The Lembethes were convinced their son had lost it. What else could explain the the decisions he’d taken? They couldn’t understand why he’d chosen to play a ‘white man’s sport’. But what really made little sense to them was the nature of the profession: what sort of a job was it wherein he’d pay to do it and not get paid?
But Nduduza Lembethe was hopelessly in love with hockey. And for him, there was no looking back. “As a black person in South Africa, hockey is not our sport. It’s self-funded, so a lot of black parents don’t stick it out,” he says. “If my parents didn’t stick it out, I wouldn’t blame them because you have to pay for tournaments, you have to pay for your own sticks, you have to pay for tours.”
Luckily for Lembethe, his parents did – when they couldn’t afford to send him to the only school that had a hockey team, and even when his father Leo had to sell their house and car in 2011 after sinking deep into debt. The 22-year-old battled the perception problem at home and outside and overcame the financial crunch to be one of the four black players in the South African team here for the World Cup.
Being a hockey player in South Africa isn’t easy. And it only gets complicated, and tougher, if you are a black player: the first challenge is to get access to a hockey field, then fight the stereotypes and perception battle, weave your way past tricky selection criteria and then spend your playing career gaining the trust of your teammates.
Cricket and rugby, two of the biggest sports in South Africa, have largely dominated the conversation about racial transformation, wherein there is specific focus on increasing black representation that had stagnated since readmission into international sport. There has been some tangible change, as the Springboks are led by a black player (Siya Kolisi) and the increased influence of non-whites in the cricket team.
But hockey has remained on the fringes. The sport’s struggle to meet the transformation targets set by the government has cost the national team Olympic participation. That means the hockey federation, according to Lembethe’s teammate Tyson Dlungwana, is still ‘begging and pleading’ for sponsorship as the players continue to pay for their equipment and travel, even when they are on national duty.
But the bigger impact, Dlungwana says, is felt in the townships — the segregated, underdeveloped urban areas where the majority of black and coloured population lives. Dlungwana is a Durban native who grew up in Pretoria, which he says is a ‘vibey town’ but lacks the facilities needed to succeed in a sport like hockey. The access, he says, is easier in the suburbs, which gives it the image of being a ‘white man’s sport.’
“I come from a location where there’s nothing else but football fields. So we grow up knowing what a soccer ball is. It was only in high school that I got to know about hockey,” Dlungwana says. “It’s not that they don’t want to play the sport, they just don’t know what the sport is.”
All black players in South African teams of the past and present come from the township areas and each of them hasa fascinating story to tell. Owen Mvimbi grew up in the backroom of a house in Soweto where his mother worked as a domestic help. He went on to become the first black player to ply his trade in the Belgian league.
Dlungwana was a semi-professional footballer with Maritzburg United before he decided to quit and focus on his hockey career. Lembethe had to endure a painful battle with his family. “My dad only started watching me in high school and when I made the SA u-16, he just said, ‘ok, well done.’ I was so disappointed that they weren’t happy,” he says.
The urge to prove themselves isn’t restricted to family alone. Lembethe and the other black players constantly have to prove that they are in the team on merit and not just because of the colour of their skin. “In our country, there are a lot of dynamics. We have criteria called the quota system where a certain number of players of colour have to be selected for the national team,” Dlungwana says.
Mark Hopkins, the chief coach, insists all players in the World Cup squad are there purely on merit. “I am not a politician, I am a coach. My job is to select the 18 best hockey players to represent the country,” he says. Dlungwana, however, adds: “There are people on social media and a few pundits who will say we’re there because of the colour of our skin. Sometimes that’s not the case and it’s a huge problem we face in South Africa.”
Getting selected in the squad doesn’t always guarantee playing time for a black athlete. There have been allegations in the past that they haven’t been trusted by their teammates in key moments of big matches, while in some cases they haven’t got opportunities at all. It’s not so glaring in the men’s game, but Lembethe empathises with the state of women’s hockey. “I think something more can be done to get the balance. I feel there’re not enough opportunities for black people. Some of us get game time, like myself. But (in) the ladies side, they don’t. I don’t know why,” he says.
The midfielder says lack of opportunities was one reason why his parents were against his decision to play hockey. The anger has subsisded over the years after watching their son don the South African jersey regularly. “My dad is hard on me but my mom, even if I have played bad, she’ll be like, ‘yo, you are the best player on the field’.”
Lembethe may have convinced his family. His task now is to win over his peers and pundits.