Finding yourself in sport

2008-05-23 00:00

Six months ago, just another 20-year-old sat in a restaurant, wondering how he was going to carve out his place in the world. As he spoke, his eyes filled with tears.

“I just want a chance in life,” he said. “I want to find focus. I want to wake up in the morning and look forward to the day. I want to make progress and achieve … to find a nice girlfriend, to get my own place and to buy a car … and I know I must work for all these things, but it feels like I’m not getting anywhere. I want to look on the bright side, but I’m still lost in the dark.”

His story is quintessentially South African.

Born in a location outside a small rural town, he was raised by his adored grandparents. His parents separated when he was small and ever since he can remember, his mother has lived in a faraway city, where she works as a maid for a wealthy family, looking after other people’s children instead of her own. He sees her twice every year, but they speak on the phone every second day without fail.

His father remarried, had other children, moved on. Father and son lived a kilometre apart, but they met three times in the space of 20 years. The young man recalls each of these encounters as if they happened yesterday; as he does so, he completely fails to conceal the endless ache of rejection.

Even so, nurtured by the love of his grandparents, he worked hard at school and at the age of 18, earned a government bursary to study marketing at college. His delight was tempered by the news that the only available place was at a tertiary institution 150 km away. Sadly and reluctantly, he packed his belongings into a hold-all and set off to pursue his career.

The city felt unfamiliar and unfriendly, but, undaunted, he contacted a relative and persuaded him to rent out a small room in his small house; he then found himself a menial job, earning enough to get by. His daily routine was exhausting — college from 8 am until 3 pm, followed by a full shift from 4 pm to 11 pm — but he kept going.

Weeks turned to months. His academic results were outstanding, but he was struggling to settle. Designated “coloured” by race, but dark in complexion, he found it impossible to make friends.

The tears welled again as he said: “When I approach the black students, they tell me I should mix with the coloureds. When I talk to the coloureds, they tell me to stay with the blacks. Every day, I ask myself the same questions. Who am I? What am I? The fact is I am too coloured to be black, and I’m too black to be coloured.”

His voice trailed away and he sat silent, just another 20-year-old blessed with so many talents and so much potential and yet held back by a crippling lack of self-esteem.

That was six months ago. Today, he is smiling, blooming. What happened? Simply put, he found salvation in sport.

A major company, with a CEO who understood that CSR (corporate social responsibility) is not a political balm but an opportunity to enhance real lives, entered into a rand-for-rand partnership with the local municipality to construct a multi-purpose sports centre near where he was living. Cynics said the project was a waste of money, claiming the equipment would be stolen and insisting “they” would soon destroy everything.

In fact, thousands of people began using the new sports facility on a regular basis.

Among them, just another 20-year-old started working out in the gym, playing football regularly.

He began to make friends and, to his delight, he discovered that when he scored a goal, nobody remotely cared whether he was coloured or black. He was just a team-mate and, in sport, that has always been more than enough.

In sport, this young man has discovered

self-confidence. In sport, he has found a way forward.

Far from a waste of money, investment in sport is not only an investment in human lives, it is an investment in the future of this country.

•Edward Griffith is a journalist, author and the former CEO of SA Rugby. www.onesmallvoice.co.za.

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