Going flat out to beat gangsterism

Winner – Sports Development Award: Mr Price Mitchells Plain soccer programme

Mitchells Plain, established as a dormitory township in 1975 during apartheid’s forced removals, now houses an estimated 1.5-million people. Almost half of them are unemployed.

‘We are the people who have been forgotten by both the city and the province,” says community leader Shamiel Kolbee, a veteran of District Six evictions.

‘I can afford to live anywhere in Cape Town but I have chosen to remain in Mitchells Plain, where we were dumped, because the needs here are so great.

‘At first living on the Cape Flats was hellish. There used to be seven huge gangs operating here and crime was getting worse.”

With the World Cup just around the corner, a City of Cape Town study showed that 90% of the township’s girls and 70% of its boys do not take part in sport because of a lack of facilities.

Kolbee decided to tackle these problems by launching a youth soccer programme in Mitchells Plain. He set up a non-profit organisation, called the Kolbee Foundation, and roped in the help of the Mr Price Group and the Mitchells Plain Industrial Development Trust.

In 2004 they launched the Mr Price High Schools’ Soccer League. Since then, a feeder process has been created for successful players to embark on a professional career in soccer.

The Mr Price Parkhurst Football Academy has eight divisions with 18 players a team. The third part of the programme is the Mr Price Mitchells Plain Soccer League, an under-19 schools league in which 16 high schools participate.

According to a social study conducted last year, discipline and academic performance among youths who are part of the programme have improved. The dropout rate has declined and so has drug use and gang-related behaviour.

‘Even gangsters aren’t born that way,” says Kolbee. ‘They start out life as innocent children who are part of the community. We have those factors to work with. I tell the children: ‘Don’t bring your quarrels to the field.’

‘In the first year of our programme the tension on the field could be cut with a knife as gang members eyed one another. ‘In year two things were calming down. Gang members had got to know one another on neutral ground.”

At first Kolbee received threats from the gangs over the phone. ‘I did what we did in District Six,” he says. ‘I told them to get lost.”

Over the years the threats have diminished. The gangs have all but dissolved in the areas touched by the soccer programme and the soccer fields are no-go zones for gangsters.

Kolbee’s secret method is: ‘Keep them busy; make them tired.” There are week-day practices, weekend matches, provincial leagues and even club meetings.

The league starts early on Saturday mornings. This means youngsters stay off the streets and go to bed early. If players ‘bunk” practices or matches, they are threatened with having their tracksuits repossessed and given to someone who will pitch.

Each team in the league receives a team strip and matching backpacks. Players wear a branded Mr Price tracksuit to school. It’s a mark of distinction. “We are one of the best school leagues in South Africa,” Kolbee says proudly.

The soccer academy caters for ages nine to 30. It’s a development programme that feeds talented players into the Mr Price Parkhurst Football Club, a semi-professional team. It creates opportunities for talented players to pursue a career in soccer.

The annual trials are fiercely competitive. Up to 80 children compete for a place in an 18-person team. At first the school teams had nowhere to practise. Kolbee found municipal fields in Rocklands, which he fixed up, and community volunteers help to provide essential items such as hot coffee and homemade koeksisters.

‘It’s lots of hard work,” Kolbee says, ‘but the community volunteers and youngsters have big hearts. There are many good people here. ‘The programme has created a sense of identity and belonging for youngsters. The criteria for being part of it include good academic performance and being positive role models.”

The Investing in the Future judges praised the unique developmental aspect of the programme. Because it is a home-grown initiative conceived and supported by community members, its sustainability potential is commendably high, they said.

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