Skate park sparks love of skateboarding in Makhanda

Skate Ubuntu, a non-profit set up by former students, wants to bridge Makhanda’s social divide through skateboarding and building a skate park in the Hlalani shack settlement is just the beginning.

In a shack settlement in Makhanda, something extraordinary is unfolding as Hlalani skateboarders look forward to having a skate park in their area. Skate Ubuntu, a non-profit organisation headed by former students of the university currently known as Rhodes, has teamed up with local community centre Joza Youth Hub to build the park in their pursuit for community development.

Founded in 2017 by skate enthusiasts Shaun Hanson and Sean Devonort, Skate Ubuntu raised R15 000 in two months through a crowdfunding initiative, although this was far from the target amount needed to build the park. It took the generosity of two anonymous donors to fulfil their fundraising goals.

Hlalani, a shack settlement of zinc, gravel roads and donkey carts, casts the huge inequality in the Eastern Cape town into sharp relief. But the appearance of concrete mixers and contractors left many residents panicked and wanting to know what the team of young Skate Ubuntu members were up to.

18 July 2020: Skate Ubuntu members, volunteers and activists construct the Hlalani skate park. (Photograph by Sibongile Jonas)

One of the residents, Buntu Plaatjie, 36, said: “I live in the upper section of Hlalani and the park is being built in the lower side. The park is a good idea but I thought maybe it might not be relevant to kids in Hlalani as their parents do not have the privilege of affording mere school textbooks let alone skate gears. Kids in the area might not have resonances to skating but only time will tell.”

Another resident, Nosibulelo Platyi, 34, shared her views. “The good thing about this project is that it will keep kids preoccupied with something positive instead of walking around in an underdeveloped township. My only concern is that it could’ve been built in a more central place because the Hlalani location is congested. It is underdeveloped, roads are not built and the community hall is not being used at all. People that don’t live here might not find the park easily.”

She added, “Maybe they could’ve also built a mini library there so that during the week kids can be at the library then over the weekend compete in skating. I will however definitely take my kids there though because when I look at it from afar it looks very attractive.”

Simamkhele Saki, 19, recalls his journey in skating as very difficult. Coming from a disadvantaged background, affording skate gears felt like a dream to him and his friends. “I started skateboarding two years ago … and I was the only skater eKasi. I felt like I was an outcast because I was the only one at that time skateboarding. A year later I kind of influenced both of my close friends, Siwa Hoyi and Onke Gulubhele. 

“Before being part of Skate Ubuntu our skateboarding journey wasn’t easy. We had no place to skate so we would skate on the streets, but we were criticised a lot in our community because people said what we are doing is a white man’s sport. We would crash into cars and be chased by police but for us quitting skateboarding wasn’t an option.”

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Saki said the park was a blessing for him. “There is not a single day that passes by without me visiting the park, unless it rains or something important comes up. Having a skate park in a township is a big blessing to us because Makhanda doesn’t have any kind of parks for kids to entertain themselves. Being part of Skate Ubuntu is also a blessing and a privilege. Our journey with Skate Ubuntu has really been amazing, I won’t lie.”

As a young up-and-coming skater, Saki says skating is not a priority for the department of sport, particularly in townships. 

“We are passionate about skateboarding, hoping one day we will become professional skateboarders. But in reality at times it’s hard for me to imagine myself being crowned South Africa’s professional skateboarder. I used to ride an old scrap skateboard before Skate Ubuntu donated us with skateboards. My first experience of skating at a skate park was because of Skate Ubuntu who played a huge role in the Makhandian community as a whole. For that I’m grateful,” said Saki.

18 July 2020: Stuart Walker lays concrete for one of the ramps. (Photograph by Sibongile Jonas)

Avukonkhe Gulubhele, 19, from Nombulelo high school is one of the 20 skaters participating in the Skate Ubuntu programme. “I have been skating for two years now. When we started, we saw the manner in which people were amazed by us taking up skating. This made us so happy because where we live, in Phumlani location, skating is a rare sport to find. I want to take skating to the next level and be a professional skater.

“Currently, myself and other skaters have started teaching young kids in Phumlani to skate, too. People are really enthusiastic about skating now,” said Gulubhele.

Skate Ubuntu organiser Liam Hardwood and the organisation signed an initial five-year agreement with the Makana municipality to build the skate park on municipal land. Initially, the members planned to hire contractors, but later realised they couldn’t afford this. So student volunteers, activists, skaters and residents chipped in to help build the park.

Skate park builder Stuart Walker designed the park for free. But the town’s municipality being under administration and water restrictions have slowed the building process. “The municipality has not been helpful with anything. They just supplied us with water, due to the restrictions. Other than that, they don’t help at all,” said Hardwood.

Undated: A mock-up of the Hlalani skate park.

Expanding the park’s vision

The Makana municipality’s Integrated Development Plan focuses only on cricket, soccer and rugby facilities, so the skate park is a welcome addition. It is also a starting point for other projects. San healer Criaige Beckett is helping Skate Ubuntu design herb and food gardens around the park. The plan is to first engage local stakeholders to be part of the food projects though, said Beckett.

Hlalani is an impoverished area with multiple struggles, including chronic food shortages. “We are looking for people to work with in the food sovereignty projects. We had a meeting with stakeholders, but they are yet to get back to us,” said Beckett.

An activist in his own right, Beckett founded a non-profit organisation called Indigenous Youth Exchange Africa (IYXA), which helped him connect with other youth-led organisations like Skate Ubuntu. The IYXA targets school dropouts displaced by socioeconomic challenges in the Eastern Cape. The organisation offers a week-long workshop that teaches participants about alternative food security, medicine and livelihoods.

18 July 2020: Young Hlalani residents help Skate Ubuntu members build the park. (Photograph by Sibongile Jonas)

“There is a San leader that owns a farm in Graaff-Reinet and he has been generous enough to provide us with a piece of land where we live in pyramid tents. Our teachings are very indigenous, from traditional San music to hunting methods, sourcing and identifying alternative medicine. We want to also preserve the Kxoe language, which are San and Koi languages.

“I currently have a bag of organic seeds that I want to distribute around Makhanda. In the meantime, I urge our black people to preserve our cultures and not let capitalism make us forget our ability to make things ourselves.

“I currently have partnered with two other guys and have designed a stick-burning stove. We want to reduce climate effects by promoting reforestation. We can no longer lose our trees and the toxicity of coal in the atmosphere is too much. I want to pass this knowledge to the next generation. I don’t fundraise for these projects, I work with what I have and what others can offer,” he said.

Kids should skate, too

Skate Ubuntu wants to turn the tennis court in Hlalani, which is in a dire state, into a soccer field as they recognise that some young residents are more interested in playing soccer than in skateboarding.

But skateboarding remains their passion and the organisation has teamed with schools in the area, such as CM Vellem Primary School and Nombulelo Secondary School, to teach schoolchildren to skate. More than 20 are enrolled in the programme, which has been running for the past year. Skate Ubuntu works with teachers to identify poorly performing scholars to join the programme, turning the project into an academic motivator. They also have a gender equality rule, meaning 50% of the skate programme’s participants are girls.

“Skating has been a blessing for me and the kids. It helped them develop confidence, which boosts their self-esteem. Most of the kids that I choose to participate are kids who are struggling academically. Once they get the hang of the sport, I notice a positive improvement in their academic work as well. I made them write about their feelings with regards to skateboarding,” said CM Vellem teacher Nomphumelelo Frans.

“The responses gave me an insight to their aspirations and dreams. Some of them had been looking for a sport that they can take part in, professionally. The kids’ behaviour has also changed for the better. They learned teamwork and helping each other instead of laughing at each other when one falls, as it was when they started.

“The commitment they showed, as they were there [skating] every afternoon, they never complained of being hungry and needing to go home early. They enjoyed each and every session, and were always looking forward to the next. Parents were also very supportive, which I think was a bonus,” said Frans.

Skate Ubuntu is concerned that giving the kids skate equipment might make them targets for criminal behaviour and put their lives at risk, so it is being kept in a safe place for now instead. “We are currently running a campaign to help us with more funds towards purchasing skates and helmets. We hope that we can reach our goal soon,” said Hardwood.

Undated: Skate Ubuntu’s Liam Hardwood teaches schoolchildren in Makhanda to skate under the organisation’s programme to turn skateboarding into an academic motivator. (Photograph supplied by Skate Ubuntu)

Passing on the passion

Skate Ubuntu had planned to finish the park in July and hold a small launch adhering to Covid-19 lockdown regulations that limit gatherings to 50 people, including the 20 schoolchildren from its skating programme, Skate Ubuntu members and partners, and a few community leaders from Hlalani. But the water restrictions in Makhanda delayed construction and the organisation now hopes to launch the skate park sometime in September.

“We would’ve loved a genuine launch with more numbers. But post-Covid we are planning skating events and a possible collaboration with local artists,” said Hardwood.

The coronavirus put an additional damper on the town when the National Arts Festival was forced to go virtual, depriving residents such as those from Hlalani of earning an income from the festival. Children were also deprived of their usual enjoyment of the festivities. So the skate park project has provided a welcome and positive diversion, and the young Skate Ubuntu members are planning to turn heads when skating meets the township.

A lack of gear is the most pressing challenge Skate Ubuntu now faces. It has started fundraising again to purchase skateboards for Gulubhele and the other skaters.

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