The South African men’s national hockey team is holding on by a thread in the 2018 World Cup in India after losing their opening match 5-0 to the hosts and drawing their second match 1-1 with Canada to languish at the bottom of their pool. But that’s not the biggest challenge facing the sport in the country. Back home, simmering racial tensions are finally coming to the boil.
Two weeks ago, a union of athletes collectively known as Players for Transformation (PFT) opened a Twitter account with a brave statement: “The South African Hockey Association [Saha] has FAILED players of colour.”
The decision to air the sport’s dirty laundry on social media comes on the back of months of failed negotiations between the PFT and Saha, which has been accused of political inertia. For Phumelela Mbande, goalkeeper of the national women’s team and founder of the PFT, going to social media was a last resort.
“We tried to do it the ‘right’ way at first,” Mbande told New Frame on 25 November, a day after a meeting between the two parties was facilitated by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc).
“People have told us that we’ve damaged the reputation of Saha, but they’ve done more damage to themselves by not taking us seriously. We’ve sent countless emails and documents, and we didn’t want to go to social media with this, but we had exhausted all other options.”
The story facing hockey players of colour is a familiar one: players not trusted in key moments of big games; players looking around the dressing room to see cliques divided along racial lines; players feeling the only position up for grabs is one occupied by another dark-skinned teammate.
Silence imposed on dissenters
Dissidents have been silenced in the past. When Mbande went to Twitter to echo former goalkeeper Vuyisanani Mangisa’s sentiments about transformation, her coach at the time, Sheldon Rostron, sent a stern reprimand.
“Sheldon argued that engaging in politics went against the team’s ethos,” said Mbande. “The suggestion was that if I, or anyone else with a conscience, wanted to be on the team, we’d have to remain silent.”
Conversations went underground. Words such as “transformation” and “quotas” were only whispered on tour and between training sessions. “A lot of people have been scared to talk for fear of losing out on their dreams to play hockey for their country,” Mbande explained.
But one evening during last season’s Premier Hockey League (PHL), the annual franchise tournament for the country’s best players, Mbande and several other black women players decided they were no longer going to stay in the shadows. They felt they had a duty to right the wrongs that had for so long become entrenched within their sport. The PFT was born.
But a radical revolution was never the aim. Change was to come through diplomatic channels. “We were already scared of victimisation,” said Mbande. “We needed to make sure we did things by the book.”
On 19 August, the PFT sent a letter with 40 signatures to Saha’s vice-president, Lwandile Simelane, outlining a list of grievances and demands that needed to be addressed. Included was a call for more people of colour across the board, from selection committees to coaching staff and players involved in national and regional trials.
“We believe that the Saha system has failed us,” the PFT stated. “We demand that we receive a response to these demands on or before Tuesday, 21 August. If we do not receive adequate response … we will not participate and play in the final week of the 2018 PHL.
Spooked by the prospect of mutiny, Saha agreed to a meeting to discuss the skeletons in so many closets. A memorandum of demands, later amended to a memorandum of understanding, was signed by the PFT and Saha on 24 August, and an indaba was scheduled for the end of November. Finally, it seemed, players and administrators were reading from the same page.
But after the explosion came stagnation. Organising representatives from Saha regional affiliates proved challenging within the short time frame. Anxious it would be outmanoeuvred by Saha, the PFT provided the association with an ultimatum: either the indaba took place by 23 November, or the gloves would come off. “We were no longer going to be civil,” Mbande said. “That meant going to social media.”
The bold tactic paid immediate dividends. A joint statement was released. A task team comprising Saha, Sascoc and PFT members – including Mbande – was set up with the purpose of accelerating transformation in hockey. Although the exact date is still to be decided, the indaba will take place, and the demands outlined in that letter from 19 August will finally be addressed.
Saha president Mike du Plessis and his deputy, Simelane, didn’t respond to New Frame’s emails for a comment on the matter. Wendell Domingo, the head of schools hockey, responded by referring the publication to the joint statement. The five points underlined in the statement reflect the initial demands made by the PFT, including the creation of a task team and the acknowledgment that transformation has been slow. The team was scheduled to meet on 30 November to agree on terms of reference.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Mbande. “Of course, we’re delighted with the progress, but at the same time, we’re frustrated that we had to get here by making noise on social media. I’ve already had players and others in the game tell me I should have kept this private.”
Inspired to stand up
Mbande referenced American National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a hero, citing his bravery for taking a knee during the US national anthem to protest against police brutality towards African-American people, even though it cost him his career. No team wants to sign him now.
“I feel that I may have jeopardised my future as an international hockey player,” said Mbande. “But you have to be willing to make sacrifices for what you believe in. We’re doing this for future generations.”
An online petition calling for transformation in South African hockey had, at the time of publication, received more than 2 500 signatures – over their initial target of 2 500. They have now set their sights on reaching 5 000 signatures. More players have joined the chorus, including the 103-cap men’s hockey veteran Lance Louw. “This has been going on for way, way to [sic] long,” he tweeted. “It’s time for us to stand up for what is right, for a better tomorrow!!”
Hockey is a fringe sport in South Africa. The behemoths of rugby and cricket dominate not only the conversation about racial transformation, but also valuable resources as the nation stumbles towards a truly unified society. Some change has come. A black African now captains the Springboks, and the Proteas could realistically field a competitive team without a single white player.
But hockey has been left behind. The latest report from the Department of Sport and Recreation showed that hockey has reached a worrying 17% of its transformation targets. The sport has a long way to go. And given that it is resource intensive – with state-of-the-art sticks and access to maintained astroturfs a prerequisite for success – the going will be slow, as private schools remain the best-paved path to the top.
The PFT and its firebrand approach to social media could prove to be the shot in the arm Saha needed. Change is needed. With both national sides languishing in 15th place in the world rankings, now seems like the perfect opportunity to shake things up.