Canoeing dreams in Soweto

It’s almost sunset at Soweto’s Orlando Power Park Dam and the wind is blowing gently. Three boys, aged 13, emerge from a clump of trees in the park carrying two canoes on their heads.

Yanga Mphalala, Sifiso Cebekhulu and Siseko Ntondini are members of the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club (SCRC), based at the dam.

Sheshisani singene emanzini [Hurry up, let’s get into the water],” says Ntondini.

They quickly change into their swimming outfits before their teammates arrive for the day’s practice session.
By the time the others arrive 15 minutes later, the boys have checked their canoes are in order and are heading towards the dam.

Ntondini dreams of becoming a professional canoeist and has an idea of how to get there. “To get it right you have to listen to whatever the coach tells you—because he knows better than you do.”

Not wanting to be left out, the other teammates, aged between 10 and 19, open two red cargo containers next to the dam and pull out 24 or so canoes and scores of paddles.

When coach Rayno Armdorf arrives, most of the boys have begun their day’s practice.

“The boys are very passionate and they don’t even wait for me to tell them when to start to practise, but the beginners have to [wait] because I have to teach them the basics of canoeing,” says Armdorf.

There were no paddles left for 10-year-old Smamkele Makhaza, so he picked up two sticks and jumped into a canoe, using them to paddle. The boat didn’t move at all, but he kept paddling.

Armdorf says: “This is the passion we are talking about. If he continues like this he’s going places.”

When all the lads are finally on the water, there are screams and shouts as some of the youngsters tease others about technique and the speed of their canoes.

The club was established three years ago with about 25 members and four canoes. This year the club has about 60 registered members.

More than 30 members regularly attend weekly training sessions at the club. They participate in local races and monthly SCRC time trials. Club members receive regular training and mentoring from top South African paddlers, among them Jen Hodson and Shaun Rubenstein, both of whom recently met the International Olympic Committee’s qualifying standards for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Most of the club’s members are from poor communities living in squatter camps around Orlando. Some of the children are orphans and live with their brothers and sisters. They have no money to pay school fees, but because of their passion and their potential to become professional canoeists, the SCRC lends a helping hand when necessary.

Armdorf says: “Despite the lack of funds we always try to assist when we can. Most of these kids come here without having had anything to eat and we sometimes provide food before and after races.

“For us it is not just about taking them off the streets, but also listening to the problems they face every day of their lives. One kid, whose father was murdered in front of him, lost his mother not so long ago. We couldn’t see any problem with him as he was smiling all the time at practice, until we were about to go to a competition and he refused to go. When we asked why, he told us his mother has passed on.”

The SCRC is sponsored by Street Pole Advertising, receiving a monthly grant of R10 000, but this goes a small way towards meeting the club’s expenses, which amount to R200 000 a year.

Transport fares for the canoeists during competitions, school fees for those who cannot afford them, food, proper kits and canoes and setting up adequate administration are some of the challenges with which the club has to contend.

The club has approached private institutions and the Johannesburg council for help, but none of these has come to their aid yet.

“We have asked the Johannesburg council for help, without any success. We need partners to do this. We need social workers as well, because we are not professionally trained for that [side of things]. If we have proper administration everything will just fall into place,” says Armdorf.

Despite the challenges, the club has produced stars like 19-year-olds Muzi Mathebula and Maungedzo Tshamano—both of whom represented the country at the youth Olympics held in Australia in January this year—and 17-year-old Isabelo Radebe, who will represent the country in canoeing at the All Africa Games in Kenya next year.

Last month the club was recognised for the work it is doing in Soweto and came third in the Murray & Roberts Jack Cheetham Memorial Award.

The award is targeted at sports-development projects that focus on individuals or teams that have the potential to become champions. “We are glad the good work that we do for the community is recognised. We want to take this to another level—but to do this we need funds,” says Armdorf.

Brad Fisher, SCRC co-chairperson, says: “Witnessing the growth of the club and the exceptional development of the kids to date has been an exciting and rewarding experience.”

Client Media Releases

Fempreneurs shine during EWP gala event
Might as well face it