Sunday, July 14, 2024

Special report on South Africa: So much energy but so little money

South African number one Steve Coppinger and LJ Anjema
South African number one Steve Coppinger and LJ Anjema

Jarvis Cup rekindles the love for LJ Anjema, but South Africa needs cash as well as passion to grow
By ALAN STAPLETON – Squash Mad Correspondent


William Shakepeare’s “edited” words , “ Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble …” possibly best describe the state of squash in South Africa at the moment.

Squash is alive and well in South Africa … if one looks at pure participation. The recently-finished Laser Jarvis/Kaplan Cup Inter-provincial tournament was completed in Potchefstroom, where about 250 of the country’s elite players gathered for a week of incredibly competitive squash, filtered with some amazing cameraderie, and ended with a party that will take on any, anywhere in the world.

To appreciate the unique ethos of this competition, read Laurens Jan Anjema’s Facebook comment after the tournament.

“Jarvis Cup, South Africa. Battled to victory for our team Kwazulu Natal yesterday to bring home the cup! Playing for pride: a feeling I’d lost somewhere along the way. As a professional it’s easy to lose yourself in playing for points and money. Pride can disappear. It fired through my veins again yesterday with 30 team-mates shouting me to victory! Thanks to all my Natal teammates for their unconditional support and reintroducing that magical feeling to me. I’d lost it. Got it back. Jarvis Cup: playing for pride!”

LJ Anjema (centre) celebrates with his team-mates
LJ Anjema (centre) celebrates with his Kwazulu Natal team-mates

That same spirit and ethos exudes through other similar tournaments among University students, into the Country Districts, and amongst the Masters, where about 600 will gather in Cape Town in September, and again in Pietermaritzburg for Doubles in November.

So, from a sheer participation discussion, squash in South Africa is strong. In the major centres, there are 12- 15 men’s and three or four women’s leagues running through the winter. A reasonably new phenomenon in the bigger centres, centrally-based, privately-run business leagues, catering for a variety of standards, are growing in popularity.

And there are probably as many, or more social, non-league playing enthusiasts, bashing-and-beering around on a weekly basis, probably unaware of the existence of Ramy Ashour, Nicol David, and the ever-frustrating international drive to include squash at the Olympic Games.

Then in summer, the various clubs all around the country, run their own internal leagues, where club members play against one another on a more social than competitive basis. Come all ye sponsors – there is a huge market of active folk waiting to be tapped into.

Where there is a drop off in league involvement, it is often routed back to either a lackadaisical administration or the threat of crime, and an inadequate public transport system

While squash is offered at schools, it is very much with “Cinderella status”. Nevertheless, there is a huge following where the participation at age-group tournaments ranges from 100 to 300 children per tournament.

These kick off with No-result festivals at Under 11 level. The Under 13, Under 14, Under 16 and Under 19 tournaments, played during the June holidays on an inter-provincial team basis, are hugely competitive. And to be selected for these sides, entails a whole range of regional trials and tournaments which begin in January.

Sadly, after the inter-provincials in June, not much happens at schools level on an organized basis.

Theoretically, as this base gets wider, the peak of the triangle of achievement should stretch higher and higher. But, that is not happening. Probably, until Under 16 level, South African players can compete reasonably well internationally. And then the gap widens and our players fall into a black hole.

Like a tree that is insufficiently fertilized and insufficiently watered, young South African squash players are fed on a regionalized nutritional programme of local players to play against, imitate and watch. And so their growth becomes stunted. They reach a ceiling of relative mediocrity. Boredom sets in. Improvement becomes too demanding. Other paths are sought.

Siyoli Waters at courtside with Alan Stapleton
Siyoli Waters at courtside with Alan Stapleton

Only rare animals like Steve Coppinger, Siyoli Waters, Clinton Leeuw and Shawn Le Roux are making it. But they have to do it on their own. There are no High Performance Academies, or Coaching Centres of Excellence where the undoubted talent available can be nurtured.

Others, through contacts, scratch and scrounge, playing, coaching, cleaning the clubs and serving at pubs. But finance is finite, and to break through in the world of top squash is very tough, when your rand takes you nowhere, and you live in a remote part of the world.

To understand the squash dynamics in South Africa, one needs to discuss, briefly, the geography, finances, and sadly the politics of the country. Geographically, South Africa is a widespread land where travel between the major centres is time-consuming and costly. With the rand weakening almost daily to R19 vs the pound and R12.50 vs the dollar, overseas travel is very difficult.

Only via the more TV-friendly sports, do sponsors see a return on investment so that door offers a very narrow opportunity. And as the South African government continues to harp on the wrongs of apartheid, the focus of their support has moved away from so-called “elitist sports” and into the mass participation sports, where many people can be accommodated/entertained.

Probably unnoticed by government funders, some very successful Development Programmes with a holistic approach to encompass squash, education and growth have been implemented. The Egoli Squash Programme in Johannesburg is one where courts are in reasonably close proximity to where the target market lives, and the talent being developed here is truly amazing.

Other such programmes exist and work, but to be sustainable, ongoing funding is required. While South Africa is one of the richest countries in terms of courts, most of these courts were built in the centre of cities, and at Sports Clubs, far, far away from the township areas.

Silo Waters in action
Siyoli Waters in action


Sadly, the country’s Public Transport system does not equate to those of the western world, and for a kid to travel to these courts, often requires three to four different taxi calls ( often an over-loaded 16-seater with a possibly unlicensed driver) and a walk of anywhere between 5 to 10 kilometers. And after the session, they still have to follow the same route home.

More frustration comes when one tries to squeeze 40 township children on to five courts in the city, once a week. And when those 40 children, are 40 different children, every week, the plan becomes even more watered down. It is almost cruel. Give a person, just a taste of that squash magic…. then take it away.

And, sadly where people are involved, and one starts to mix politics and sport, often the money that is made available, does not always end up in the pockets of those for whom it is intended. Corruption in sports administration in South Africa is a cancer that could kill some of our sports.

Added to this, squash in South Africa has sold itself short by marketing the game as a relatively inexpensive sport. Squash players have become accustomed to paying a pittance for the sport from which they gain so much.

Coaches’ fees range from R150 to R350 for a 45-minute session, and annual club memberships, range from R1000 in smaller, outlying areas to R6000 in places like Cape Town and Johannesburg.

As a result, club, regional and national administrators seeking to develop facilities and initiate ideas, are continually cash-strapped. More frustration sets in, and they are forced onto the fund-raising treadmill where valuable time and toil is wasted, instead of setting up initiatives to grow and draw people to the game.

280px-Logo_Squash_South_AfricaFaced with these dilemmas, Squash South Africa sits at a tipping point. With a dried-up, or maybe misdirected Government support and funding-base, they do not have the funds to sustain themselves and/or send representative sides to international events (like last year’s Commonwealth Games).

Right now, Squash SA is trying to implement an Individual Player Registration system, at a cost of R120, (divide that back to pounds and dollars). For various reasons – a dictatorial initial implementation, lack of belief in the ‘mother body” in terms of catering for Joe Squash Player, and a sense of mistrust that these funds, will fall into a political pot – the scheme has met with fierce resistance.

South African No 1, Steve Coppinger summarizes, in a little more detail than The Bard: “We have great pockets of energy all over the country with various individuals taking it upon themselves to make things happen. Unfortunately there is not much centralized communication of ideas and sharing of formulas that work.

“I do sense an air of excitement building up around the country ….. We seem to be on the brink of lots of exciting things happening, unfortunately that’s not a new story but if a few new ideas can become events… Watch this space!”

So, despite the political and financial “instability” in South Africa, there is a lot of bubbling squash activity, where individuals with passion, drive and a sheer love of the game are making things happen. And where there is this leadership, there are more than enough willing participants, and more waiting in the alleys, to follow the flute of these Pied Pipers.

Lots of toil and unavoidable trouble, still lies ahead. Like Macbeth, ambitious plans are plotted but only with creative marketing, and ideally a financial fairy godmother, will these come to fruition.

Maybe we need those witches of Macbeth to spur the Squash Princes on, to take on and conquer the squash world. The pot bubbles, feverishly, filled with talent and potential.

But we will need some Bravehearts to lead the charge to do things a little …or maybe, very differently.







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