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Thursday, July 09 2020 @ 10:51 am ACST

Aussies on the Road


AFL South Africa's program to send visiting Australian tourists into the townships to teach Australian Football was a great chance to personally experience the country in a way rarely available but with at times surprising similarities to home.

Squinting tightly to see in the fading light of dusk, I reached for the heavens hoping to grab the ball hurtling silently toward me. Seconds beforehand, I had heard one of the dozen boys standing on the dusty field punt the Sherrin with his bare foot; it could only be moments before it was within my reach. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed an object silhouetted against the deep blue of the horizon. I reared back in a last-second attempt to correct my stance, but - smack! - I felt the cold leather connect with my cheek. Momentarily dazed, I fumbled after the ball as it rolled off into the inky darkness of that late-Spring evening, listening to the sounds of the boys' laughter.

I could have been anywhere in Australia. Kick-to-kick is a nightly ritual, when neighbourhood kids take turns at emulating their football idols until the night becomes so dark that play must be abandoned. I finally located the football resting against a large rock at the edge of the dusty field. Feeling thankful that I had avoiding tripping over the rock in the dark and further humiliating myself, I decided it was time to postpone play until another day. My Gary Ablett imitation could wait.

Walking back to my car, I drew in the sounds of the night. Children laughed as they continued kicking the ball in the pitch-black night. Reggae music spilled from a nearby tavern as local men walked home from work. And far in the distance, a solitary car rumbled toward the lights of a border post, reminding me that I was no longer in Australia. This familiar scene from my youth had been transplanted 10,000 kilometres across the Indian Ocean to a shantytown in South Africa’s North West Province.

A month earlier, I had written to AFL South Africa (AFLSA) out of curiosity about their ‘Aussies on the Road’ program. After completing university, a friend and I decided to embark upon an around-the-world working holiday, and we had decided that South Africa was to be our first destination. Heading our list of things to do whilst in Africa was a township visit so that we could witness first-hand the living conditions of the majority of South Africans. However, this posed us with a slight dilemma – we wanted to avoid taking a patronising organised coach tour of the townships, but at the same time we were reluctant to make the trip alone for safety reasons. I thought about our South African itinerary for several days, before remembering an article I had read on the AFLSA website about ‘Aussies on the Road’. It seemed like the perfect way to visit the townships, in that it allowed participants to interact with the locals and do something positive, whilst all the time being accompanied by AFLSA staff.

It took only three emails to arrange. I sent AFLSA’s Head Development Officer, July Machethe, a list of the days that my friend Andrew and I were available, and he responded with a proposed itinerary and costing information. On a hot November morning four weeks later, we arrived at AFLSA headquarters in Potchefstroom to embark on our adventure. ‘Potch’ is a big university town nestled on the high veldt near Johannesburg, and is home to several specialist high-altitude sports training academies. Upon arrival, we met with July and Jack Arnold – a Melbournian assisting AFLSA with football development for 12 months and funded by AVI (Australian Volunteers International) and AusAid’s Australian Youth Ambassador grants program. First up was a meeting with the office staff at AFLSA, where we were brought up-to-speed on the state of Australian football in South Africa: the geographical regions that are being targeted, the achievements made to date and future goals for the spread of the sport in Africa. We met with AFLSA Head Coach Mtutuzeli Hlomela, who played juniors for Sturt in South Australia, as well as Executive Officer Jean Verster, who is a renowned coach in athletics circles. July informed us of our itinerary for the coming two days – we were to host four clinics in the areas surrounding Mafikeng and Rustenburg, which are two large cities in North West Province, in addition to experiencing elements of South African society rarely seen by tourists or even the local white population. We couldn't wait for it to begin.

On the drive to our first clinic in Ventersdorp, we were able to question July and Jack about their experiences ‘growing the game’ in such an unlikely area. Both were relatively new to teaching Australian football, Jack having answered an advertisement for an AusAid-funded position and July having worked for AFLSA for six months. They were enthusiastic about the growth that Australian football had experienced in the region, and were obviously very committed to their roles in facilitating further expansion.

During the Apartheid years Ventersdorp was best known within South Africa as the home of the “right-wing” political leader of the AWB (Afrikaanse Weesrstands Beweging) Eugene Tereblanche. We arrived at the local primary school, where the kids had only weeks beforehand been introduced to Australian football, to conduct a series of handballing, marking and kicking drills. The first thing that struck Andrew and I was the extraordinary enthusiasm of the Ventersdorp kids who, although they had not held a footy many times previously, showed considerable skill. We drilled the kids for the best part of an hour in the baking sun, before finishing with a game – two teams of approximately 50 boys each, with the girls umpiring. It was a huge success, and the kids asked lots of questions about how to improve their skills and about Australia. Hopefully they will show continued improvement as July and Jack continue visiting Ventersdorp.

In the early afternoon we drove to Isoteng, a large township on the edge of Mafikeng - one of the province’s largest towns. Mafikeng has played an important role in South African history, being the location of a pivotal Anglo-Boer War siege and the capital of an apartheid-era black homeland. The heat when we arrived was oppressive, and the township of Isoteng was unlike any place I had previously visited. As one of the poorest townships in the province, Isoteng lacks services typical of Australian towns and cities. Houses there are not connected to water mains, sewers or the telephone network, they typically lack insulation and many have no visible electricity connection. Public amenities are non-existent, save for a single, grassed soccer pitch maintained by the Provincial Government. This pitch is home to the local Australian football team – the Isoteng Kangaroos.

Australian football is making very positive inroads into the Isoteng community. The indigenous game gives men in the community an opportunity to travel if they show sufficient skill, and possibly a chance to escape the abject poverty of township life. Several Kangaroos players were called up to play in the South African Buffaloes national teams that competed in the Australian Football International Cups in Melbourne during 2002 and 2005. Almost all of the Isoteng players are unemployed and struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis, so they would never be able to afford to travel abroad if not for the opportunities provided by AFLSA. In that way, Australian football has enriched the lives of many in the Isoteng community, making township life more bearable, and providing the possibility of an Australian football career as a goal that local players can aspire to.

Upon arrival, the four of us organised a match for the Kangaroos, as the Provincial Championships were approaching in December. We divided into two teams on the township's soccer pitch, and I decided full-forward would be the best position to both showcase my Gary Ablett impersonation and avoid dehydration in the 40 degree heat. Naively, I thought that several seasons of junior football and a few amateur games since would give me an edge over the Isoteng boys, who are largely new to the sport. I was wrong. Isoteng's best player, Benji Motuba, played in rural South Australia on a scholarship and even did some sessions with Port Adelaide Power, and he is more skilled than many top-level country footballers I have watching in Australia. What he lacked in height he made up for in speed, darting through packs and collecting dozens of possessions. My friend Andrew played top-level amateur football in Melbourne, and he was regularly left stunned by the speed and agility of the Isoteng players. The Kangaroos ran rings around us, using phenomenal bursts of speed to avoid tackles and establish leads. Their kicking was mostly direct, and perhaps the only glaring deficiency is that they lack the physical stature to hold or shrug tackles. Most Australian footballers in North West Province are from the Tswana ethnic group, which centres on northern South Africa and Botswana. They are more slightly-built than the Zulu and ‘Xhosa from southern South Africa, and lack the height to fill key positions on the Australian football field. After 30 minutes of running in the extreme heat and a goal or two off my boot, I was knackered and needed a rest. My team lost the match, but everyone had an enjoyable time. We finished our time in Isoteng with another question and answer session, and I promised some of the players that I would get along to see them compete in the next International Cup.

Our last stop for the day was a community by the name of Ramatlabama, 5kms from the border with Botswana. Ramatlabama was by far the poorest township we visited, with a dirt field covered in litter and cow dung, no sealed roads or services, and a host of extremely enthusiastic kids. We arrived late, and despite the onset of dusk, kids were dotted across the dusty field anticipating our arrival. We conducted similar clinics to those in Ventersdorp, kicking-on until the night was literally pitch black and I copped a Sherrin in the noggin. We then retired to the home of a local family to stay the night. Being invited into the home of a rural black family was definitely the highlight of our trip. To be accepted into their house, to eat with them and to be able to participate in their lifestyle was something that few Australians could claim that they have done, and provided Andrew and I with great insight into South African society. We ate a meal of shredded beets, onions, rice, sweet pumpkin and boiled chicken, which was filling, if a little different from what we were used to back home! After dinner, Jack and July took us to a local shanty tavern for a couple of beers to end the day. It is quite likely that we were the first white people ever to venture into the establishment, as most South African whites avoid entering townships. We received some quizzical looks from the local patrons at first, but as soon as Andrew and I started on the pool table, the entire tavern was abuzz watching us play. It was quite an unusual experience ordering drinks through a small hole in the wall, listening to the reggae tunes on the jukebox and talking to locals who barely understood as much English as we understood Tswana.

On our second day ‘On the Road’, we woke to bathe as the township locals do – with a bucket of warm water and a face-washer. We were so dusty that it did little to clean us, and July informed us that many township residents only bathe once a week or so in that fashion. Our host family cooked up a breakfast of eggs, farmer’s sausages and bread, and we then clambered back into our hire car to head for Rustenburg, a two hour drive east of Mafikeng. Rustenburg is a mine city, producing 90% of the world's platinum, and so it has quite a large population. South Africa has a 35% unemployment rate – mostly among blacks – and mine cities attract many of those seeking work. Many who immigrate to cities such as Rustenburg find they lack the skills to gain employment, and thus they become homeless and turn to crime. Jack had told us earlier that morning that he had a surprise planned for later in the day, and as we entered Rustenburg he dropped Andrew, July and I at a local produce market so we could catch a ride in a ‘black taxi’ to the next school clinic. The market teemed with about 10,000 black residents of Rustenburg, and Andrew and I were the only white people to be seen. We were a little apprehensive about making the journey, as ‘black taxis’ have a reputation of being dangerous in South Africa. Typically, they are Volkswagen panel vans that legally seat 12 passengers, though many are seen on the roads carrying 20 or more people. Add to this that most go un-serviced, and you quickly see why South Africa has such a massive annual road toll. Lucky to be accompanied by July, Andrew and I crossed the market to find a taxi bound for a large township on the outskirts of Rustenburg. Slightly out of our comfort zones, we crammed into a Volkswagen for the thirty-minute drive to conduct our final clinic. The venue for our clinic was one of the more-privileged primary schools in the township, in that they had won a soccer tournament the year before that awarded as first-prize the construction of a grassed area at the school – unheard of at most schools. We conducted many of the same drills that we had in Ventersdorp and Ramatlabama, although the skill levels of the kids in Rustenburg was appreciably higher. Jack had been conducting a junior league after school hours in the township for several months prior to our arrival, and it was apparent that most of the boys understood the fundamentals of the game. Quite amazing to me was the little input required from our quartet whilst a match was played. We were able to stand back and watch the boys play a hard game in bare feet, which was well adjudicated by the schoolgirl umpires.

Leaving Rustenburg, our delegation headed for Johannesburg, which was to be the end of our journey. We drove through the high veldt bush, sighting baboons and ostriches from the hire car windows, and detoured through Hartbeespoortdam – a vast dammed lake that has developed into a favourite weekend destination for Johannesburg residents. The route passed luxury apartments and modern business parks, reminding Andrew and I that in South Africa the underprivileged third-world lies very-much alongside the prosperous first-world. Johannesburg is the face of post-apartheid South Africa. It was also the location of the first Australian football matches in South Africa, at the turn of the 20th Century. Australians fighting in the Anglo-Boer War from 1899-1902 started football competitions, which were carried on by miners working the productive gold deposits surrounding Johannesburg. Australian football stalled in subsequent decades, as the social structure of the nation underwent radical change. AFLSA are resurrecting Australian football in Johannesburg. From their base in North West Province, efforts are being made to grow the game in Gauteng – the province in which Johannesburg and Pretoria are located.

A century after the first Australian football was played there; Johannesburg is at the forefront South Africa’s economic boom brought about by the collapse of the apartheid system. President Thabo Mbeki claims that South Africa is leading an ‘African Renaissance’ – a golden age – where each person has a chance to start afresh with a clean slate. The word ‘opportunity’ is splashed across the nation – on billboards, in television and radio advertising and across Government documents. I believe that word best sums-up the state of Australian football in the Rainbow Nation. A century ago the sport squandered a chance to establish roots in South Africa. Today, it has been given another opportunity to flourish. If AFLSA development programs continue their phenomenal success, and are well supported by Australian-based bodies, I believe the future of Australian football on the Dark Continent will be very bright.

I would like to thank everybody at AFL South Africa for allowing Andrew and I to participate in the ‘Aussies on the Road’ program, especially July Machethe and Jack Arnold. Our two day program was the highlight of our stay in South Africa, and I would certainly recommend it as an unforgettable experience to anyone planning a trip to the Rainbow Nation. You can contact AFL South Africa through www.aflsouthafrica.org

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