How one man plans to create Olympic swimmers in Stellenbosch township

2016-07-08 11:13
Songo Fipaza with Ntlantla Nonkasa. (Tammy Petersen)

Songo Fipaza with Ntlantla Nonkasa. (Tammy Petersen)

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Cape Town - When Songo Fipaza looks at the puddles of rainwater gathered on a vacant lot in Kayamandi, he sees more than mud and intermittent patches of grass.

"This is where we can build our pool and start developing the Olympic swimmers of tomorrow," he said.

Fipaza's multi-million rand plan stems from a dream to see the township in which he grew up produce world class athletes in sports which don't only involve kicking a ball.

Growing up as a child, soccer was the only activity for children to take part in, he recalled.

"But then I saw Elana Meyer win the silver medal in the 10 000m in the 1992 Summer Olympics. I asked myself why I couldn't do that. So I decided to do it."

He joined the Stellenbosch Athletics Club and running became his passion.

Tireless fundraising

In 2004, a friend convinced him to take part in the Absa Cape Epic, introducing him to mountain biking.

"In the township, no one knew about such a sport. It was an amazing experience, and I thought about how much the kids here in my home town would love it. So I decided to try my best to bring it here."

In 2008 he started songo.info, a NGO aimed at uplifting his community in collaboration with world champion mountain biker Christoph Sauser.

Through tireless fund-raising and sponsorship chasing, they were rewarded with a donation of six bikes and enough to build a small track on a vacant patch of land next to a vandalised council building, notorious as a hangout for criminals and drug addicts.

"The municipality in 2013 eventually decided to demolish what was left of the structure, but I begged them to rather hand it over for songo.info's use, considering that right next door to it the children were doing something constructive. They agreed, and our clubhouse was born."

Restoring the building cost R200 000, but building contractors and material sponsors ensured that the job did not cripple the organisation financially. 

'There's more to life'

Three years later, the clubhouse boasts a mini gym, couches for "chilling", a computer lab for research while doing homework as well as a library.

Every afternoon between 15:00 and 17:00, about 80 children make their way to the facility where they spend an hour with their schoolwork and an hour on the BMX track.

"You need to see these guys on their bikes. They're so impressive," he boasted.

"Children in the township can do and excel in any sport they learn, given the opportunity. It's important for them to see that there's more to life than what they see in Kayamandi. Seeing the rest of the world gives them perspective."

But now Fipaza wants to push the youngsters toward the water.

Four months ago he decided that his next big project was to build a pool in his community through the Kayamandi Sports Development initiative.

A long way to go

He argued that the racial stereotype that black people could not swim was inaccurate, as many were unable to swim only because they are not exposed to facilities where they could learn.

In April he took part in the London Marathon, and through crowdfunding managed to raise R60 000 toward his cause.

But he still has a long way to go – he has estimated that the fully functional indoor pool he envisions should cost about R15m.

"Currently, kids in Kayamandi are only exposed to playing in a dam or a river as there are no local public pools for them," he said.

"And sadly, most of them can't swim because they don't have access to a facility where they can safely learn how to stay above water. We need to change that and develop this sport so that we can see a township kid representing SA at the Olympics, not just those who attended suburban schools or had a pool at home."

Fipaza ventured into a pool last year to learn to swim as part of the Iron Man challenge.

Begging to be taught

"I had lots of self-doubt, but six months later I did it. And I felt comfortable in the sea."

His ability to show his mettle in the water regularly sees people begging him to teach them how to swim, which is impossible without a facility to teach them.

Fipaza spoke proudly of Azukile Simayile, 23, one of his athletes who has taken part in the World Duathlon Championship three times.

In 2013, Simayile came 8th at the championships in Nice, in 2014 he finished 6th in Australia and this year 10th in Spain.

"Imagine how he could have excelled in the triathlon if he could swim. This great athlete would love to learn how."

As a child, Fipaza recalled, he also witnessed a near drowning when his friend got into trouble while swimming in a dam at a nearby farm.

3.5km walk to nearest pool

"Seeing something like that is very scary. We have had five children drown here over the years. It's time our children learn to be safe in the water."

Ntlantla Nonkasa, 17, said he dreamt of being able to do more than keep his head above water.

"Right now we don't get to swim a lot. We have to walk about 3.5km to get to Cloetesville, where the nearest pool is," he said.

To get there, they have to cross a train track as well as the busy R304.

"Sometimes the children throw us with stones because they don't want us there or steal our clothes when we are in the water."

Fipaza dreams of teaching everyone from toddlers to pensioners how to swim while also creating interest in sports like water polo.

"Who knows, some of the best competitive swimmers may be right here, waiting to be trained," he said.

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Read more on:    cape town  |  youth  |  good news

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