The University of the Western Cape played a big part in the liberation struggle during the dark days of apartheid. The stench of teargas and the smoke stemming from burning tyres regularly enveloped UWC during the turbulent 1980s. But it’s at “Bush” where anti-apartheid groups such as the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the African National Congress’ (ANC) Women’s League started to mobilise in the Cape. It’s here where people such as Jakes Gerwel and Rhoda Kadalie helped turn the tide against the National Party’s evil regime.
These days, the University is fighting a different battle. It’s not quite a battle for freedom. It doesn’t involve violence and there will certainly be no burning of tyres. But the impact of this fight is set to leave a lasting legacy at UWC. In some ways, it already has.
Women’s football is one of the fastest growing sports in South Africa, and the University is playing a profound and telling role in promoting the code and giving young women the great opportunity of fulfilling their dreams on a global stage.
Over the last few years, UWC has greatly contributed to the success of SA’s national football team, Banyana Banyana. In fact, it essentially became a feeder team for the national age-group teams, USSA women’s football team and, of course, Banyana Banyana.
In June alone, five UWC students (four former players and one current player) were picked for the Banyana FIFA Women’s World Cup squad while seven students (three former and four current players) represented the USSA women’s football team at the University Games in Italy. Among those who played at the World Cup in France was reigning African Women’s Player of the Year Thembi Kgatlana, who has become one of the hottest properties in the world game, Bongeka Gamede, Jermaine Seoposenwe, Leandra Smeda and Kaylin Swart. Thinasonke Mbuli, UWC’s women’s football coach is also an assistant coach with Banyana and took charge of the USSA team in Napoli.
The key strategy to uplift women’s football at UWC has been to pump more resources into the code — even more than what the men receive — after the University realised the women’s team outperforms their male counterparts. “Our approach to sport is to give equal attention to both women and men’s codes,” says UWC’s Head of Sport Mandla Gagayi. “The women’s football programme has been there since the early nineties but it only really started to get serious in 2010. Before that, it was just considered a recreational sport.
“From 2010, we realised we do have the talent, and we have to respect and acknowledge our women footballers as equals. Former coach Nathan Peskin did a fine job in creating that platform.
“When I joined UWC in 2015, the first thing I looked at was funding, how much women get compared to their male counterparts. Given that our women’s footballers bring greater value than men’s, we channel more resources to women’s football. They are the biggest performers next to rugby,” Gagayi adds.
UWC is the third-ranked women’s football team in South Africa and are attracting footballers from all over the country. Their reputation precedes them, according to Gagayi. The University does not spend big money on scouting nor lures players with massive bursaries. Instead, they have created a family environment and look after their own — on and off the field.
“We have established good relationships with different clubs, people phone us to have a look at different talent. We know by now they don’t recommend mediocre players,” Gagayi says. “We also don’t offer big bursaries like other universities but you get a full-course scholarship. The players also know that with us, they will come into a great environment where we take care of their medical and nutritional needs as well.
“We are a family. It’s not just about sport; we want to see you eventually leave with a degree as well.”
Kgatlana, who these days plies her trade in China, agrees that UWC is probably the best place for young women to kick-start their career and fight for higher honours. “The university is at the forefront in terms of developing women’s football stars. If you look at the number of players they produce for Banyana Banyana and the USSA team, they are doing an outstanding job,” the Banyana striker says.
“They have the best sport director in South Africa in Mandla, who influences you to work hard on the pitch as well as in the study halls. The University puts in an unbelievable effort to also make sure that sportsmen and women also focus on their careers outside football. I’ll proudly say, whether you’re based in Cape Town or outside the Western Cape, UWC is the best option for young women footballers who want to focus on their sport as well as their academics.”
UWC is also set to play in SA’s first professional league for women but the lack of sponsorship is still keeping the code from really reaching its full potential.
The gulf in class between Banyana and their World Cup counterparts was substantial. The South Africans ended up losing all their matches against Spain, China and Germany. All those countries have a highly successful women’s football league. South Africa does not have full-time professionals playing inside the country’s borders as yet.
The professional league, meant to kick off in August, sees UWC as the third-ranked team in the country, having qualified to play in the league as a football club.
But, says Kgatlana, who has also played in the United States, more must be done to uplift women’s football in SA. “The problem is our mentality. The people in important positions are males so they will first look after the males. We’d have a lot more progress if we had females in the boardrooms making those decisions. Males can’t make decisions about females. They don’t know what we go through. Everyone talks about developing women’s football but they aren’t putting the money where their mouths are. When you say Banyana deserves better wages, put your money where your mouth is, corporate SA.”
For now, UWC is doing a fantastic job in promoting the women’s game in South Africa. However, the struggle continues.
This article was first published in the Women's Month special edition of the Blue and Gold - UWC Sports' official magazine. Read the full magazine here. Images: Courtesy of gettyimages/FIFA.com and Richard Huggard/Gallo Images for Kaylin Swart