'The hostel boys stink'

2017-07-02 06:00

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Juniors United is a no-frills youth football club, situated in Soweto’s Orlando West, for wannabe idiski stars. Already, some of its youngsters have been signed by top club academies – two 15-year-olds are now with Bidvest Wits and Jomo Cosmos. But today, Juniors is in crisis after a near-total walkout by the Under-15 senior division, following the arrival of new players from a despised local hostel.

It is an alarming story of present-day prejudice and hatred within Soweto.

Aged 15, the oldest member of Juniors United led the walkout. (The youngsters in this story are referred to by their nicknames).

“The hostel players are dirty and they leave their kit stinking because they don’t bath thoroughly,” he declares. “It’s not that I’m against them, but I don’t enjoy their company because they are too bayaphapha (forward).”

The boy, who is draped in fake gold necklaces, chains and rings, was a not-very-reliable left back who spent most of his time on the bench.

Why does he hate the hostel kids so much?

“Eish! I don’t hate them at all,” he insists. “I just don’t want to be on the same team as them.

“At school we play idiski together, but I cannot play with them in my domestic league. Why don’t they play for the teams in the hostel and leave us alone? I will come back when they are all gone.”

Surrounded by neat Sowetan RDP suburbs, the infamous Men’s Hostel in Meadowlands – built in the 1950s to accommodate cheap labour from the rural areas – stands as a grim, ever-present landmark within the community. This part of Soweto has been transformed, with Meadowlands malls sitting alongside Orlando Stadium and touristy Vilakazi Street, where the former homes of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and former president Nelson Mandela are located.

Bullying

Teenagers here – including most of the Juniors – carry smartphones and follow the Premier League on DStv. But at the dusty hostel – 740 barrack-like rows of it that roll relentlessly to the horizon – little has changed, except that clinging to it is an ever-increasing army of shack dwellers.

Another Under-15 team member to join the walkout turned 14 this year. Short and as thin as a rake, he has been one of Juniors’ stars, a multiskilled midfielder with dreams of playing for Real Madrid.

“Lezintwana zase hosi ziyasipita (the lads from the hostel are too forward),” he complains, mirroring his teammate. “I will come back to train with Juniors United only if the hostel lads leave the team for good.”

How would he feel if Real Madrid players boycotted training because of his arrival in the team? He remains mute. I repeat the question, but he stays silent.

His mother, though, professes shock and disapproval at her son’s actions.

“I didn’t know that he was no longer training with Juniors United,” she says.

“I wondered why he wasn’t following his schedule of waking up early on Saturdays to play footer.

“The fact that these kids don’t want to mingle with the hostel kids is appalling and disgusting. If he makes the cut in a professional team, he will be combined with players from all over, so he must understand that footer is a game that brings diverse cultures together without any discrimination.

“Perhaps he was misled by his team-mates. Kids can easily deceive each other by agreeing on a wrong decision. Give them time; they are still young and confused.”

Another Under-15 player to leave is 13 years old and a right winger, skilled at quick turns and accurate passes.

After weeks of going AWOL, he came to training, but spent only two minutes on the pitch before vanishing. He told the hostel boys he could not bear training with them “because they stink”.

Not everyone agrees.

“I was training and there was no smell at all,” insists “Iniesta”, an exciting 12-year-old with impeccable pace and ball skills. “Uyajiya uPedro, ngabe uyasho makafuna ukuvaya hier! (He is making an excuse. Why doesn’t he leave if he wants to, and stop making silly excuses?)”

Another 14-year-old is also sympathetic.

“The Under-15 team is not united because we have players who look down on other players because of their background and poverty,” he says.

All the same, he has not pitched for training since Easter.

His father owns a mini bottle store and we are speaking at the family’s spacious eight-room house in Orlando West. The huge youngster, who has a bit of a tummy thanks to his hearty appetite for snacks and cooldrinks, is proudly wearing Adidas soccer boots that go for R899 and the new Under-15 black and orange kit – “a full set of the old one disappeared off my Orlando West washing line in April”.

“Those players that come from the hostel are being mistreated because they don’t match the standard of township life,” he says.

“It is none of my business if my team-mate has smelly armpits and cannot afford to buy a roll-on deodorant. My wish is to see us united again as a team and stop judging one another on and off the field, and to build mutual respect within the team. I tried talking to amajita (the lads), but failed to convince them.”

His mother says: “A child from the hostel is also my child. If the hostel children want to play with my son in the same team, I don’t see any problem. We live in a democratic country and we all have rights.”

As coach of Juniors United, I signed the first hostel kid last season. I had no idea, when they joined, that they came from the hostel and it doesn’t matter to me, as long as they play quality footer. We are a welcoming team with doors wide open to any youngster.

I never thought that joking and teasing could lead to a serious break-up between the township boys and the hostel lads. I never thought that a united team could break up like this in the middle of a journey that started in 2014.

The hostel boys would come to me and report that the township boys’ leader was bullying them. But I never took it seriously. My judgement was way too wrong.

If there is a bright spot today in the affairs of Juniors United, it is the Under-11s. They have won eight out of nine games this season and are currently leaders in their division in our local Noordgesig league.

The smallest player is eight-year-old “Gattuso”, who lives in a one-room shack at the hostel and joined Juniors in March.

Gattuso is a demon on the field, a box-to- box player with dazzling skills and performance who has already netted eight goals this season, including the opening goal for the Under-13s when they hammered Bulte Boys 3-0. Our youngest goal-scorer, Gattuso’s plan is to play for Sundowns.

At his neatly organised shack, a curtain divides the room into a kitchen and a bedroom. The TV is topped by framed family pictures. There is a silver fridge, an antique sofa and small chairs for the four children. There is a table holding buckets – there is only the bucket toilet system here.

“I wish to see us united again because since we joined Juniors, the Under-15s decided to quit,” says Gattuso.

“I do not know what their problem is. There is nothing wrong with the team. Kumnandi kakhulu! (it’s too good!)

“What I like about Juniors United is that the team play every Saturday in the league and the coach is always present.”

...

When I was nine years old, around Gattuso’s age and in Grade 4, I too was living in Meadowlands Men’s Hostel, in one of those dismal barrack-row units, with my mother, sister and younger brother.

It was 1992 and a turbulent time, with the ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) at war with each other. There were frequent gun battles around us.

At the hostel, ours was a cheerfully mingled population of Sotho, Xhosa, Ntsonga, Venda, Tswana and Pedi. But Zulus predominated, so to the ANC townships that surrounded us, we were IFP and fair game. They called me “umdlwembe” (something that deserves to die).

Visiting Gattuso and learning that he goes to my old school, Vezokuhle Primary, jerks me back to the past.

I have to cross the enemy line twice a day to get to school at Vezokuhle Primary in Mzimhlophe. My black Toughees are already covered in dust. My master plan is to make it to school without getting hot klaps and robbed of my R1 lunch money.

I cross the robots into enemy territory and, instead of using Ntintili Street, I switch to Percy Khumalo. It is quiet and empty. I pick up the pace and run along the middle of the street towards the short right leading to school, 1km away.

An ANC cadre appears at the corner ahead and whistles. Breathing heavily, I try to keep a relaxed face, pulling to the left to make space to escape a surprise attack.

Mawillies, who is about 16 and has pimples and a raspy voice, appears out of the blue with two other guys. I turn and speed off like a rabbit, pursued by cadres screaming, “Vimba! Vimba!”

More guys are waiting for me. I am trapped in the middle. I slice between them like a hot knife through butter, and race for my life for the robots, where I run straight into a traffic officer, sending him spinning.

He sees what’s going on and drives me to school in his sky blue Nissan Skyline.

But in the afternoon I am on my own and Mawillies is going to make me pay for using an officer to pass him and his gang.

...

With a bump, I am back in Gattuso’s shack, and his mother is telling me how she borrowed soccer boots from a neighbour so her son “looked good” in Juniors’ new kit photo.

The family has lived here since 1997.

“My son deserves to be treated with respect and dignity,” says Zama Dlamini.

“No one has the right to profile my child based on his standard of living. I live in a shack with four kids and I make ends meet with the little grant I get from the government. That doesn’t give anyone the right to belittle my son.”

Mrs Dlamini has never watched Gattuso weave his magic on the pitch. “When I meet people on the street, they say: ‘Oh, is Gattuso your son?’ And they tell me how much they adore him as a soccer player. I didn’t have any idea what they were talking about.

“His friends would knock at my door, looking for Gattuso. And I’d ask them: ‘Who is Gattuso, there’s no one living in this shack by that name.’ And they’d tell me it is my son’s nickname. I don’t even know the real Gattuso (Gennaro Gattuso, manager of AC Milan). But that’s my son’s nickname, which we have adopted as a family.”

So, where to from here? While the quality quitters have chalked a question mark over the survival of an Under-15 division at Juniors, this may not be a bad thing.

The Under-11s, now 20 of them and increasing in numbers almost by the day, are the future. With their limitless enthusiasm and energy, these kids are only interested in their bolo and couldn’t give a damn about who lives where and who may have smelly armpits. They set an example for the recently faltering Under-13s, and from here we can build up again.

Damane is a freelance writer and coach of Juniors United

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