South Africa

A Reflection

A journey into South Africa’s sporting hinterland – in search of the magic

Boys play soccer on a field at the Atteridgeville near Pretoria. (Photo: EPA / Marcus Brandt)

Can Rugby World Cup glory translate into wider world domination in sport? Perhaps, but…

O Minister! My Minister
Our Fearful Tourney is done
The Boks have weathered every tackle,
The Prize we sought is won,
The holidays are near,
The Bells I hear,
The people are exulting.

I suspect this is what American poet Walt Whitman would have put to paper had he been around in 2019 to witness the Springboks’ triumph.

Nathi Mthethwa, Minister of Sports, Arts, Culture (all the fun things), can afford to go on holiday, proper, next month. He looks like a guy who enjoys relaxation and some pampering; perhaps a couple of hours to have his nails done. I have never seen someone so serious about the serious stuff, yet so invested in the not-so-serious stuff too.

Before the woke among us lynch me, let me hasten to say there is absolutely nothing wrong with metrosexual politicians. All new aspirant politicians are a bit image-obsessed.

Mthethwa reminds me of Percy Montgomery, one of the Springbok heroes who brought the World Cup home in 2007. That man’s left foot was honed in the branch of mathematics known as geometry. It got balls to pierce the uprights from the most difficult angles.

Oh Percy, My Percy!

Montgomery did all that and ensured not a strand of his hair was out of place. Opposition goalkicker, Jonny Wilkinson of the England side that wilted against the Boks in the final, stopped and started – with a stop, start, swing your-arms-just-a-bit pre-kick ritual that tested the patience of everyone. Percy simply flicked a loose strand from his forehead to make sure he had a clear view of the posts; or maybe for the cameras to get his best side as he nailed another three-pointer.

So, Mr Mthethwa can spend a bit longer at the spa now. His job is done. It does not matter by whom, it is done. We are the champs.

Politicians by nature are image-and-influence-conscious. They must be at the centre of celebrations, now and beyond. For example, Mthethwa’s department is at the centre of December 16 public holiday celebrations – the Day of Reconciliation.

Typically, on such days, someone puts on a suit and a brooch and gives a speech. But not before a praise poet nobody has heard of, or understands, screams into the microphone. Eight hours later, the day’s official celebrations are done and the rulers are blue-light-driven to the closest airport, and then on to champagne.

December 16 is when the party gets going. Hard-working plebs start their holidays, capping a long and difficult year. The last thing they want to see is a man flipping through a chunk of prepared text. They want to be joyous and break with the monotonous drone of officialdom. And our ministers can afford to go light this time around as people glory in a vulnerable wild animal that has woven itself into the social fibre and created a sense of greatness – even if only for a while.

The Springboks have done it, showing the way for other sporting codes. The coach of Bafana Bafana (what’s his name again?) wants to win the Fifa Soccer World Cup.

Is he for real? Bafana loses against Botswana, a country that ordinarily shouldn’t be allowed to play international sport. I mean, it’s the size of the coastal city bearing Nelson Mandela’s name; the one with the unlikely mayor – a guy who was probably destined for Cape Town’s Valkenberg Hospital but got stuck in PE when he took too long during a City-to-City bus whistle-stop.

Our national football coach thinks South Africa has what France has in terms of a talent pool. Dreams are fine. What isn’t is mindless pontification.

There is a reason Bafana cannot produce equivalents to the Kolisis, Mapimpis, Kolbes and De Klerks. Race politics aside. Global sporting prowess is a product of proper childhood development structures, in structured environments.

Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian-Congolese soccer player, explains through his brilliance how growing up in Europe primed him for greatness. There, a park is within reach of every kid; there is a ball; there is a bus to take you to the games. Nutrition is no problem, generally. Born of parents who migrated from Africa, Lukaku is as black as Xolani, or Thabo. Yet, had he grown up in Tembisa, for example, what are the chances he would have reached Europe as a soccer player?

Soccer in South Africa travels a different path to rugby and cricket. Schools are the incubators for rugby and cricket franchises, but in soccer, talent comes from, well, not even I know.

Simphiwe Tshabalala played on a dirt road for a big part of his life and he managed to make it.

For Kaizer Chiefs to identify a star, say a Pule Ekstein, someone must scout in near-impossible conditions on the mines, where mineworkers kill time playing soccer on hard, dusty pitches with facemasks as mandatory as shin guards and where sliding tackles and tumbles lead to pigmentation-altering grazes.

If Chiefs do not send scouts to these “fields” to pick up unpolished diamonds, it is up to “Bro Mang Mang” – or the “Common Uncle” – from Tembisa, who knows another “Bro Mang Mang, who lives next to Edward Motale or another retired soccer great, who may be able to ring up a contact at Orlando Pirates. Sometimes this works.

Or a smart agent might sign up a half-decent player and get him a contract at Wits University. Eventually, a Percy Tau is born and makes it to Sundowns and is then on his way to greatness in Belgium, en route to the English Premier League.

Despite their weaknesses, rugby and cricket development are more structured than soccer in terms of creating career paths to national teams. That is done through good former model C schools and private schools. If a kid is talented, getting into Paarl Gym or Paul Roos Gym in the Cape solves half the problem. These two schools are Springbok factories, alongside the likes of Grey High School, which Siya Kolisi attended via a rugby scholarship.

As for cricket, if a kid has a heart of steel, even if not hugely talented, he has half a path cleared if he can attend King Edward VII School in Johannesburg. This is the alma mater of Graeme Smith, not the most talented man to play international cricket, who was dogged and brave and described as “unorthodox” by commentators. No scout would have spent more than a second on Smith had he played cricket at Qamdobowa High School or a no-name institution like those attended by the likes of Makazole Mapimpi.

Some talented kids, like Protea batsman Temba Bavuma, perfected their skills once they reached good schools like St David’s Marist. There are many Tembas, even in his own family, who are gifted with great cricketing genes but end up telling tales of playing cricket on the streets. Not in the back garden, where a Jacques Kallis has his father giving him throw-downs. No, in streets where discarded empty paint containers are wickets and anything resembling a bat is good enough. That’s enough kit for a day-night game, with passing cars forcing “drinks breaks”.

These kids’ chances perish because there are no schools good enough to offer competitive sport, with scouts dropping by, or where competition is structured enough for raw talent to be honed.

Then there’s Makazole Mapimpi himself. The Cobra. The man who gives champagne its fizz. The man who gives popcorn its burst.

That last expression doesn’t work in English, does it? The Brits can keep their language, and their silver medals. This moment is ours. For now, we will stick to isiXhosa TV commentator Kaunda Ntanju’s tongue to draw a picture of the gem that is the Mapimpi moment: “liqhashu, yi bubbly, Shampompo, Shampizi, Oooooo into ezihlahlwahlazayo”.

I drive past Makazole’s old stomping ground pretty often in my grassroots soccer coaching work. It is Zweliyandile High School in Tsholomnqa on the R72 between East London and Port Alfred. Its name means a nation that has grown. Cheap paint often peels of its roof, if you can see past the overgrown grass on its sports fields, which dulls the entire facility.

Hardship is as present as air.

Children destined to live their lives as farm labourers 50km away from the city of East London eke out a half-decent chance at education. They have no choice. This is their school. This is their life.

The less said about the state of difficulty in that part of the world, the better. I know, because only a river separates my cluster of villages from his.

Right now, everyone on both sides of the Tsholomnqa River is marvelling at the work of their savagely brilliant cobra. Simply Tsholomnqa’s finest, Tsholomnqa’s best, Tsholomnqa’s most famous son.

The shy, lanky man achieved greatness not “despite” the hardship back home, he excelled “because” of it! Rugby prowess is not unknown in that part of the world. It produced the less-famous Ian Fihlani before, and the rugby baton was passed to Mapimpi.

Soccer has no lesson to learn from rugby’s success as long as the Bafana coach thinks wishes are as good as horses. The problem is: soccer cannot harness the energy emitted by rugby’s moment in the sun.

You need a broad infrastructure or network where a determined player from the likes of Mapimpi’s village can truly succeed not “despite” but “because”.

Mapimpi is no island. He needed Lukhanyo Am to flip the pass nonchalantly back at him in as profound a demonstration of confidence and class as any Springbok has ever exhibited in a World Cup final. He needed a De Klerk to not “faff” around behind the pack and kick the ball into opposition territory as part of the execution of ruthless tactics. He needed a Rassie Erasmus to show those South Africa-haters Down under their Eddie Jones is great but our coach knows how to get a British prince to bow to a man in a speedo and eat humble pie from the Web Ellis trophy.

Soccer does not have that army of talent or a broad-enough sporting infrastructure to manage all this right now.

Percy Tau is alone. He is the only soccer player destined for greatness at this stage. Once it was Benni McCarthy; once Lucas Radebe. These are the only players post-1994 worth anyone’s time, really. Maybe Steven Pienaar, too, when he wasn’t spending too much time on his nails or twisting his braids.

The point is: we need critical mass to be decent. Otherwise, we will always talk about how great Doctor Khumalo was on a soccer ball, or when he chewed gum, or how beautiful his ponytail was. We will go on about how unique a thing we have in the “Kasi Flavour” and other football trickery we love so much, how opponents look like idiots when being dribbled by a ball wizard. Often aimlessly, endlessly.

Instead of delivering another speech, Mthethwa needs to talk to his cabinet colleagues about a holistic development plan. Not the National Development Plan, not anything fancy, but a plan to get the basics right.

This plan must include provision for a child to simply have a safe park on which to chase a ball.

The ingredients are already there to give champagne its fizz. Every second kid has deep reservoirs of the stuff that drives Kolisi and Mapimpi.

But, without schools and structured sporting systems, we might create more rugby successes but never reach our full potential. And cricket might eventually get lucky – but only if it talks to soccer about The Beautiful Game’s X-Factor: a reliance on muti, or maybe the recreational stimulants that make its coach believe his players are as good as France’s Kyllian Mbappe. DM


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