Black South Africans kiss kayaking at Soweto Canoe Club

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South Africans love sport, but the legacy of segregation and colonialism casts a long shadow, especially when it comes to integration into sport. There are controversial racial quotas for national teams in most major sports. But for the 75 young black kayakers who paddled for a club in Soweto, their generation thinks they can play whatever sport they want.

The Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club is run by firefighter and paramedic Nkosi Mzolo, who learned to paddle in his youth and has since competed in Africa’s largest kayak race along the Msunduzi River on several occasions. Most young paddlers must first learn to swim before they can dip a paddle. Under apartheid, black South Africans were prohibited from entering most swimming pools and beaches, so many black parents today cannot teach their children to swim because they don’t know each other. not.

Why we wrote this

Black South Africans, who were once excluded from kayaking, embraced the sport in Soweto, where a black-run club is bringing new talent to the fore.

The club is free to members and raises funds from sponsors so paddlers can participate in regional competitions. Just as important as the competition for the trophies, the club, founded in 2003, has given thousands of children a passion they might never have found otherwise.

“My talent is in the water,” says Chwayita Fanteni, who is 16 and has been paddling for three years. “I like the energy I get from winning.”

Soweto, South Africa

As a child who grew up in South Africa, Nkosi Mzolo and his friends were at the forefront of Africa’s biggest river kayaking race every summer, a 75-mile endurance paddle over bone-shaking rapids.

But as he sat on the banks of the Msunduzi River near Durban watching the paddlers pass by in a rainbow of shiny spandex, he couldn’t imagine being in their place. “I thought it was a sport for whites,” he says.

But Mr. Mzolo grew up riding a revolution. When he was born in 1988, black South Africans like Mr. Mzolo could neither vote nor live in most parts of the country, let alone play sports with whites. By the age of 12, however, boating was changing in post-apartheid South Africa.

Why we wrote this

Black South Africans, who were once excluded from kayaking, embraced the sport in Soweto, where a black-run club is bringing new talent to the fore.

A local black kayaker invited Mr. Mzolo to learn the sport. Then, in 2007, Mr. Mzolo caught the attention of a wealthy white amateur kayaker in Johannesburg, who paid him for training as a firefighter and paramedic, and eventually hired him as a trainer. kayaking. Now Mr. Mzolo runs a canoe club that trains black paddlers, opening up a world to them, just as he opened up to him.

“The canoe took my life off the course it was on and put me on another course,” he says.

Today, he trains more than 75 young black kayakers in Soweto, near Johannesburg, in the hope that the sport, known to South Africans as canoeing, can do the same for them. “I want to give them something in their life to look forward to,” he says.

In a sport-mad country grappling with the legacy of segregation and colonialism, integration into sport is a deeply political issue. During apartheid, South Africa was banned from international competitions like the Olympics for refusing to send mixed teams. Today, there are controversial racial quotas for national teams in most major sports. But Mr. Mzolo’s paddlers are part of a generation who grew up believing they could play the sport of their choice.

Ryan Lenora Brown / The Christian Science Monitor

Members of the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club practice near the Orlando Cooling Towers, which were built in the 1950s to help provide electricity to white Johannesburg residents, while neighboring black residents of Soweto lived in the dark. .

The club Mr. Mzolo now runs, the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club (SCARC), was founded in 2003 by Brad Fisher, the advertising manager and paddler who sponsored Mr. Mzolo’s education. He then hired Mr Mzolo, who worked as a gardener in Johannesburg, as one of the club’s first coaching recruits.

Since then, the club has trained some of the best black paddlers in the country. Mr. Mzolo himself has completed the Dusi Canoe Marathon, the long distance race he watched as a boy, 17 times. But more importantly for coaches like Mr Mzolo, the club has given thousands of children a passion they might never have found otherwise.

“My talent is in the water,” says Chwayita Fanteni, who is 16 and has been paddling for three years. “I like the energy I get from winning.”

One recent afternoon, as cars passed nearby on a thoroughfare, Ms Fanteni dipped her paddle into the Orlando Dam and pushed, joining her teammates on a paddle around the 1.5 mile long dam. Behind them, the sun hid behind a pair of decommissioned electric cooling towers.

Ryan Lenora Brown / The Christian Science Monitor

Nhlamulo Mahwayi (left) and Juliet Mzibeli finish training with the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club on September 27, 2021. The two 12-year-olds have been with the club since the age of nine. Their goal, both say, is to compete in the Olympics.

Young SCARC-trained paddlers compete in a league with teams across Gauteng, the province where Johannesburg is located, and often travel across the country for races. Gauteng has 16 recreational paddling clubs, scattered throughout once white and black areas. South Africans have enjoyed kayaking success on the world stage, including Hank McGregor, who won 11 gold medals at the Canoe Marathon World Championships.

For the young rowers training at Power Park in Soweto, there is also an idol closer to home. Siseko Ntondini, an elite kayaker who was the first black paddler to stand on the podium au Dusi, grew up in an informal neighborhood not far from here and made his debut at SCARC.

“My goal is to go to Russia. For the Olympics, ”says Nhlamulo Mahwayi, who is 12 and has been training with SCARC since the age of nine. So far he’s only been to Cape Town, which he considers “so fun and so clean.” I saw people surfing.

Like many young paddlers here, when Mr. Mahwayi joined the club in 2018, he couldn’t swim.

“Ninety-five percent of these kids, I would say, come here without knowing how to swim at all,” says Mzolo. This too is a legacy of apartheid, which banned black South Africans from most swimming pools and beaches. Today, many parents never teach their children to swim because they themselves don’t know how to swim.

Ryan Lenora Brown / The Christian Science Monitor

Members of the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club gather after training near the Orlando Dam, where they train, on September 27, 2021.

New recruits to SCARC therefore often spend months in a nearby public swimming pool before diving a paddle into the water.

“No, it wasn’t difficult. It just took a while, ”says Juliet Mzibeli, who is also 12 and has been canoeing since the age of nine. His answers are short and to the point. She doesn’t have time to talk to a reporter for long – the few hours between the end of school and sunset are precious, and that’s for the canoe.

Mr. Mzolo comes here when he can, when he is not working at night as a firefighter and paramedic, or when he is not sleeping; other days, he sends his junior coaches, young people who are themselves from the club. It’s exhausting, he says, but far from the concern he felt last year when the club was closed for five months during the coronavirus lockdown in South Africa.

During those months, he spent his days taking COVID-19 patients to hospitals, and his nights wondering how his athletes were doing, many trying to do home schooling without the internet, computers, or even sometimes. with electricity. Some lived in informal settlements without reliable water or electricity. Many of their parents had lost their jobs.

With public facilities like parks and dams closed, the club was unable to train. Mr Mzolo has been going door to door visiting his athletes and bringing food packages to their families – as he often did before the pandemic. The club, which is free to join, raises funds through corporate sponsorships and personal donations to cover the cost of equipment and competition registration fees.

In 2007, a young club paddler drowned while training here. “After his death, we tried to understand what had happened because he could swim,” says Mzolo. “The only thing we could think of was that he didn’t have a lot of strength because he might have come to training hungry.”

Since then, he says, the club has provided monthly food packages to all of its members. One recent afternoon, the coaches arrived in a minibus loaded with heavy bags of cornmeal, rice, canned beans and oil, enough for each athlete to take away a slice.

“Looking at me, I started where these kids are,” he says. “Now I’m trying to be part of their journey. “

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