Upside-down football, mate

Wednesday afternoon and the sun beats down on a tattered strip of grass surrounded by embattled homes in the centre of KwaMashu township, north of Durban.

Boy-men in excruciatingly tight shorts and sleeveless tops do violent pirouettes in the air — usually because someone else is clobbering them. When not engaged in this homoerotic swirl of physical punishment, they run around, kick what appears to be a rugby ball or pass it as if it were a volleyball.

The congregation of schoolchildren on the sidelines — interest initially petering in the heat — becomes increasingly enthralled as the South African national Australian Rules Football League (AFL) team mounts a late comeback against the Boomerangs, an Australian Aboriginal youth team.

Generally the crowd of about 500 kids appears engaged, cheering the local ”Buffaloes” on with each goal.

But there is, of course, the obligatory group of urchins having a comical (conventional) football kick-about with an Aussie Rules ball on the periphery of the match.

Australian Rules Football and KwaMashu township might, initially, appear as mismatched as thirsty nightclub-prowling footballers and mineral water.

But AFL South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal provincial development officer, Travis Jackson, doesn’t think so. For him and the AFL, the townships are wells of untapped athletic potential. There are places where youngsters’ enthusiasm for sport is largely ignored by the ruling bodies of South Africa’s ”big three” sporting codes: soccer, cricket and rugby — and by government departments like education and sport.

There is little or no sport coaching, infrastructure or equipment provided by the government or the ”big three” here in E Section.

Silemela Primary School pupil Promise Mthethwa (13) is a participant in the AFL’s KwaMashu Footy Wild development project and shyly nods that she enjoys playing Aussie Rules: ”I like netball,” she says, ”but we don’t have a ground to play on or a teacher to teach us.”

With South Africa’s population twice as large as Australia’s, Jackson believes this sports void is an opportune one to fill as the AFL plots the expansion of his country’s most popular sport — it would appear the Aussies, tired of beating one other, are looking to develop Aussie Rules in 32 countries, including Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and South Africa.

”Our vision is to have a professional league in South Africa in five to six years’ time; the kids here in KwaMashu lack everything in terms of resources and support, but have everything when it comes to talent and enthusiasm,” says Jackson.

The AFL development drive in South Africa has been rebranded as the Footy Wild project and in KwaMashu, since August last year, Aus$400 000 (R2,8-million) has been poured into getting children from eight primary schools and two high schools to play the sport.

Jackson says Aussies Rules isn’t new in the country. The sport was first played in South Africa in the late 1800s when Australian soldiers served under the British during the Anglo-Boer War. In 1996 soldiers from the Australian Defence Force reintroduced the game in the North West province, with a development officer from the AFL appointed there in 2001.

In 2003 AFL South Africa was set up as a development body with funding from AusAid, Australian Volunteers International and the North West Academy of Sport. The focus was on the North West, but clubs were recently created in Gauteng and the KwaZulu-Natal project is an extension of this development drive.

According to an AFL International census there were 3 000 seniors, 800 juniors and 4 000 Footy Wild participants playing the sport in South Africa by the end of last year.

”It’s been an enormous success in the North West. I started playing it there 11 years ago and now we have 17 teams — one in each of the major towns — and thousands of kids are playing it,” says South African national captain Benjamin Motuba after the match, which the Boomerangs won 76-57.

Motuba, who participated in a six-month development programme in southern Australia, works as an Aussie Rules community development officer in Gauteng.

He says Aussie Rules provide a release for many bored and marginalised children in his province, he being one of them: ”The AFL has taken children off the streets and invested in them. That is only a good thing.”

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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