The University of the Western Cape’s astonishing rise as a key role player in the local, national and global sporting front is making international headlines - as illustrated in this International University Sports Federation article that originally appeared on its website.
While traditionally being eclipsed by the more internationally recognised neighbours the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University, the University of the Western Cape (UWC)’s eye-catching rise in recent years has turned heads in South Africa’s university sports scene, as the institution continues to lay the foundation of many a student-athlete’s career.
Sandwiched in between three important industrial zones on the outskirts of Cape Town, UWC’s campus may not have the aesthetically pleasing postcard backdrop of Table Mountain or the Cape Winelands like its provincial counterparts, but the university’s recent upturn in both academic and sporting opportunities and success has made its rivals sit and up take note.
Founded in 1960 during the height of South Africa’s oppressive apartheid regime, the university set a precedent in permitting people of mixed race to study, and has since been described as a “vanguard of South Africa's historic change”.
“During those times, black and coloured people were not allowed to attend the only two universities in the province: the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University, because these were reserved for white people,” current Director of Sport at UWC Mr Mandla Gagayi explains. “Since then, UWC faced many challenges along the way because it had become a home to political activists. As such, police raids were common throughout the Apartheid era. However, this never deterred the university's leadership goal of making UWC one of the best universities in South Africa.
Following the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and the country's venture into democracy, many ministers of the first democratic government came from UWC; Nelson Mandela received his first honorary doctorate from UWC, the Truth and Reconciliation hearings were held at UWC and all the Robben Island archives, where Mandela was imprisoned, are kept at UWC.”
Along with academic success, the institution produced many students who also excelled in sport over the years, yet whose efforts were often ignored. Thus, eight years ago, UWC set out a new vision with a renewed focus on sport, raising the bar and affording prospective students an array of new opportunities.
“UWC has always produced great sportsmen and women, but the challenge has always been that these successes were not celebrated,” Gagayi continues. “As such, the university's leadership took a deliberate decision in 2013 to make sport one of its priority tools towards building the university's brand.
"This meant that more support and resources were invested towards making sport a professional and competitive entity. As a result, a strategy was developed to look at recruitment of student-athletes and coaches, development of sports facilities, a new media footprint, as well as academic support for elite student-athletes.
“On the human side, we trained our student-athletes to stop comparing themselves to other universities, instead encouraging them to be proud of where they come from, proud of belonging to UWC, and also being resilient enough to make the best of whatever they have at UWC. Hence our motto ‘I am UWC’.”
The university now offers 20 different sporting codes to its students, divided into Recreational, Competitive and High Performance categories, with Athletics, Basketball, Cricket, Football, Netball, Rugby and Hockey fitting into the latter.
Their commitment to sport has reaped its rewards of late, with alumni Herchel Jantjies forming part of the South African Rugby World Cup Rugby winning team, Kurt-Lee Arendse starring for the national men’s Rugby 7s side, footballer Thembi Kgatlana winning the 2018 African Female Player of the Year award and Babalwa Latsha becoming the first South African female rugby player to secure a professional rugby contract abroad in Spain.
In 2018, the university’s rugby side won the second-tier Varsity Shield competition to earn promotion to the prestigious Varsity Cup tournament for the first time in their history, while the UWC female football side is the only university team playing in the recently-establish professional South African Women’s National League.
The global pandemic made any blazing progress come to a screeching halt, as was the case the world over, yet the university’s sports teams adjusted in the best way they could, using innovative ways to continue training sessions and competitions online while in constant communication with their coaches.
The university however used the COVID-enforced break to tackle a major project which had needed time-consuming attention: the resurfacing of the university athletics track and laser levelling of the main sports field.
“Our athletics track was more than 30 years old and had reached the end of the line,” Gagayi says. “Given that athletics is one of our High Performance sports and the fact that we plan to host national and international events, we had to source funding to invest into upgrading our track to IAAF standards. This also includes the upgrading of the main field so that we can also host professional soccer matches as well as provide a training venue for visiting teams.
“We have also established a High Performance Gym with full medical staff complement for our teams, which will also be open to visiting teams. By these ventures we want to generate income that can be put back into development of more sports facilities as well as attracting more elite athletes to UWC. All these projects will be finished in June 2021 and we are planning a big launch in July 2021.”
It’s not only elite athletes, but also elite coaches that have recently been involved in the UWC structures as well. UWC women's football head coach is Thinasonke Mbuli, assistant coach of the South African women's national team, while former rugby head coaches include the late Chester Williams, who won the 1995 Rugby World Cup with the national team, as well as former Springboks coach Peter de Villiers.
Current rugby head coach Paul Treu played for the national rugby 7s team before coaching the national side for nine successful years, bringing a vast amount of experience and pedigree with him.
The entire South African university rugby fraternity received encouraging news at the start of February with the announcement that, following the easing of nationwide COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s premier Varsity Cup rugby tournament, which was suspended last year, has been given the green light to take place in 2021.
“Having been out of rugby for almost a year, the return of the Varsity Cup will definitely go a long way in refreshing our students and giving them hope that things are getting better,” Gagayi says, adding that the university’s rugby side has been undergoing rigorous training and preparation for their maiden Varsity Cup competitions against the country’s best university rugby teams.
Ahead of this year’s FISU World University Student Games in Chengdu, China, Gagayi says UWC students have been putting in the hard work as selection for the world’s premier university sports competitions draws near.
“UWC has always provided a large number of student-athletes to Universiades, and this year will not be any different,” he states. “Our student-athletes have been keeping busy with training because they know what it takes to get selected. Our mission is to support them and give them the necessary tools to be at their best when selection time comes.”
As First Vice-President of University Sport South Africa (USSA), Gagayi hopes that university sport will soon return for the thousands of eagerly awaiting student-athletes across the country.
“My immediate wish is for sport to get back to action so that students can go back to doing what they love: sport,” he says. “I hope that USSA will be able to field a strong team for the Universiade, given the circumstances.”
Until then, you can be rest-assured that UWC student-athletes will continue their training and utilising the numerous opportunities the institution has afforded them while aiding the university’s upward trajectory.