Through soccer, youth in South Africa come closer to one another.
Like many others from my generation, after graduation I was working part-time while struggling to find meaningful, career-focused work, when I stumbled across an internship opportunity with the Football Foundation of South Africa (FFSA), among other job postings in a newsletter.
The FFSA is a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 that has served the small town of Gansbaai and surrounding communities ever since by offering social integration, education and life skills through the vehicle of sports.
Through sports the FFSA contributes to reducing the lingering post-apartheid sentiments still present there, and offers youth and young adults of the community a safe envi ronment to come and forget about the everyday struggles present in many of their lives.
The internship would last for a span of six-months. After going through the interview process and then ultimately being offered one of the positions, I had admittedly mixed emotions of excitement and nervousness at the prospect of spending that length of time in a foreign country. But, at the end of the day, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I was happy and ready to jump at!
The current racial and cultural situation among the youths in South Africa is a delicate one, especially here in the Western Cape. There is still readily visible and subtle tension in this post-apartheid era. Gansbaai is still separated into three distinct communities: Masakhane (black), Blompark (colored), and De Kelders (white). Because of this, the youth of this area do not routinely socialize and integrate with one another unless they absolutely have to. Often the children act upon the sentiments that have unfortunately remained stubbornly in place, influenced by the racial and cultural views of one another after years of apartheid.
Language is another barrier that many youths there encounter in dealing with one another. Masakhane primarily speaks Xhosa, Blompark speaks Afrikaans, and De Kelders a mix of Afrikaans and English. The of ficial language of the FFSA is English, the language used within our training sessions and other programs. However, when the children from the different communities hear one another speaking in a language they do not fully understand, they immediately assume the worst (like their being made fun by others or, purposefully being excluded), and this can lead to fights and/or arguments.
Since my arrival in January, each day offers new surprises and challenges in making sure the programs that we run are making the most impact in the community. My current role within the FFSA is technically called Research & Impact/Photo & Video Intern, but I have worn many hats during my work here.
Sports allows the organization to help bridge the gap between groups by giving the youths space to come together on the field to work hard at bettering themselves, not only as athletes but as a team as well. This sense of camaraderie and togetherness helps them go beyond their real or perceived cultural differences, their perceptions of black, white and colored. Instead, the youths are able to integrate and experience each other above all as human beings.
The beauty of sport is that it has no language, no color and no barriers to entry. It is a way for the youth to forget about the struggles they face on a daily basis and just be young people.
Having fun, laughing, and participating in the sports they love allows them to grow, accept and allow change in their hearts, minds and lives. South Africa celebrated “20 Years of Freedom” this year, and there has been much progress during that time, but a great deal still remains to be done.
It was also amazing to see how far a little kindness and affection can go. The children yearn for and seek out affection from others, and whether it be remembering their names, giving them a hug, a pat on the head, or a high-five, it is often these small acts of love that make them light up, and the kindness is returned.
One day, I was taking some pictures at a track and field meet that we were hosting for the kids at the Gansbaai Sports Field. Suddenly, two of the more infamous boys that are regulars in our program, Apelele and Inga, came running up behind me and tackled me down to the ground. After laughing for several minutes and losing the ensuing wrestling match, I scooped them both up, and we proceeded to walk around checking out the different events. It was a joy getting to hear and be a part of the lengthy conversation and laughter they had with one another as we walked around.
Overall, my experience in South Africa has been an amazing one. Seeing how sport can be a catalyst for change has been both rewarding and challenging. I have grown in more ways than I can list during my time here, and look forward to bringing these experiences back with me.