South African hockey’s race woes continue

The bravery of the players’ union has given others who have felt marginalised by the colour of their skin the courage to join the fight for equality in hockey.

The last time South African women’s hockey goalkeeper Phumelela Mbande spoke to New Frame, in November, her voice carried a revolutionary tone. Confident, unwavering and determined, she was audibly emboldened by her leading role in the formation of the Players for Transformation (PFT), a union of hockey players dissatisfied with the slow pace of racial transformation in their sport.

Fed up with empty promises and rhetoric, the PFT took to social media and, in a slew of damning posts on Twitter, called out the South African Hockey Association (Saha), saying it had failed in its duty as custodian of the game.

The union demanded change and called for the launch of an inquest that would finally address the concerns of black athletes struggling for recognition and opportunity.

With their feathers publicly ruffled, Saha had no choice but to agree to an indaba chaired by representatives from the Department of Sport and Recreation and the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) on 16 and 17 January this year.

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More than 60 people with a vested interest in the development of hockey attended, including PFT members, delegates from different provinces, members of Saha’s executive and coaches and managers at the coalface of transformation from various townships and rural areas around the country.

Everyone in attendance was in agreement, outwardly at least, that the racial make-up of South African hockey teams, coaches and executive boards does not reflect the country’s demographics. There was no shortage of back-slapping, glad-handing and nodding heads. The PFT had shone a light on the ills that have plagued the sport for too long. Change, it seemed, was at hand.

‘A lot of hot air’

But now, instead of the firebrand delivery of the past, Mbande’s voice sounds dejected and tired. What should be a victorious pitch resonates as one that is coming to terms with the reality that the fight is only just beginning.

“The indaba felt like a lot of hot air with a lot of big words, but really I am not hopeful that things will change in the way I want them to,” Mbande said. “When we first reached out to the Department of Sport and Recreation and Sascoc, we were under the impression that we would be able to stand up and voice our concerns from a position of strength. We had to fall in line and it felt as if we were just there to pay lip service. I see now that we still have a long way to go.”

Mbande was sceptical from the start of the indaba. She said events leading up to the meeting had cultivated a mistrust of Saha and those with real power in South African hockey. There had been too many agreements in the past that had been allowed to stagnate before being forgotten, so why should this indaba result in any tangible change?

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PFT sent a list of grievances and demands to Saha, with the signatures of 40 PFT members, on 19 August 2018, three months before the tweet that sparked the debate. Five days later, the two parties signed an initial agreement to confront the elephant in the room. The resulting inertia meant PFT had no choice but to take their cause to social media.

“I’ve seen what happened before and so I won’t hold my breath that change will come,” Mbande said. “But I want to believe that with government involved, now we can at least move in the right direction. I want to be proved wrong. I want to see future tournaments with better representation and for more black players trusted in pressure moments on the pitch. I look forward to people saying to me, ‘You see, this was possible.’ But I have my doubts.”

Backlash against Mbande’s comments

Part of Mbande’s pessimism is rooted in the way she has been treated since that infamous tweet. She confessed that some teammates and coaches now cast awkward looks her way during training and she has heard of nasty gossip behind her back.

One evening, around 11pm, Mbande received an angry, expletive-ridden phone call from her former coach and mentor Sheldon Rostron, after he took issue with the way he was portrayed in the article New Frame ran last year.

“He threatened me with legal action and called me a liar,” Mbande said, saying that this particular conversation encapsulated a broader feeling of resentment towards her. “He asked if I was proud of what I’d done and said I was deliberately ruining people’s reputations and careers. When he hung up the phone, I cried my eyes out. It was then that I realised the magnitude of the situation and what we had started.”

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Rostron does not deny these allegations. He said that he felt he was being unfairly targeted and was angry with Mbande. He wanted to ensure his side of the story was being portrayed accurately and so he felt the need to push Mbande on the claims she was making.

Rostron stressed his support for transformation and the PFT in an email. He outlined in great detail how he has fought for transformation in the past – including claims of clashes with Saha on the issue – and shares Mbande’s criticisms of the governing body.

“I’m an African at heart and I sleep soundly at night knowing I have done my [best] to contribute to change,” he said. “I have invested everything I possibly could, often at [personal] cost. I sincerely hope that Saha transforms and implements measurable changes allowing PFT to achieve a common goal; [one] we have all been longing for.”

A big job at hand for new Saha president

New Saha president Deon Morgan – who was elected at the body’s annual general meeting on 10 February over vice-president Lwandile Simelane, after all the other candidates dropped out of the running – has a tough job ahead of him. He chooses to remain balanced with regards to the demands and tactics of the PFT; he neither praises nor condemns them. He does, however, acknowledge that they have ignited a flame that can’t be ignored.

“I don’t think that government would have intervened in the manner they have were it not for the PFT,” Morgan told New Frame. “There is a spotlight on hockey now and people are watching. The transformation question has become synonymous with rugby and cricket, but we need to own it now and sort out whatever shortcomings we may have. We have to do right by South Africans.”

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For what it’s worth, Morgan was Mbande’s preferred candidate for the position, though she did not get to vote. “He’s the lesser of all evils,” she said. “I know a few members of the PFT didn’t think that any of those nominated should have been elected.”

Indeed, at the indaba, PFT members called for sweeping changes in provincial and national committees. “Root and stem” is how Mbande described it. “Otherwise we’re just window dressing.”

It is her view that simply shuffling positions at the executive of Saha would be akin to cutting off the head of a hydra. The PFT called for wholesale re-elections in all nine provinces and on all boards and councils within South African hockey.

A mighty struggle

It is doubtful PFT will get what they want. Turkeys are not inclined to vote for Christmas.

“There are so many people just waiting for me to fail,” Mbande says, her voice now finding its former vigour. “But I won’t give them the satisfaction. I’m training harder than I ever have. I’m going to be twice the player I was. No one will be able to accuse me of asking for handouts or making noise just for attention.”

The online petition has garnered almost 3 000 signatures. More players are speaking up and joining the cause. The bravery of the PFT has given courage to others who have felt marginalised by the colour of their skin, afraid to speak up lest they lose their hard-earned position or love of their teammates. Mbande does not want to be a martyr but acknowledges that she has irrevocably changed the course of her athletic career. Make no mistake, this has been a mighty struggle.

“For a while I felt guilty and went to a dark space emotionally,” Mbande said. “Then I thought, screw it. If people are hurt by us asking for equality and inclusion, then the problem is with them. This is a cause worth fighting for and we will not stop. We will leave it with government and wait to see if change takes place. If not, they can expect to hear from us.”

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