Lehae Primary School has a scruffy football field with slightly wonky goalposts. But within its touchlines, a piece of South Africa's future is being written. Games played on this pitch and many others like it may, in the fullness of time, heal the fabric of this society more profoundly than the swanky World Cup showdowns that were staged at Soccer City, a few kilometres to the north.
The school perches on a low hill overlooking the new low-income housing development of Lehae, near Lenasia, south of Johannesburg. The pitch bears the scars of a thousand studs and the centre circle has been churned into chocolate mousse by a stormy summer.
The wear and tear is a mark of success, not neglect: evidence of the dedication of the school's dynamic football coach, Thuli Nkosi, and her team of champions. They practise on most school afternoons and often at 6.30am during competition weeks. And they play some seriously zippy football.
Lehae won the boys' trophy at this year's Dreamfields Champions League Festival in October, defending the title they won last year. And they're among the pioneers of a youth football revival stirring in the poorest corners of South Africa.
"It's a no-fee school and most of these kids come from struggling backgrounds," said Nkosi, a technology teacher from Vereeniging. "So the love that you give as a coach is very important to them. It shouldn't just be about telling them what to do. You have to give them something; love them from the bottom of your heart. I've seen such a change in many of them. Some are average learners in class but excellent in soccer and that helps them to value themselves," she said.
"We play as a team and we enjoy passing to each other," said captain and defender George Mongwe (12), talking to the press with all the aplomb of a pro. "Our coach was very strict and we trained so hard to win this cup. It makes a big difference to my life, this team. I always dreamed of becoming a soccer player."
His teammate Mduduzi Nyeza added: "Eish, it was tough! There were 122 teams there, but only one can win."
Growing network of committed teachers
Nkosi is deeply proud of her boys and plans to start a girls' team next season. She is part of a growing network of committed teachers, administrators and sponsors who are striving to ensure that children in low-income communities play football – or another sport – every school week.
At the heart of this drive is Dreamfields, the non-governmental organisation established by Kaya FM broadcaster John Perlman, which has pumped nearly R34-million into primary school football in townships and rural areas since its founding in 2007.
Resources giant BHP Billiton has committed R21.5-million to the Dreamfields cause and the Gauteng department of sport, art, culture and recreation has provided grants worth R1.5-million. The South African Football Association has pitched in with support for coaching education.
The project has provided "Dreambags" – containing kit, boots, shin guards and balls – to 2189 schools to date, an investment of R14-million. So far, 79 round-robin Dreamleagues spanning 1200 schools have been set up across the country.
The champions of each Gauteng Dreamleague qualified for the Champions League festival at Marks Park in Johannesburg in October, which marked the fifth anniversary of the project. It was a bumper day of helter-skelter cup footie, laced with tears of both triumph and disappointment. Lehae took the boys' title and Ivory Park's Reagile Primary hoisted the girls' cup.
The overriding goal is not to improve South Africa's patchy football prowess at elite level, but to create a positive culture in schools and fortify the physical, social and emotional resources of vulnerable youngsters. It may be a sepia-tinted Victorian idea that sport builds character and prepares children to negotiate the ups and downs of life, but it's also often true.
For the Dreamfields team, a shortage of sustainable league football is a glaring gap in the youth football scene. There are a number of well-funded knockout tournaments for schools: the Kay Motsepe Cup for high schools and age-group cups backed by McDonald's, Danone, Coca-Cola and Metropolitan Life. But most participating teams are eliminated early, after playing one or two games. Dreamfields is all about filling the term with weekly competitive action, which makes for better fitness, technique and camaraderie.
"The league mind-set is one that people are still trying to get used to," said Silas Mashava, Dreamfields's sustainable football specialist. "So there are challenges around details and logistics. But this year many schools are starting to ask us: 'Can we join a league?'"
Much of the admininistrative workload is boring and thankless and requires passionate officials such as Mapula Hlongwane, the head of the sports unit of the Johannesburg South Schools district that includes Lehae. "It's a huge job," she said. "We draw the leagues, call meetings withFall the schools, get all the results, collate them and monitor them. If they are not playing, we need to find out why and fix the problem."
Her reward is seeing the affirmation that football gives to the most vulnerable children in her district, many of them orphans looking after younger siblings. "When they come to these events, when they hear they are going to get breakfast and lunch their faces just light up," said Hlongwane. "And when they're dressed in that kit they become proud and don't have to compare their clothes to other kids'. 'I have a shirt, shorts, boots, shinpads. I'm part of the team.' They become brighter in that situation."
Not all teachers are as dedicated as Nkosi and Hlongwane. But Mashava says the common perception that public school teachers are lazy is too simplistic and ignores the reasons behind the apathy that exists.
"Teachers were once the heart of the community, but over the past decade that has changed," he said. "They are not really looked up to and too many kids don't have that respect for teachers, and that affects the motivation of many. But we rely on hundreds of teachers who go the extra mile, sacrificing time and even spending their own money on travelling. And where there is an exceptional culture of sport, as there is at Lehae, there is also high academic performance."
Lehae Primary has the advantage of serving a concentrated community: all the pupils and many of the teachers live in Lehae, which prevents transport headaches for after-school training. The school also boasts a flourishing vegetable garden to supplement its school feeding scheme.
To his credit, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula has taken decisive action to reverse the decline of sport in schools that has occurred since democracy, together with the department of basic education. School sport is now compulsory and 40% of the sport department's budget goes to school programmes. Thousands of school sports assistants have been appointed to organise practices and matches at low-fee schools such as Lehae for rock-bottom salaries of about R2000 a month.
Hustling in the shadows
By all accounts the system has worked well, giving unemployed people a foothold in a sports administration career and taking the strain off teachers. One problem is that they are not authorised to supervise children outside school property without a teacher present, which sometimes defeats the purpose of hiring them. There is talk of solving this problem with a training programme to qualify them as sports teachers.
The cost of leaving neglected youths outside the family of South African football was sadly demonstrated last Wednesday night. When two boys, aged 12 and 13, hurled stones at the Zambia team bus at Soccer City, they provoked outrage from various football pundits. "Why were they unaccompanied by their parents?" asked SuperSport analyst Idah Peterside.
It was a silly question. Anyone who attends a major game in Johannesburg with open eyes will see dozens of scruffy youths hustling in the shadows around the outskirts of the stadium, directing cars to parking and pleading for tickets. Chances are, the pair who attacked the bus don't even have parents. They are members of yet another lost generation, the ones we try not to think about until they hurl a rock at someone who matters.
And although it was easy to point out that these budding hooligans' violence was alien to South African football culture, it's more useful to frame the problem the other way round.
The values that football can instil are clearly alien to the two culprits, for all their misguided zeal, and to many of their generation.
But there is plenty of will to reach them. "There are 20000-odd primary schools in the country," said Mashava. "We want all of those. You go to bed feeling you've done something – but we're only working with 1200 schools, so there's a lot still to do. We know what we're doing is important."