Langa’s kids and their hockey ‘bats’

“There is no reason why Langa can’t have five players in the Olympic team in the next decade.” So says Langa Hockey Club coach John McInroy. But there were no Langa players on the field – or any South African players at all, for that matter (men or women, black or white) – when the Rio Olympics hockey tournament was played in August.

The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) has ruled that winning the African competition is not good enough (since 1993 the men’s hockey team has won seven out of seven and the women six out of six) and that the teams’ lack of representivity is a problem.

At the last big competition, the Commonwealth Games in Scotland in 2014, South Africa finished fifth and Lungile Tsolekile was the only black African in the men’s team – and the first to play international hockey for South Africa.

His cousin, Thami Tsolekile, also played Test cricket and hockey at international level for his country and Owen Mvimbi from Southern Gauteng made his debut for the hockey Proteas in 2011.

Until this year, that was it in terms of black representation in the national squad.

The real deal

But how can hockey’s selectors be expected to select players of colour if most black youngsters prefer to hone their skills in football? That’s a question that is easily answered.

First, there’s a township club in Cape Town that’s in its seventh straight year of premier league hockey.

Second, the latest national men’s under-21 squad has eight players of colour, six of whom are black. Many of these young stars learnt their hockey at KwaZulu-Natal’s boys’ schools such as Michaelhouse, Maritzburg College and Kearsney, and there should be no doubting that the likes of Nqobile Ntuli (now at Stellenbosch University) and Tyson Dlungwana are the real deal.

Langa Hockey Club first team
Township talent: The Langa Hockey Club first team celebrate their first win of the season.

Several of these players have already made their senior Proteas debut because, as in 2000 when Sascoc last ruled against hockey’s participation in the Olympics, there have been many resignations and “unavailables” in senior hockey ranks. Playing club hockey in the Netherlands or Britain becomes much more attractive for local players when the prospect of playing in the Olympics is no longer in sight.

As it happens, there are no Langa players in the South African men’s under-21 team, which is a bit of a surprise considering the club plays in Cape Town’s fiercely competitive eight-team Grand Challenge league. (Stellenbosch University won the league this year; Langa came seventh.)

Langa first won promotion to the Grand Challenge in 1998, the young players having first been exposed to hockey sticks in 1987 before playing their first match in the third division in 1991.

The age profile of the current top players at the pioneering club just happens not to coincide with under-21 selection this year, but Western Province selected 10 Langa juniors this season and the older group has several ex-Western Province and South Africa players. This includes both Tsolekiles and player-coach McInroy, who has played 45 Tests for South Africa.

The club runs two senior teams and has two junior girls’ and three junior boys’ teams. A mini-hockey session is run for all-comers on Fridays on the AstroTurf, which was laid by the City of Cape Town in 2014.

Township hockey thrives

How did a township club comprising mostly isiXhosa speakers come to be a centre of excellence for hockey, a sport supposedly foreign to black people?

The catalyst was the late Bob Woolmer, who worked for the Western Province Hockey Union before he became a famous cricket coach. A very good hockey player himself, Woolmer one day delivered a boot-load of hockey sticks to a group of keen young boys. Like every youngster in Langa, they knew all about cricket so the hockey implements came to be called – and are called to this day – “hockey bats”.

Very quickly they were playing morning hockey for their schools and men’s league hockey on Saturday afternoons. Between 1991 and 1998 they moved steadily up the leagues. A turbulent time followed, which culminated in the club disbanding in protest at perceived unfair treatment by the hockey authorities.

Langa Hockey Club in training

Then sports minister Ngconde Balfour resolved the issues and, for the first time, the Langa Hockey Club were given access to their own patch of grass in the Langa Stadium, having practised for years in the in-goal area of a rugby field. After 2003, the University of Cape Town and then Bishops allowed Langa the use of their AstroTurfs.

By 2008 Langa’s team was again in good shape, but the club declined an offer to be “jump-promoted” in that year, having finished third in the second league. In 2009 they drew just one game and won the other 14 to regain their Grand Challenge status in style.

The first game of the 2010 season was “probably the greatest game I have ever been involved in”, says McInroy. Previously unbeaten provincial and national champions Stellenbosch University were outplayed, and Langa has been competitive in the Grand Challenge ever since.

Mthuthu Msizi played for South Africa at under-16 and under-18 level (with McInroy) and was coach of the first XI from 2013 to 2015. He now works for the Western Cape sports and recreation department, and is enjoying watching others take up the reins and coach the juniors.

He says he learnt a lot during the past five years “when we were up against it” in terms of resources. The players came to realise that “we have the strength of mind to compete”.

Drawing in the locals

One of the junior stars who might go to a future Olympics is little Litha Kraai, who plays as a nine-year-old in the under-14 team (and the under-11s). His older brother Zenani is another bright star who has already earned provincial colours.

The club has taken a new approach to selling the game to the residents of Langa. The stadium itself is located in the western end of Langa, “eLokshin”, so on Friday members run with their hockey sticks through other parts of Langa: the Zones, New Flats, Flats and Settlers. (Because McInroy is involved, the Langa Hockey Run is also a Red Sock Friday run as part of the social movement he founded, but that’s another story.)

For Msizi, the key thing about the Langa Hockey Club is that it is “by Langa guys, for Langa guys”, although all the members acknowledge the partnerships and support of Nolands (an auditing firm) and the Leap Science and Maths School.

Photographer Phumzile Malotana, who promotes the club on social media, says: “It is not only about bringing fans to games. We also want people to contribute whatever they can – a lunch or transport for juniors.”

Langa Hockey Club will soon celebrate its 30th birthday. When Langa Cricket Club turned 25, Woolmer wrote that “real development is to see … the once young boys now running their own ship successfully”. The Langa Hockey Club has the wind in its sails, set fair for some of its members to be Olympians in Tokyo in 2020.

Langa hockey
Lwando Mafungwa, Zenani Kraai and Sethu Ntshinga have all represented Western Province at hockey — and they are talented cricketers as well.

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