosen sport, netball, receives little or no support. “Due to poor sports facilities in my community, when travelling to compete we struggle to play in developed facilities,” Mdingi said. “Even our posts are in a poor condition.”
The two play for community netball team Young Chiefs, which has existed for four years. Players must be between 14 and 30 years old. “Netball keeps us away from taking part in things like robbery, smoking,” said Mdingi.
A lack of funding also means that the team has no proper kit. While other teams show up resplendent in their sport attire at tournaments, Mdingi and her teammates play in their regular clothes, scarcely looking like a team at all. “This makes us feel small,” she said.
They also have no money for refreshments or food at tournaments, which can last from 8am until 6pm, resulting in them competing on empty stomachs. Just getting to their games is difficult, and the participation fee of up to R200 for each club is a tall order for children from impoverished families.
The only incentive for them to participate is the possibility of winning a tournament as the victorious team gets to pocket all the money from these fees. In some tournaments, the runner-up team will have their participation fee refunded. But although this means losing is never an option, Mdingi says money should not be their only incentive. Instead, she says, a trophy or medal would be valuable in lifting the team’s spirits.
Rowena Naidoo, a professor in biokinetics, exercise and leisure sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, says sport has a positive impact on children’s education.
“Children spend at least six hours at school per day. Their attitudes and practices towards physical activity are acquired and learnt while at school. Therefore, if the school environment promotes positive attitudes towards physical activity, this can lead to long-term physical activity and sports participation,” says Naidoo.
“During the early years at school, basic motor skills are learnt and practised primarily through games. Thereafter, these skills are transferred to sport-specific activities and drills and, eventually, sports participation. Talent can be identified and nurtured from a young age, but children first need to be given the opportunity to demonstrate their talent. This begins at school level, creating an enjoyable environment for physical activity participation.”
Against all odds
Sonyabashe, a founding member of Young Chiefs, says she believes she has the talent to make it professionally. But, she adds, it’s an almost impossible dream for someone like her. “There’s no development here in Tsomo. We don’t even have netball posts, the playground is in a poor condition.”
Sonyabashe says support in the form of funding and facilities is sorely needed. “We need a coach and a proper sporting facility.”
Though she feels demotivated by the situation, she tries to stay positive. Donations from the community that are used to pay for transport and food have helped prop up the team. And notwithstanding the obstacles, Sonyabashe and Mdingi love taking part in local tournaments as it allows them to be active, form friendships and learn from each other.
The Green Lovers football team, which goes by the nickname Thul’uzobona, is the pride of Tsomo. Inga Mboto, 20, has been playing for the team since 2018 when it was relaunched, attracting players between 15 and 30 years old. It had previously ceased to exist because there were not enough players.
“We decided to re-establish the team to prevent us from getting involved in any wayward behaviour,” he says. “We also saw the soccer team as a way to unite us in the community.”
Mboto says the lack of sporting equipment hinders their ability to sharpen their football skills. “We don’t have goalposts. We even struggle with soccer balls.”
If the team wins one of their weekly tournaments, Mboto says, they use the money to buy whatever the players need. They also borrow money from a lender in the community. “He told us we are welcome to borrow any time without any interest,” Mboto says.
Another passionate and talented footballer is Amahle Kondlo, 17, who also started playing for Thul’uzobona in 2018. “The lack of transport for games in distant places is a huge problem. Sometimes we arrive at games tired after walking long distances and end up performing badly,” he says.
Both Young Chiefs and Thul’uzobona play in an open field in Tsomo on which they’ve created what resembles a netball court or football field. Zukiswa Kota, a qualified group fitness instructor with 14 years’ experience working primarily with young adults, says this raises other considerations.
“Another important aspect is the need to ensure that sporting events and facilities, particularly for girls and young women, are safe. There is a significant argument to be made for investing more statistically in sports with a focus on children in marginalised communities.”
Changing the status quo
It’s not only youths in rural areas such as Tsomo who crave having the infrastructure to participate in a sport. Ayanda Cuba, 31, knows children in townships want it too, which is what led him and Buntu Matole to launch the Sporting Code initiative in Khayelitsha in 2015. For Cuba, it made sense to start the project in their “backyard” because they wanted to bring about a positive change in their community.
According to its website, Sporting Code seeks to “provide structured sporting systems that will allow communities, schools and corporates to use sports as a way to connect, grow and create a healthy, happy and active society”.
Sporting Code hosted its first tournament – a football five-a-side – in 2015. It purposefully targeted boys. “In 2014, there was a rise in gang activities by teenagers,” Cuba says. “We felt soccer would be one of the easiest events to organise.”
After the first tournament, netball was added to accommodate girls too. Tournaments in these two sporting codes were held monthly, giving hope and purpose to youngsters in the community. Using a public park made it easy for children to gain access to Sporting Code’s programmes, which were free and easy to find.
However, Cuba says Sporting Code has not hosted any sports event for the past two years because he and Matole wanted to assess the impact of their work and see how they could best assist the teams they had been working with. Simply hosting tournaments was not enough.
They realised that despite their good intentions, children’s interest in sport fades when they don’t progress to bigger tournaments and there are no scouts recruiting them for bigger teams, he says.
At present, the Sporting Code is not fully operating, as the partners are in a rebuilding phase.
“We are working towards being a sports development programme,” Cuba says, explaining that they aim to provide fundraising support to make sports equipment and facilities available to local teams.
He says the Western Cape government has been an invaluable source of support for their efforts. “From now and then, when we needed resources like your soccer balls, poles or any sporting equipment, they [the Western Cape government] have always been there to assist us.”
Andile Nduna, communications manager of the Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture, says his department, in collaboration with its national equivalent, has supported clubs in areas that fall under traditional councils and farming communities since 2016, when the rural sport development programme was launched.
According to Nduna, the programme still exists. In the central Chris Hani district, the Jumba Traditional Council led by Inkosi Dumisani Mgudlwa manages it. The local municipality is Intsika Yethu, under which Tsomo falls.
“The building and maintenance of facilities is the competence of municipalities. However, during the era of the building for the sport and recreation programme, the Tsomo Stadium was built by Sport and Recreation South Africa [a division in the national sports department]. Sporting clubs in the area also received support in the form of equipment and attire,” Nduna says.
Mickey Modisane, the national department’s head of communications and marketing, says the programme works closely with local municipalities to support children residing in rural areas through money from conditional grants obtained under the Division of Revenue Act.
“The funding allocations are reserved to provide capacity-building and also provide participating schools with equipment and attire to ensure that the barriers to participation are addressed,” Modisane says. The money from these grants created sporting opportunities for pupils and helped them with transportation, meals, accommodation and kits to participate at district, provincial and national championship levels, he adds.
Naidoo says transformation in sport must start by investing at a community level. “More focus needs to be at grassroots level. This must be prioritised by key stakeholders like the local municipalities, provincial and national government. The development of athletes, coaches, administrators, etc is needed in order to grow and transform sport.
“Furthermore, collaborative initiatives and projects between higher education institutions and local municipalities and provincial governments need to be in place to ensure the development of sport in the rural and township areas. However, on the other hand, sport development policies and frameworks need to be in place at national and provincial level. This will ensure that support – financial, human resources, facilities, etc – is available to promote development at grassroots level.”