Phumza Maweni’s career began at a time when most athletes are either at their peak or starting to think about retirement. Now, at 35 years old, she has achieved what many can’t in a lifetime.
Maweni was 29 when she started playing for a provincial netball team in the Western Cape. Within a year, her exceptional performance in provincial netball was noticed and doors were opened. She was called to the national team, going on to become a World Cup star with the Spar Proteas.
Born in Cala, Eastern Cape, Maweni moved to stay with her father in Khayelitsha when she was 13. What makes her achievement even more remarkable is that she didn’t play netball in high school, she only started playing it socially in Khayelitsha years after matriculating. Now, she plays the sport professionally for Sunshine Coast Lightning in Australia, after stints in Loughborough Lightning and Severn Stars in England.
“I played netball in primary just like any other kid who was exposed to netball only,” Maweni says. “When I reached high school I totally stopped playing because I was bullied. Other kids would tease me about being tall, I ended up losing confidence and spending most of the time alone.
“It was only until I was 24 that I started playing socially in Khayelitsha. A friend of mine asked me to join them in a social club. I shared with her my story that I did not like to be around people or play because I got bullied. She gave me confidence and assurety that they will protect me as a club, indeed I was protected and started enjoying netball again.”
Even though Maweni didn’t go through the development ranks of netball, her journey to stardom was smooth sailing. “In 2009, local teams were invited to play in the City of Cape Town tournament where former Minister of Sport Ngconde Balfour was in attendance,” she said.
“Since it was a huge tournament there were also provincial scouts. On my first day playing with many teams I won Defender of the Tournament award. Everyone was raving about how good I was, even my coach Cecelia Zinkumbi told me all I needed was to build confidence so that I can go far in netball. I could not understand what she was saying because I knew I was already old. Through that tournament the provincial scouts saw me. They asked me to come to trial for the provincial squad in Bellville.
“I did not even understand what really happens at the trials. I was hesitant to go because I really enjoyed playing for my township team and I did not see a point of moving from my usual team to [a] Bellville team since it was going to cost me financially.”
Earning her stripes in provincial netball
Although Maweni did not see any future in netball because of her age, her social club coach made her realise that she could still achieve a lot.
“When I got to the trial venue it was packed, I told my coach that I did not want to play anymore because I didn’t know anyone. She explained to me that in trials I was playing for myself and the provincial team needed someone with good height. She told me that my height will be an advantage.
“I ended up trialling because I did not want to disappoint her. When it was time for the team announcement, I could see that other players badly wanted to play for the province. I just didn’t care whether I made it or not. It was something that I did not even desire, but at the end my name was called for the C team in Western Province.”
Moving to the provincial team was not an easy task for Maweni because she had to travel a long distance to be at training. But with the help of her father, she could attend all the training sessions.
“My father, a taxi driver, didn’t understand anything about netball, but he has always been supportive. He would take me to training every Tuesday evening and wait for me until late at night when the sessions are finished. If he didn’t have time, I would take a bus to training and he would wait for me at the bus stop when I came back at night. He is strict, not easy to talk to yet very loving and supportive of everything.”
Things moved fast for Maweni. Within a few months of playing for the provincial C team she graduated to the A team.
“While playing for the provincial team people started noticing me. In almost every game I would be awarded the best player of the match. Within a year of joining the provincial team, I was named in the Proteas team. I was really surprised about my call-up, I even asked myself if they knew my age.
“I was 29 and I pinched myself to see if that was really me being called for the national team. All the players that were there I knew were great players and I could not see myself playing with them. There was Zanele Mdodana, Bongiwe Msomi and Sindi Gumede who I knew played very well.
“When I joined the national team, everything was different. There was a fitness test of which it’s something I never knew about. My first game for the Proteas was tough, but there were good players who encouraged me. Coach Elize Kotze was very patient about me. She gave me all her time, coached me separately and told me to calm down and play my usual game. I eventually got used to playing for the Proteas.”
The impact of Plummer
Playing for the Proteas opened international doors for Maweni, and working with the legendary coach Norma Plummer took her game to the next level.
“When coach Plummer arrived in South Africa, my game, confidence and professionalism changed. She saw that I lacked confidence within a few months of coaching. I can see even with the way I walk that I am now more confident. My game changed and I became a better player.
“Coach Plummer taught me to speak up. She taught me that even if other players don’t want to listen to me I must talk, they will listen because we are a team. Even today I have learnt that if there is something that I don’t like I must say it without any fear. The confidence that she built in me made me to be signed by one of the best clubs in Australia. I’ve grown in netball each year because of her.”
Even though Maweni is something of a late bloomer in the sport, she has managed to notch up some remarkable achievements. Now, she even contributes to making her family’s life better.
“I have managed to change my family life through netball. I have been able to grow the family business by adding two more taxis and building cottages at home. With netball everything has changed, we are no longer struggling with anything.”
Even though age is not on her side, Maweni isn’t thinking about retiring anytime soon.
“I have had my best times in netball, I have played in the World Cup, was nominated along the great Caster Semenya in the South African Sport Awards, I was also in a team that beat Jamaica, and I play in the best league in the world. Even with achieving so much I don’t see myself retiring. I would like to play until I can see that I cannot move easily or as long as I am given an opportunity.”