Develop facilities to develop stars

Grassroots sport, particularly grassroots rugby, has always been a major passion of mine, and will continue o be one of my greatest passions. Developing young talents in under-developed areas is a personal dream of mine, and this article sums up how the development of youth talents in otherwise previously under-developed communities will directly impact the performances of national sides and promote socio-economic development. It is only fitting that it should be one of my last articles at Grocott’s Mail.

After the release of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) report on transformation in South Africa on Tuesday 23 April, the question of transformation in sport, youth development and sporting infrastructure was once again brought to the fore. While the focus seems to be on the number of top level athletes in various sporting codes forming a representative number of the population, it has to be acknowledged that in order truly transform sport, more emphasis is needed on athlete identification and development, as well as infrastructure building and maintenance.

According to the EPG’s report, the big three sporting codes in South Africa, namely Football (Soccer), Cricket and Rugby, all achieved their 50% targets, while Athletics was the most concerning federation as it did not meet its target for 2019. While it is encouraging that improvement has been made in terms of transformation and representation, in order to ensure that transformation continues on this positive trend, and promote all federations to improve their transformation numbers, a greater focus must be placed on grassroots sports development.

That is where the issue comes in for the development of athletes around Makhanda (Grahamstown), and the surrounding areas. There is very little in terms of facilities and development for local athletes, meaning that local athletes are not able to develop their skills as far as athletes in areas that have access to well-maintained recreational facilities.

Deon Hilpert, the Chairperson of the South Eastern District Rugby Union (SEDRU), believes that in order to truly transform, all people should have free and equal access to quality fields to train on and play on, which is currently not the case in Makhanda according to him. “All sports fields and centres in the previously disadvantage areas are in a state of disaray. None of the black schools have any sports facilities, while they need to compete against well resourced schools that have facilities for all different age groups,” said Hilpert. “These advantage schools are responsible for their own facilities, but in the past, these were government schools. This then is where they have the advantage to black schools who never received this kind of government support. A legacy of our past.”

Hilpert is not alone in this belief, as many sports administrators, coaches and players agree with his view.Chris Totobela, coach of African Connection, Makhanda’s only women’s soccer club outside of the Rhodes University women’s team, believes that the community must ensure that they keep the facilities in good order to help support the young athletes. “I think they [the facilities]are in a very poor state especially, the sports fields, but the community must also take the blame. When we see people vandalising our sports fields and centres we turn a blind eye and don’t report it to the relevant authorities,” said Totobela.

Totobela also believes that local football players need more development if they are to make the transition into professional sport, which is the ultimate goal of the transformation targets. “The lack of proper football academies here is putting our young players a little bit behind as the scouts are always looking for players that won’t take long to adapt to the high demands of professional football,” said Totobela. “Most of the teams prefer rejects from big clubs instead of finding raw talent.”

For Leon Coetzee, Chairperson of the Grahamstown Cricket Board, the main issue currently preventing a truly transformed South African sporting landscape is access to good quality facilities to train in and develop skills. “That is the main problem. Development, transformation cannot happen if you don’t have the facilities,” said Coetzee.

With elections just around the corner, each of the parties vying for political victory should take transformation in sport to heart, and strive to build, maintain and supply sporting facilities across South Africa.  Parties should also place emphasis on places like Makhanda, with such a rich history in sport and wealth of talent at its disposal.

Sport is for everyone, so everyone should be able to excel in it.

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