Thomas Taole has coached sports for the last 30 years at some of the best private schools in Johannesburg. Today he develops the sport careers of township youth through Afrika Tikkun. He discusses some of the challenges and opportunities presented to young people who want to develop careers as athletes and sports administrators in SA today.

“School sports in the township is dying a slow death if it isn’t dead already,” Taole declares. “But for South Africa to see the level and number of professional sports players it needs, we need to begin with ensuring the resources and facilities are present in the townships. And here, we are not talking only about facilities, but human resources as well”.

The handful of young people identified by talent scouts and taken in by the private schools is a small percentage of what South Africa could be producing if the disadvantaged communities were appropriately resourced by government. A key solution to the lack of sports development is that physical education is not offered as a subject at schools.

“I work at private schools in Jo’burg simply because they are able to pay me. Township school teachers are overwhelmed, overworked and most importantly not trained to teach sport,” Thomas argues. Physical Education is 5% of Life Orientation, and it is being taught by individuals, who are not trained in physical education. They lack the technical know-how to develop athletes. “I stand for the re-institution of physical education into the curriculum, and we are working with a team at the .North West University led by Professor Dorita Du Toit to campaign for the return of Physical Education to schools.”

Sometimes government builds the facilities without putting the appropriate human resources in place. Tennis courts and cricket grounds should not be built for example, without providing training in those sports at the same time. Moreover, there needs to be training on how to manage and maintain those facilities. “You find people don’t know what to do with those facilities – they use them for weddings, church and funerals and the people who are meant to be benefitting do not,” Taole explains.

Young people wanting to build sports careers as athletes or in sport administration, and who hail from townships face a significant challenge from these complications, as well as from the less obvious challenges, like the expense required to be involved in local and provincial sports. For example, three years ago, Afrika Tikkun had five girls who made the team to represent the district in netball. They were called to do training at the University of Pretoria to represent the province. “They had the talent, but neither we as an organisation nor their parents had the capacity or resources to get them there in the evenings – so that is where their career ended,” he confesses.

When a young person represents province, they stand a good chance of being scouted for scholarships to play sports at university level – which in turn is an opportunity for young people to use their talent in order to get an education. But because they were not able to get to Pretoria for their training, all this was lost to these five young women. Similarly, sports administration courses also require hidden costs like transport, accommodation etc. making this career option prohibitive for young people in townships and rural areas.

To solve this problem, Afrika Tikkun approached CATHSSETA – the SETA responsible for sports development – to offer sports administration skills development training at Afrika Tikkun centres in townships. We are in five communities and this would have enabled the SETA to train young people in sports administration on a large scale – without incurring the prohibitive costs in transport and accommodation. Internal changes at the company led to a lack of political will to do this.

Afrika Tikkun shifted its strategy, and today is building partnerships with tertiary institutions to offer bursaries, including Boston College, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the North-West University (NWU).

Another important consideration is that children and young people need holistic support in order to be able to play sports (not least to go far in sports). Children and young people need to be able to eat in order to exercise. To children who are hungry, sports is simply not an option. The basic needs of the child are fundamentally important, and take priority. For that reason, government should be partnering with organisations that support the 360° development of the child’s nutritional, health and psycho-social needs.

This is particularly true for young people who want to pursue a career in athletics or sports. Take Khanya Sibanda, he has been with Afrika Tikkun since the age of 5. He is out of school, and is training (as best he can) to compete in the Tokyo Olympics in Track and Field (800m and 1.5km races). In order for him to succeed, he will need a professional team to support him – and it will be costly. He will need access to a gym, a physiotherapist and a personal dietician to ensure he is getting the right nutrition for optimal performance. The institutions who are there to help don’t favour underdogs like Khanya, and instead will invest all their resources into athletes training at elite institutions. Had Khanya been exposed to physical education at school he would be 50% there already, because of his natural talent – but he did not get that.

Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates Development Support starts at 15 – but, argues Taole, that is at least ten years too late – all the bad habits have already been acquired and they are not going to change at that age. Any development programme for sport needs to start at age 5; and the aspiring athlete needs to put at least 10 000 hours into becoming a top performer.  “As a country we are being reactionary in our response to the challenge of transformation in sports” argues Taole. “We are not solving at the grassroots level. That is why Afrika Tikkun’s model of 360° development from the age of 2 upwards is the best solution – expensive though it may be.”

To really make an impact on sports development, requires a co-ordinated effort from all stakeholders, which at the moment we don’t get right. “That is why you don’t see many people able to build the kind of career I have been able to build over the last thirty years, today,” Thomas explains.

But through his efforts all this is starting to change. “For the last ten years, my career has been focused on developing young people into the career of sports coaching and movement. I have trained and placed 20 young people into good entry-level coaching jobs at private schools and movement companies.” One example of someone who benefitted from Thomas’ support at Afrika Tikkun, is Thabiso Peloeng who started out on a Learnership at Afrika Tikkun. “We saw his passion and talent in coaching and sent him on further training, and sent him to London to compete in a Triathlon. He eventually became qualified to coach under-7s and today works for a company earning more than four times what he was earning with us.“

Through partnerships he is building, today Thomas is poised to direct many more young people into careers in sports and sports administration. For the organisation, this capacity begins with recruiting passionate and qualified individuals to train Afrika Tikkun’ s young people, and then equipping them with a considered physical education curriculum. Afrika Tikkun has recruited the assistance of experts like Professor Dorita Du Toit to contribute to a sports education curriculum and training materials for its young people. This will go some way towards helping the organisation to ensure that young people with talent are identified early and put on pathways for sport careers, both here and abroad.

Afrika Tikkun has also experienced some success with the City of Johannesburg in the establishment of district-level netball leagues. With the support of the City of Jo’burg, and the Johannesburg Netball Association, it established netball leagues in Region F (inner-city Johannesburg), Region E (Alexandra) and Region A (Diepsloot). “We put these leagues in place to enable regular and weekly competition for our netball teams. In order for our young people to get into university on netball scholarships, it is very important that when scouts see them, they are competent players and good athletes – who have been competing at the right level,” Taole explains.

Through this partnership, resources are shared in such a way that it allows the community at large to benefit directly and thereby overcome its resource challenge with regard to Netball. Another example of strategic partnerships is Palesa Holdings, who saw the Netball League success in Region F, and contacted Afrika Tikkun to help. They came and offered financial management training for the sports team to enable them to manage budgets.

“We realise that what we want to achieve is ambitious, but our team has been built to a point where we can achieve this for our young people,” Taole explains with a mixture of passion, and sober preparedness for the work that lies ahead. “I am doing today what I was doing at the age of 13, and that was 38 years ago. People would dismiss me and say, “he is just a child”. It is all thanks to the help of many different people along the way who played a part into developing me, and saw my passion. Anyone who wants a career in sports needs this kind of support and this is what we want to provide on a much larger scale to our young people through Afrika Tikkun, and with the help of partners.”

“We have had many failures and disappointments along the way. There have been times when we have not been able to find the resources we require to do the work, or when partners or stakeholders do not share the vision or the will; but we are making progress,” says Thomas. What is certain, is that the task requires an appreciation of the big picture – that it starts at grassroots; but more than that we need to appreciate the specifics.

It’s all in the details – coordination and cooperation is required across private, public and civic sectors; as well as between basic education and tertiary education – so that career pathways can be designed per individual and that the process is facilitated as smoothly as possible. We also need to ensure young people are supported 360° throughout their lives – most especially if they have the raw talent to really achieve. Expertise in this field is essential – from the educators to the curriculum, to government. Sports is a source of tremendous consumer interest and national pride. With the right investment it can be used to change the conversation we have about ourselves as a country, to excel as we have the capability to do internationally, and to grow the GDP.

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