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This is where ‘fire and magic’ are born – the Joburg inner-city haven of hope united by basketball

This is where ‘fire and magic’ are born – the Joburg inner-city haven of hope united by basketball
The buzz on the basketball court at Ernest Oppenheimer Park in Johannesburg on 11 May 2023. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

Tucked away in Joburg’s busy city centre is a small half-court that attracts dozens of basketball players every day. Everyone loves it here, but the facility, like so many in Joburg, is threatened by neglect.

When Taona Mawere first found the basketball court at Ernest Oppenheimer Park in Johannesburg’s CBD 11 years ago, the competition, energy and the way everyone treated each other like family immediately pulled him in.

“I was like wow, wow, wow, this is amazing,” Mawere says.

The court is in a small square of greenery tucked inside the busy city centre. Cars scream by on the roads, passersby walk past passionate vendors, and all sorts of colourful characters blaze their trails up and down the streets, chasing their next hustle.

Inside the park, the trees are beginning to slouch, clearly in need of some pruning, and the collection of miniature Springbok statues have lost their lustre.

Faded bronze signs point out attractions but they are no longer legible. Streetlights line the short walkways, but they no longer light up.

The sense of community is a big drawcard at Ernest Oppenheimer Park. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

The basketball court draws hundreds of people from all walks of life across the city to mix, mingle and pick up a game.

But, as the court’s surface starts to deteriorate, the park’s lights go off and people bleed in to gamble and do drugs, players have begun to take matters into their own hands to protect their special place of fire and magic.

In need of repair

Mawere says the court has been falling apart since he first arrived in 2010. “When you look at it, you’re like, oh, this is the park I used to love.”

He stopped going to the park altogether in 2020 and 2021 because he couldn’t believe what had happened.

Mawere says he has put in a lot of work at the park for free, including welding the gate and digging trenches for the water to flow.

Basketball courts need to be resurfaced every few years, says Boundless City founder and frequent player Alex Cunningham. Boundless City is a people-based urban development group in the inner city.

It’s become more than just basketball. It’s a brother- and sisterhood. It’s a community we know.

A grant from the Presidency’s Social Employment Fund (as part of a network of organisations managed by the Johannesburg Inner City Partnership) in November is helping Boundless City to turn things around. With the grant, local community policing forum patrols are compensated to keep the park safe and clean, and it also pays for a basketball team, after-school programme and coaches for kids.

Additional funding from the Retail Improvement District and Hennessy has allowed Boundless City to facilitate the much-needed repairs to the park and the court. It recently began resurfacing the court and upgrading the front gate.

However, more consistent support is still needed. The funding runs out in June if Boundless City is not granted an extension, so the future of the park remains in limbo.

Honing basketball skills at Joburg’s Ernest Oppenheimer Park. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

The park is owned by Johannesburg City Parks and Zoos, but Cunningham says the department does not have the capacity to keep it safe and clean recently.

The case for the court

Most of the players live and breathe the court. “I always say to people basketball is my daily bread,” says Skylah Pakae. “So, if I don’t play basketball then I get grumpy.”

Pakae, called the “queen of the court” by her teammates, is an actress and model who studies digital marketing. She’s at the court bright and early from 7am to 9am before going home and studying.

But you can find her back at Ernest Oppenheimer at around three in the afternoon, playing until nightfall.

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Every time she’s on the court, she’s working to improve her skills. And, most importantly, she’s there to see her team, which she affectionately calls her home away from home.  

Moss (46), who uses only his first name for privacy reasons, says he’ll come to the court whenever he’s having a bad day, to take a break from life and catch up with people in a community that takes care of each other.

“It’s become more than just basketball,” says Moss. “It’s a brother- and sisterhood. It’s a community we know. And we do our best every day to look after this space here.”

Basketball is like breakfast, lunch, supper… everything for me, man. It’s gonna take me out the ’hood.

Though there are other basketball courts in the city, Moss says people come from all over, even from the south of Johannesburg, to play at this court because of its family feel.

“It’s the magic and the fire here that’s incredible,” says Moss.

A hub of opportunities

For many, the court is a place where possibilities are born. Mawere says the rules and demanding schedule of basketball taught him discipline, kept him off drugs and got him his first job. He was hired at Boundless City after meeting Cunningham at the court.

Pakae says being at the court helped her find her love of sport commentating, and she’s been able to pick up commentating roles for the South African Masters Basketball Association and the Johannesburg Basketball League.

Everything she does in fashion and acting also comes back to basketball, she says.

It’s all about community and healthy competition. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

Isaac Adams (20) is one of the court’s young hopefuls. He’s been playing at the court for three years and loves it because of the good competition.

“Basketball is like breakfast, lunch, supper… everything for me, man,”  says Adams.  “It’s gonna take me out the ’hood.”

Adams hopes to go pro. And his teammates all hope to see him be one of the first from the court to make it big. They’re waiting for the day they get to cheer him on as he graces their television screens.

“I just want to put my name out there,” Adams says. “If it’s possible, I want to be number one in Africa.”

A court for their children

Moss started playing basketball when he was nine. He hopes the court at Ernest Oppenheimer will still be there for generations of children to continue to find discipline, joy and community in the park.

Cunningham’s vision for the park is to make it a safe and secure public space that is accessible to everyone, to let it create job opportunities for the community, and to be a space where young people come after school to learn to play basketball.

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To keep the park going, Pakae says, she would like to see tournaments return to the court.

She also wants security officers to keep away people who are drinking and smoking in the park, and for the lights to be fixed so they can play safely after the sun goes down.

Pakae also has an idea to put outdoor gym equipment in the park for kids who don’t want to play basketball, but want a space to exercise in a different way.

After high school lets out, she says, there are many pupils who smoke and gamble outside the park. Having a facility may present them with another option.

Mawere says he would love to see more people coming to play and for the court to be maintained. “I would love to see this basketball court 30 years from now in the same condition and people still playing basketball.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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