BHUBANESWAR : Nduduza Lembethe’s mother’s name is Happy. According to her son, she always cheers him on irrespective of his performance. Her template for every performance ranging from bad to good to great is just one. “Yo,” she would tell him, “you are the best player on the field.” She told him the same after South Africa lost 0-5 in their opening World Cup match against India.
But there was a phase in Nduduza’s life when his mother wasn’t very supportive. It was when Nduduza had been called up to the South Africa Under-16 squad. It was one of the best days of his life. When he conveyed the news to his family, Happy became sad.
His father, Leo, who did not even like the fact that his son was playing hockey, showed no emotion. “Okay,” was his only response. Happy’s was a touch better. “Well done.” Six years have passed since this little incident happened during dinner time inside the Lembethe household. To be fair to the 22-year-old’s parents, they are much more supportive of his hockey career now.
Nduduza’s story is eye-catching. It’s also depressing because it’s significant on so many levels. For starters, it explains the arduous challenges most blacks in the country face while trying to make a career out of hockey, which is still considered a white sport. The 22-year-old, one of only four black players in the side, spoke about it in depth after a training session on Wednesday.
“As a black person in South Africa, hockey is not our sport,” he said. “Since it’s self-funded, a lot of black parents don’t stick it out. If my parents didn’t stick it out, I wouldn’t blame them because you have to pay for tournaments, for your own sticks and for tours.”
The money aspect may not be a unique problem because all 18 players assembled here have had to pay for the privilege of playing the sport they love for the country they were born in. Nduduza’s situation, however, was compounded by his family’s grave financial situation. “I will take you back to 2011,” he started. “My dad was messed up in debts or something.
It was a tough time because we had just lost our house, our car... and we had a tour and they told me I can’t go because they couldn’t afford (to pay).”
Considering that people of colour and blacks are generally less privileged than whites in the country, it’s no exaggeration to say many potential hockey players like Nduduza have been lost thanks to the system.
Another hurdle for young blacks in the country is opportunity and accessibility. Tyson Dlungwana, who grew up in a township in Pretoria, shed more light. “Definitely there is a perception that hockey is a white man’s sport,” he said. “I come from a location where there is nothing but football fields. So we grew up knowing what football was but didn’t know a lot about hockey. It was only in high school that I got to know what hockey was.”
One must understand what South African townships are like to really understand why there are no shiny blue turfs inside any of these localities. More than two decades may have passed since the country moved away from the Apartheid era but townships — segregated localities based on race — remain. “Apartheid may have ended 20 years ago, but here in Cape Town the sense of apartness remains as strong as ever,” the Guardian noted in 2016. “After decades of enforced segregation, the feeling of division is permanently carved into the city’s urban form, the physical legacy of a plan that was calculatedly designed to separate poor blacks from rich whites.”
Both Nduduza and Tyson back this up. “In the township and under-developed areas, kids are not aware of what hockey really is. These are awesome places, but sports facilities aren’t as great as in urban areas and suburbs. Therefore, the opportunities for kids coming up is very minimal,” Tyson said.
The debate surrounding transformation goals in field hockey made a comeback two weeks ago. A Twitter handle created by People For Transformation (PFT), a group of largely women’s hockey players including the current goalkeeper of the national team (Phumelela Mbande), alleged that the South African Hockey Association (SAHA) failed ‘players of colour’.
While Nduduza agreed that there are a few problems with meeting the goals vis-a-vis women’s team, there are no such problems for the men. At least that’s what coach Mark Hopkins said. “We have hit all our transformation targets this year. We are exactly where we need to be.” Their immediate focus is on Saturday’s encounter against Belgium. If they eke a point, they may well advance to the crossovers. That’s what they hope to achieve over the next three days.