by Veronika Michels
It is 6 o’clock in the evening on the 14th of June in Cape Town. The sun begins to descend over the South Atlantic Ocean and an evening fog spills off the edges of Table Mountain like smoke over a cauldron’s brim. Most of the city’s inhabitants are huddled around a television somewhere anticipating the first whistle which will kick off the 21st FIFA World Cup in Moscow. Excitement is ample as only eight years before, this moment belonged to South Africa. Meanwhile, in the parking lot of a small school soccer turf, the doors of a white suburban SUV fling open and eight young boys scramble out, barely managing to shut the doors as they race to the field with loosely tied cleats. The coach, Sbusiso Cebekhulu–Sibu for short–follows with a mesh bag of soccer balls hanging over his shoulder. This is his team– at least for the week.
Sbusiso has just made the nearly one hour drive from one of the city’s largest townships –Khayelitsha– where twice a week he picks up some of the local kids to coach them in his favorite sport. He has been playing soccer since childhood and hopes to extend this passion to as many young South Africans as he can. “I have just over 200 boys,” he laughs watching the eight boys do their warm ups. “I don’t train them all at the same time. Under 10s and under 13s. Whoever fits in the car.”
24 years after the end of apartheid, Cape Town, as with most South African cities, is still plagued with racialized social and economic inequalities. The greatest visible evidence of remaining injustices lies in the bird’s eye view of the city. In Cape Town, the wealthy and the poor often live only minutes apart. Townships were originally formed as means of systematic racial segregation. Around Johannesburg, early townships first “housed” men from the villages looking for work in the mines, and in Cape Town they served as controlled living spaces for a cheap and controlled labor supply to white settlers in the city. Tribe separations defined in the colonial era, factored in with tensions of poverty and lack of community development, have set the circumstances for continued problems associated with life in townships today.
Sibu’s concern lies in the future of the children growing up bearing the burdens of this colonial legacy. “People move from the villages to the townships to move closer to the city, but in townships there is crowding, people living in squatter settlements. The conditions are unhealthy. There is no space. They cannot perform cultural rituals that define Africans. The kids fall apart. No dancing or singing that used to be entertainment for our grandparents. Their parents are not hands on. They can’t be. They have to go to work, even the commute takes so much time. There is a lack of quality time.”
According to Sbusiso, parental guidance and general mentorship is largely lacking in these circumstances. He explains, “90% of parents in the townships work in the city which is 30 km from the townships. Bad traffic congestion and public transport makes the workday longer. If work starts at 8 a.m., you have to leave the house at 5:30 a.m. You arrive, you work until 5 p.m. Those are normal hours. From 5 o’clock there is lots of traffic. You have to get into queues for the bus. You arrive home at 7:30 p.m. Your child goes to school and they go and come back without your presence. Who monitors that child? What about homework, what about safety? My point I want to raise is that parents in townships are irresponsible. But it is not their choice. The system forces them into it. They have to commit to work and sacrifice parental guidance. The kids basically raise themselves. They smoke, they start practicing how to rob people. Young girls get raped and become pregnant.”
It is well established that children growing up in poverty are at much higher risk for mental health issues. In Cape Town, this is largely a racialized problem. A recent study determined that “black children appeared the most disadvantaged across almost all poverty indicators,” including measures of access to basic amenities, educational advancement, and parental presence and employment status. Importantly, the hope for improvement on existing inequalities is threatened by mechanisms harmful to adolescent development such as exposure to violence, food insecurity, and substance abuse, as well as lack of employment opportunities.
Sibusiso, with three children of his own, hopes to work against this problem through sport. “I used to dream of being a professional soccer player. That didn’t happen, but I’ve learned that sport can teach you a lot about life and discipline. Working with your team builds you morally and teaches you responsibility. So, I came up with this academy. I was inspired by the fact that there were people before me, that took me from the streets in the townships. They trained me and helped me find my talent and skill for soccer. They never got anything for it. Now, I am trying to build an academy to make a difference in underserved communities, by educating the boys and introducing them to sport the right way. My other biggest worry is that if we don’t look after these boys, the 10-year-olds, the 13-year-olds, they might turn to gangsterism. They might be the ones robbing you in five years. They are vulnerable, they are all over the streets. But, within them you can see soccer as something they love, something that unites them. Importantly, I can teach them important values through sport, it’s possible.
The history of South Africa is inextricably tied to many problems the country faces today. As legacies of creeping imperialism morph into modern unprecedented levels of globalization, unique challenges of both eras harrow societies around the world. However, the immense direct value of local action and impact must not be forgotten. Sbusiso reflects on his positionality in this project: “Apartheid and racism took place for more that 100 years. We are only 24 years into democracy. We can’t just compare the two eras and say democracy is not right. We need to give ourselves a chance. There is change within 24 years that we can be proud of. I saw a problem. That’s why I have a soccer academy. I’m doing something about it so that in 10 or 15 years time my academy will be helping thousands of boys. I hope this can be an example for others.”
In the foreground of the iconic profile of the mountain referred to as “Lion’s Head,” Sibu blows the whistle to mark the end of the scrimmage. The boys, sweat-drenched and panting, still have enough energy to debate their favorite teams in the 2018 World Cup. Underlying the dedication to this group lies a philosophy to which only contextualized translation can seek to do justice. Sibu reveals “There is a quote from Desmond Tutu, a political leader that helped South Africa go through the democratic era. He says: ‘Ubuntu, Ubuntu, nabatu.’ A person is a person through other people. Working together as a society, we can achieve something. That is the spirit you find in the townships. Ubuntu is humanity. I don’t expect any money from this soccer project; I am just trying to give back and help expand this project… get materials for the boys. It’s all part of this philosophy. We must love one another for us to understand one another.” Even the simplest acts, like planning soccer drills and seeking out a practice space for the group, are the kinds of impactful local actions that feed the greater movement towards establishing equality in South Africa. After all, the playing field cannot be leveled if there is no field to play on.