The heart of a community

2014-07-04 00:00

I THINK I might have found Durban’s beating heart.

At Stella Sports Club in Glenwood, every room, nook, hallway, bar and sports field seems to be used by an entirely different group of people, and all at the same time.

Families with babies sit on outdoor benches and cheer as players of all colours scoot around the twin AstroTurf soccer enclosures. Inside, teenage girls prepare for a fashion show in a tiny lobby between the snooker bar and the gambling slots room. Later, older men, still dressed in their work-day suits, use the same lobby space to play poker on a green baize card table.

On the deck outside, salesmen killing time between meetings organise their evening over a cider, as parents yell to their children from the bleachers on the grass fields below.

On the opposite side, rowdy tables celebrate unspecified achievements at the excellent Julio’s continental restaurant.

A recent survey found that the total participants in Stella’s recreational activities are an almost perfect match for South Africa’s demographic breakdown, and to this it adds an astonishing diversity of young and old. In three years in Cape Town, I never found any institution that came close to the diversity of people who play and meet every day on this green block.

In the snooker bar, I make the mistake of zoning out from the friendly chatter of the older woman behind the counter. A member gently points out to me that the bar lady has just completed her 27th Comrades Marathon for Stella Athletic Club — just three behind the legendary Tilda Tearle — and that she’s worth listening to.

And, in the Astro Bar, fans break away from a World Cup game on the big screen to listen to an exceptional engineering student give a talk on his battle against a life-threatening cancer.

The club is, in other words, alive — as thoroughly, impressively alive as the young engineer.

And yet, like most sports clubs around Durban, it seems to be permanently on the brink of extinction.

This, after a dozen vibrant recreational clubs have already closed or partially closed, and been reacquired by the eThekwini Municipality in recent years, including Ramblers, Wanderers and Hillary.

Stella has to survive on a month-to-month lease from the city, as eThekwini rates officials try to squeeze an extra few rands out of the club, based on a bizarre claim that AstroTurf soccer should be billed as a “commercial enterprise”, rather than a sport.

There are various other financial challenges — some the fault of the club, some the fault of the city, most the result of an inherited legacy here — but it’s clear that any uncompromising stance from the municipality will permanently stop this heart from beating.

And we know what happens when these clubs do close: within a single week of Stella’s lawn bowls’ section closing in 2009, vagrants and drug users moved on to the property en masse, generating a crisis for Glenwood.

At the time, a single Glenwood resident, Brian Martin, saved the club by digging into his own pocket and helping the committee execute a rescue plan which saw AstroTurf soccer replace the overgrown bowling greens.

I have found the same kind of life, and community welcome, at other sports clubs since my recent return to my home city, after 15 years away.

And every club I’ve visited seems to be surviving with the same chronic insecurity over its future, beneath a municipality that fails to recognise their unique value to the community and the city as a whole.

At the Stamford Hill Sports Club off Umgeni Road, touch-rugby players use their car headlamps to light the field (another repurposed bowling green) when the floodlights don’t work.

After joining a pick-up game there recently — anonymously I thought — members collared me afterwards to attend a ceremony in the clubhouse. I found that I and one other visitor were the focal points of that ceremony: asked to kneel and be annointed with daft nicknames, as someone doused our heads with a shot of beer.

Where else but at a sports club, my fellow newbie pointed out, can you buy a quart of beer at a bar for under R20?

No one talks shop or trades business cards. Instead, sports clubs are the places where you can mingle with people from any walk of life — a taxi driver, a chef, a lawyer, a liquidator — and simply enjoy being a Durbanite. Later, I learnt that the friendly guy who did the annointing is a senior Hawks detective.

My appeal to eThekwini Municipality is this: support your sports clubs. Meet them halfway, and then go further to ensure their survival. Grant Stella its 30-year lease, and let people use that confidence to invest in its development.

Why? Because the vibrancy and community you can find only in places like Stella are the reason I want to live in this city. And I am not alone. And because without Durban’s neighbourhood community spaces, we will retreat to our private spaces and our commercial gyms and our shopping malls, and lose each other.

• Rowan Philp is chief reporter at The Witness.

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