Big budgets, crumbling facilities, and the Lone Ranger

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / Barely out of adolescence, the multipurpose sports stadium at Colesberg’s Riemvasmaak township has long deteriorated into limping, incontinent senility. The tennis courts are pock-marked, and riven with cracks. Shattered bottles and other litter are strewn everywhere, and those goalposts that aren’t completely broken are teetering. Nowadays, there is nobody to swing a racket, shoot a three-pointer or punt for touch. The toilets reek of the faeces caked on the walls and floors – and all of this only 20 years into the stadium’s lifetime.

The sports facilities at Riemvasmaak, Colesberg. Image: eParkeni.

As the Springboks had an entire nation sweating bullets during their gruelling final against New Zealand a few months ago, learners at a school in a less affluent part of Paarl were screaming one player’s name louder than any other: Kurt-Lee Arendse! The young winger had risen above the circumstances that would ordinarily have his age mates joining a criminal gang or snorting various substances. Sport had become a saving grace, signalling that there was something else beyond a jail cell or a coffin.

This mimics the equally inspired story of the Bok captain, Siya Kolisi, who also defied the odds to rise to the pinnacle of the sport and inspire youngsters the world over. And recently there’s been Skomota, a popular culture phenomenon that even arts writers aren’t sure what to make of. Is he a credible dancer or just some township chancer, a lost cause whose odd dance moves have – inexplicably – become all the rage on social media, and seen him appear alongside top shelf artists?

What remains of the netball posts.

Similar stories emerge from towns and villages across the developing world — of how sport and the arts have served as a rare avenue out of the slums, despondency, and the inability to realise that there is more to life than squirming under the lash of poverty. Of barefoot kids dribbling shabby footballs around hot streets in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, or the townships of Soweto.

Sadly, facilities in Colesberg that were intended to open up opportunities for young people have come to resemble the wrenching poverty that ravages this and many other communities. Some are the substandard relics of apartheid neglect — places of negligible quality and no maintenance that were never intended to produce the Kurt-Lee Arendses or Makhaya Ntinis of this world. But nearly 30 years into democracy, the picture remains woefully unaltered.

Although the government continues to plough millions into sports infrastructure, is the return on investment worthwhile, or are these facilities nothing more than bottomless troughs for the insatiable snouts of tenderpreneurs? (This writer has never seen a single youngster playing an instrument in Kuyasa.) Gone are the days when black youths dressed in cheap suits would book the community hall to regale the townsfolk with isicathamiya – a capella tunes in the Mbube tradition made famous by the iconic Solomon Linda, every other Sunday afternoon.

Moreover, does the onus of maintaining facilities rest squarely on the state? After all, it is usually the very people who are meant to benefit from these spaces who hop over the fence to slash up a tennis net or break a floodlight, just for the kick of it.

At the height of segregated sport, scores of black activists would emerge to challenge the apartheid regime, despite the fact that such subversion came with harsh penalties. In places like Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha) and East London, the defiance would, of necessity, cross the sacred line between sport and politics. Pressure mounted by those barefoot black sporting bodies, their established white counterparts as well as the international community resulted in South Africa being banned from virtually every sports federation by 1990.

The crumbling LoveLife Youth Centre.

Inside the LoveLife Youth Centre.

Yet, if a visit to any one of the few sports grounds around Colesberg is anything to go by, it would seem that their spirit has long been doused. Take the LoveLife Y-Centre, in its heyday a technicolour hub of learning and sporting activity, but today a far cry from what it used to be. Gone are the iimpintshi – those funky youth mentors running around preaching the gospel of a healthy sexual lifestyle to kids from households in which such topics were not on the table.

Today the building is charred; a painful reminder of infrastructure being used to settle political and social scores. No more table tennis and computers, and not even the basketball courts have been let off the hook. Every inch of cable has been ripped off the walls, and likely sold as scrap. The roof is gutted, and all that remains is the gnawing memory of how the place used to serve as a haven for youngsters looking to have a good time, and where many successful careers were kick-started.

The soccer pitch in Kuyasa – actually, just a patch of bare land with goalposts – is nothing to write home about. However, it has recently begun to undergo an audacious refurbishment, with millions pumped into it, but whether that will result any meaningful gains – outside of the aesthetic – for the community which it serves remains a story for the future.

The paved footpath into Lowryville.

A stroll along the western entrance into Lowryville reveals that vandalism is an omnipresent scourge. The winding footpath that hugs the edge of a small koppie used to be a treacherous jaunt; dark and unpredictable at night. The municipality stepped in, laying paving and erecting elegant streetlights to make things easier for everyone. The paving is still there – thank God – but the lights have been smashed or sawn off at the base, making it unsafe when the sun has set.

Tennis enthusiasts still reminisce about a time where one could whistle up a friend and knock off a few sets at the tennis courts in town, or against the practice walls. On any given day, you’d find the place vibrant with youthful energy, and occasionally vigorous competitions between local schools. Not so today. Paint and a lawnmower would be needed to whip these premises back into something at least resembling their former glory.

Evidently, an enduring soccer culture persists in Kuyasa. This makes one hopeful that despite the general gloom of youths who while the days away perched on upturned beer crates at the local taverns, a few put on their boots to kick a soccer ball around from time to time. But outside of the beautiful game – known down here as diski – other sporting disciplines are virtually unheard-of. Few tennis aces and even fewer cricket in-swingers. But then you arrive at Buka’s humble home in Masiphakame township, and you can’t help but experience a stirring that the community must sometimes rise up to facilitate its own betterment.

The room, all of three metres square, would be just another featureless township backroom were it not for Mdupi Buka’s one-person crusade to revive the sports of body-building and strength training. Don’t expect any fancy equipment, though. No cable fly machines, squat racks or rowing machines. Only two parched, rickety benches and a formidable collection of free weights. It’s a throwback to the time when those mavericks were filming the cult movie the whole world knows as ‘Pumping Iron’. Buka’s, however, is a tad more rugged. No big monies. No big novelty. No Schwarzenegger. Here, it’s just a bunch of township guys who turn up in frayed cut-offs and old t-shirts to heave and groan under the bars. Not many of them, though, because the popular trend is to do those bicep curls with a frothing quart of beer instead.

Buka’s humble, open-to-all gym.

Nonetheless, something impels these charges to put aside the prevailing temptations and pound at it awhile. Back-breaking work when you’re doing it just for the sake of, especially when there’s no funding, you’re soldiering on a poor diet, and your mind is riddled by concerns like homelessness and unemployment.

So Buka – bless his heart – is stellar enough to do it Ubuntu style. No application forms to fill in, or joining fees. The man doesn’t even charge a cent, and his only ask – which is never overtly expressed – is that gear should be packed away when the session is over. Pump it, then pack it away for the next guy, or at least so that Buka doesn’t arrive to a messy house after honouring his duties as a paramedic.

Buka, the lone bodybuilding crusader, resting after a set.

Vukuzenzele. Remember that word? The hustler’s spirit. Whilst the rest of us wait on somebody else to save the day, people like Buka have seemingly learnt to first do it yourself, and hope your efforts will get you noticed. And that’s what this humble scribe did; paid him a visit, initially to do a write-up. But the man’s passion was so infectious that I hung around for a session. Then for another. Now, some seven weeks later, there’s no turning back.

Our man has grown rather adept around the nomenclature. Progressive overload, super sets, bent-over rows, presses, protein … It’s a disciplined business; five days a week of torture under the weights, and two days off to contemplate how you’re going to torture yourself the next five days. Of course, some days are easier than others. Often you really don’t feel like going — but then you notice the t-shirts tightening around the arms, the chest bulging slowly, and you know it’s time to kick off the blankets.

I’m proud to proud to report that I’ve put on at least five kilograms of lean muscle since beginning to hang out at Buka’s. Hence I’ve persuaded my colleagues to run a regular feature documenting the journey. To do what we do at Toverview and eParkeni — to be some sort of guinea pig in the service of our small readership. As usual, though, this comes with a disclaimer: we are no experts in any discipline, so before you take our word on anything, best consult with the relevant professionals.

Although a few committed individuals have emerged out of Buka’s haunt all ‘jacked up’, as the slang goes, whether we will see a pro bodybuilder emerging from Kuyasa is still unclear. However, given Buka’s magnanimous spirit, the least we can do is let him know that his modest premises are a beacon of what it means to be umntu, a person amongst other people.

Featured image: A revamp of the Kuyasa sports complex gets under way. All images: eParkeni.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap