At Oasis, home of South African Homeless Street Soccer, a group of soccer enthusiasts who began their careers on the street are fast becoming leaders, one game at a time. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.
I. – OASIS
You know you’ve arrived at Oasis Place when you’ve come to the dead end right at the end of the gravel road. You might first mistakenly have taken one or two of the other dirt roads and ended up nose to nose with a couple of the local horses. Before I found it, I first squealed into a sandy bank where the only signage said BOREHOLE. It happens.
Boys playing soccer amongst the paddocks on an autumn day brings a certain tranquillity to mind, but the location isn’t peaceful. An oasis it might be, yes. But the respite is temporary. The nearest main road is a border between two rival gang territories; the local Pick ‘n Pay marks another border. A group of the players I was scheduled to meet can’t make it today. They send their apologies with Sergio, a former player who now works in the Oasis office. Sergio went to call them but came back alone. They can’t venture out of their safe zone today; crossing into rival gang territory will mean they’ll get shot. Either they’ll get shot on the way, or there’ll be a shootout here once they arrive. They’re new to the programme and still involved in gangs at the moment, explains Oasis founder Clifford Martinus, who manages South African Homeless Street Soccer (SAHSS) through Oasis.
Photo: Oasis seen from outside.
“Our UK volunteers are so used to it by now,” he says wryly. Gang violence has resulted in a thousand unwritten territorial laws that leave interventions helpless at least some of the time. The same applies to some government efforts, says Martinus; the Ottery Sports and Recreation Centre, for example, is located slap-bang in the middle of one of the Cape’s worst gang war zones. It can’t be used safely, even though it’s meant to be a neutral space.
Photo: Oasis founder, Clifford Martinus.
Martinus is refreshingly candid. Sport is not a magic bullet, he is careful to point out. “There are always guys that fall back,” he says. “We are on the losing end, I think.”
Getting involved in SAHSS, he says, succeeds long-term in around 40 – 45% of cases. “After the Homeless World Cup, we take them on a camp,” he says. “There is intensive physical development, awareness and life skills, we ask them what they are going to do; there is daily checking in. Even on the flight back, I remind them that we are going back to reality. You have to be strong. Some come out strong, and others decide, ‘No way, I am not strong enough, my coping skills are not yet developed.’ Not all of them are mentally prepared, and there is not always sustained support, because our finances only carry us so far.”
Photo: Oasis does incredible work, but is not exactly flush with cash. This is the pitch where players practise.
That said, the Oasis office boasts a number of new employees through the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), which has helped to boost sustained success.
SAHSS is perhaps best known for the Homeless World Cup, to which it sends 10 players each year, representing the country against some 70 nations. According to the international Homeless World Cup website, 100,000 players take part each year, and the next tournament will be held in Amsterdam in September 2015. “The thing we hear most often from people is ‘We didn’t realise how big it is!’” says Martinus.
A number of criteria are listed for choosing players, but each country adapts these criteria according to its own socioeconomic circumstances. The main criterion, according to Wikipedia, is that the player must have been homeless at some stage during the past two years. In South Africa, Martinus explains, players are often involved in gangs or in drug abuse, and there are particular interventions aimed at identifying at-risk youth.
They work to a set schedule: On Mondays they visit Langa; on Tuesdays they visit Mitchell’s Plain; on Wednesdays they visit Lotus River; on Thursdays they visit Ottery; on Fridays they visit Parkwood, and so on. Here, they identify potential young people for try-outs – people who have become homeless through uncontrolled alcohol or drug abuse, gang activity, or who are simply living on the streets. Many of the communities in which SAHSS works are so poor that food is sold in R1-size packets, because that is all people can afford. New players are coached by previous players, in a practice Martinus calls “passing the candle”.
Photo: The autoshop at Oasis. Oasis has a number of sideline businesses that help to sustain it and the people it supports.
There are a number of smaller tournaments held throughout the year, too, as well as the 20/20 Community Street Soccer programme. The African Championship, due in Namibia in June, will hopefully see players from the SAHSS.
Martinus and his team also visit schools in the build-up to Aids day, given that in one week, they can reach several thousand learners. It’s a different mechanism, he says, and does not replace what they do throughout the year, but it is helpful to know that they are managing to reach larger numbers.
Their preventive programmes throughout the year target Grade 4 – 7 learners, while the 20/20 programme targets potential players aged 16 – 30; in fact, their oldest player was 45 (“He was a good goalie, but at his best as a supporter,” says Martinus). Community outreach programmes can target anyone from 16 or 17 upwards for recruitment.
Funding is a challenge. Government departments sometimes give funding, but for the rest, Martinus relies on “whatever corporates are available”. Cell C funded the Homeless World Cup team for two years, but Oasis and its players are in the market for new funders. It’s not always easy to explain to funders why they should give money to sport above feeding schemes, says Marthinus.
“You will never know how this person’s life has been changed,” he says. “They now have a passport – an identity. They have been able to travel. They have entered an airport for the first time. Their life could change course forever. Your R150,000 is much less than it is eventually worth.”
In fact, says Martinus, he would discourage feeding schemes, as they treat the symptom, not the cause. “Yes, there is a dire need,” he says. “But why do we just feed, feed, feed? We should be teaching life skills, life skills, life skills. Sometimes I am very candid and ask people: so, you’ve been in prison, right? So now – apply what you have learnt to your life, and do it for the right reason. These guys are not 12, 13. They must act responsibly.”
Martinus, who grew up in Lavender Hill and credits his parents for teaching him from a young age to make constructive choices, has been working in various NGOs for 20 years. It is through his football club that Oasis and SAHSS grew, he explains. So why does sport work? I ask him. “You just have to look at my body to see that it does not work,” he quips.
But in all seriousness, in the cases where there is a sustained change – and even in the cases where the change is temporary – sport “takes you away from other options,” he says. “Mentally, physically and spiritually, you are cleaned out. You are tired. It levels the playing field for us to start talking. You are not going to go and drink. What we are doing speaks to what the researchers are writing.”
II – LANDSCAPE
The Cape Flats are arguably some of South Africa’s most dangerous places to grow up. In a country that already has one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, Cape Town is its most violent city. Statistically, it has earned this reputation owing to the high rates of gang violence.
Photo: A general view of shacks in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township February 17, 2010. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly
The Western Cape has some 100,000 gang members competing for market share in drugs, prostitution and robbery, as well as in various turf wars. The suburbs are peaceful enough; head towards gang-dominated areas, however, and you’re looking at roughly one gang-related murder a day. And that’s the actual murders – in a period of a year, nearly a thousand more attempted murders were clocked up in gang attacks in the Western Cape, according to police reports. A number of those killed and injured have been children, caught in the crossfire.
To put it in perspective, between April 2011 and March 2012, police recorded more murders in Cape Town than in Johannesburg and Pretoria combined. But almost two-thirds of the Cape Town murders took place in just 10 of the 60 police station precincts in the city. Mitchell’s Plain, Gugulethu, Khayelitsha and Harare were the most violent places. The Institute of Security Study’s Lizette Lancaster writes, “Countrywide analysis of police precinct statistics suggests that income levels matter. Residents in low-income areas are far more likely to be murdered than their middle and high-income counterparts. Half of South Africa’s murders occur in only 13%… of police precincts.
“A vast majority of the average of 43 murders that take place (in South Africa) daily do not make the news. They happen in areas where crime and violence are part of the daily despair of residents who already feel marginalised and forgotten by media and politicians.”
Earlier this year, community safety MEC Dan Plato pointed out that although the Western Cape only houses about 10 percent of the country’s population, it accounts for about 60% of the country’s drug- and gang-related crimes. And even those who are not in gangs remain affected. The trouble, he pointed out, was that “the local rugby club is run by a notorious gangster but parents wanted their children to participate in sport”. Gangs often operate in common areas, too, which restricts community access.
A similar point was raised by researcher Hugo van der Merwe at a University of Cape Town (UCT) workshop in 2014, where he argued that one could not extricate communities from gangs when, ultimately, their fortunes were linked to a gang-run economy. The reality, he argued, was that communities living in extreme poverty, and given scant protection from violence by the state, had no choice but to adapt to the structures created by gang hierarchies.
Some of the gangs in Elsies River, Manenberg, Parkwood and other areas are decades old – and new gangs are growing in Nyanga and Khayelitsha. In both established gangs and new, youth gangs, children of junior school age have been recruited. Often, children who are bright or promising are recruited first, as their talents are valuable. Daily Maverick previously told the story of a child, Ridwan, who was recruited into the Junior Mafia Syndicate at age seven. Ridwan explained, “You get chosen. They see your talent and if they see you’re good looking, you’re clever, they’ll bring you in. If you’re disadvantaged in life, the Mafias will come to you and help you. They’ll give you everything…”
According to Irvin Kinnes, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Criminality at UCT, in 2011 there was a known gang presence at 31 schools in the Western Cape and 63 gang shootings took place on school premises in 2014.
Manenberg learner Tamia de Louw told Mail & Guardian in 2013, “It is a scary place. We are not safe here. We have to constantly watch out for stray bullets and we can’t even hang out the washing. You just get caught in the crossfire.”
The drug and alcohol scene is no better. The South African Medical Research Council believes Cape Town is one of the country’s biggest drug markets, with the Western Cape clocking over 70,000 drug-related crimes in 2010/11, according to The Economist. Cape Town is the ‘drinking capital’ of South Africa and it is believed alcohol fuels over 70% of our violent crimes. And the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre estimates that one in five of our schoolchildren are on tik. The Medical Research Council has warned that there has been a sharp decline in the age of drug users, with most drug users being financed by theft and prostitution.
This is what Martinus and his team are up against.
III. – LUKES
When I ask Lukhalyo Mjoka (29) where in Cape Town he grew up, he never actually tells me. Later on, it seems that this is because he never really grew roots anywhere; not in his formative years, anyway.
Photo: Lukhalyo Mjoka, known as Lukes.
Lukes is Clifford’s right-hand man; he’s been captain of the World Cup team, he’s been associate coach twice, and he holds a high-energy administrative and leadership position at the Oasis offices. He married just a few weeks ago, Clifford tells me. Lukes beams, a little coyly. He met his wife in Brazil, when they were both volunteering at the Soccer World Cup in 2014 – a lifelong dream for them both. His wife is Brazilian, but is relocating to Cape Town. Her parents loved and supported him from day one.
Before Lukes joined Oasis, he was a notorious drug lord.
Lukes was born in Red Cross Hospital, he says, in Cape Town. His mother was a farm worker but he never really stayed with her. He spent his early years being bounced between relatives: primarily his aunt and his grandmother, who ran a popular shebeen in Khayelitsha. Lukes was surrounded by alcohol abuse from his earliest years; throughout his youth, he tells me, it was perfectly acceptable to get drunk in his granny’s house and alcohol was freely available.
By the time he was seven, his grandmother had realised he was a bright child – “a child who was good with numbers,” he says – but she did not send him to school.
“It was when I was about seven that the whole process began, when I really got annoyed. I saw that my friends are going to school but I am not going. She saw: here is a clever child that is good with numbers. She saw an opportunity.” At the time that other children were getting their first uniforms and lunchboxes, Lukes started his first job in a shebeen.
Not being in school, Lukes had the run of the area when the adults were not drinking. “One day, I was in the train station… ” Lukes trails off. “It was there that everything began. I saw a wallet just lying there. I met these two guys; I said to them, go and see what is in that wallet. They did not think there would be any money, but I said to them just go – go and pick it up.” The wallet did not deliver any joy, but when the older boys came back – they were in their teens – they changed the topic.
“They said ‘Why don’t we go back to Mitchell’s Plain and bomb [to go door to door and ask for bread or money]?’ From that day, I never went back home.”
By the time Lukes intended to head home that day, there were no more trains. “The guys said, ‘Come and sleep with us.’” They took him to town, near the Waterfront. “It was ‘Ooh, hallelujah!’” says Lukes. The bright lights; the activity. “It was a mess, but I sommer enjoyed it. They showed me how to klop and beg at robots. I made a lot of money my first night. I thought, ‘This is kind of cool’. I never spoke about going home. It never came to my mind.’ But one day, on the train to Mitchell’s Plain, one of his grandmother’s customers spotted him, and took him back.
“I was very angry,” he says. “My granny was so happy to see me, but all I could think was how I was going to run away. In the morning I started sweeping, and took the broom outside. The second I was outside, I was gone. That was the last time they saw me for two years.”
But the boys who had originally taken him to the street felt he could not stay there, and took him to a children’s home, where he settled down and began attending school. He took a shower and got new clothes, and loved the life skills classes and the academic education; but there were also “a lot of ups and downs”. He started smoking glue, dagga and cigarettes at the age of eight; not long afterwards he was using mandrax. And, of course, alcohol abuse was ever-present when he went home to visit his family.
“I put the blame [for that] on myself,” he says. “I was always the one hiding the stuff. There was a house father there, but when you have to look after 20 kids, there will be things they don’t know. At the time, you think, ‘Oh, I am getting away with something’ but in the end it’s me that is failing.”
Personal responsibility is a point that Lukes drives home again and again. “I grew up without a mother and a father but I’m not going to make that the scapegoat,” he says. “I never shared that with anyone at the homestead; it was a shame that I had. But now I share it so that people think, ‘If that guy can do it, I can do it.’ It’s not easy, but it’s up to that individual.”
The turning point for Lukes came in 2010 when, he says, he was deeply involved in “wrongful activities”, which had left him in a position that meant he qualified for the Homeless World Cup trials. A friend of his had made it to Italy in 2009, and he was determined to try too.
“I knew I was good and I went with that mindset, being sure I would make it. I went right through to the last 12. In that time, I saw the programmes in Oasis and the life skills they could teach. Then, I was announced as the captain of the team, and that was one of my biggest turning points. It showed me I had the ability to lead. I asked myself, why am I still a drug lord? I saw what I could do when I came back, because of course that is when the work really begins.
“I spoke to Clifford. He does not have automatic access to all our stories because he is not the social worker. He is the manager, not the coach. He knows our histories if we choose to share them.
“During training we were camping here for two weeks and I saw the impact of Oasis. I wanted to be a part of that change and be one of the key players.”
Initially, the change in him was not accepted by his community. “When I went back to my location, people said, ‘This guy is on drugs, but he went overseas.’ I didn’t want to be known as a drug lord. Drugs are an escape route. I made a decision not just to change my life, but to make an impact.”
The change had to be for the long haul, too. “I didn’t want to change for two years. I wanted a drastic change I could look back on in 10 years.”
Today, Lukes is reconciled with his family, and says they understand his decision to go and live in the children’s home. His aunt says that she missed him, but Lukes has explained that he had to carve his own path to get the education he always knew he needed. “My family can see now that my decisions are paying evidence,” he says.
“I knew that I was in the right place. Had I gone back to my family, it would have been a long process for me. I chose the opportunities that I had.”
IV – TOURNAMENT
It’s a long weekend; Worker’s Day. The 20/20 Ten Years of Hope Tournament is on at the Rooikrans Sports Complex in Grassy Park. Teams from Langa, Nyanga, Napier, Parkwood, Northern Cape, Oasis, Steenberg, Worcester and Mitchell’s Plain have come out in full force in their brightly coloured kits, all sponsored by Coaching for Hope, to show what they can do. Oasis, plus bigwigs from Skillshare International and the Sport for Social Change Network are all there. The Pro Footballers Association, fresh from the UK, is also in tow.
Photo: 20/20 Tournament: Worcester vs. Mitchell’s Plain.
The teams are squashed together on the stands, giggling or screaming for fellow players. Children who are too young to play in the tournament kick balls around on the sidelines.
Lukes is on the field, multi-tasking. He’s a ref, but he’s also giving his team a pep talk. It’s a big deal. This isn’t a formal try-out, but it’s important – this is an opportunity for the coaches to see what talent is out there. The good players that get spotted here may be earmarked for further tournaments around Southern Africa, providing crucial experience before the World Cup try-outs.
“We’re hoping for the African Championship in June,” Martinus had told me earlier. “We’ve been invited to Namibia. If it works, it speaks of a fantastic build-up [to the World Cup]. It speaks of a whole thoroughfare, a process of recruitment from the communities.”
Photo: Every five-a-side team has to have at least one female player
One of the rules is that every five-a-side team has to have at least one female player. There has been some interest from girls, Martinus tells me, “but it’s still underdeveloped”. His voice booms over the microphone, “Any ladies want to play for Langa? We’re waiting for a lady to fill in… this has GOT to be the saddest day, waiting for a lady…A round of applause please… We have a lady for Langa… It is not the saddest day after all… ”
The tournament kicks off. Play is fast. We’re right on the frontlines, watching the losing teams get wiped out one by one, in minutes, it seems. But the aggression on the field disappears when the players file off.
Photo: 20/20 Tournament: Mitchell’s Plain vs. Parkwood.
Most of the players are shy. I approach some of the girls. Will they try out for the World Cup? I ask. One after the other they shake their heads. “Oh, I don’t know if I can,” one says.
“There are some really good players out there,” says another. “Really, really good.”
Photo: Tournament: Mitchell’s Plain, a lighter moment.
But one tall, athletic boy, from Worcester, can see stardom coming. He looks at my camera as he walks onto the field. “Take a nice shot of me, ok?” he says, preening his hair a little. I will, I promise. It’s for the newspaper, so I will make it extra nice.
“Don’t lie!” he says. Eyes popping out of his head. “Really?”
He beams as he walks out onto the field. “I’m going to play for my life, now.” DM
Photos by Marelise van der Merwe & Janine Phillips
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