A pair of genuine smiles

I spent a semester studying abroad at The University of Cape Town, and while I was there I wanted to explore the existence of baseball in South Africa. With a quick Google search, I found that there was a youth baseball club nearby. By coincidence, my local friend Asanda Mankayi, a student at The University of Cape Town, happened to grow up in that town and I asked him to bring me there so I could look into it. I would like to give a very special thank you to Asanda for taking the time to bring me there in May and for making this story possible.

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It had been two years since Cape Town had hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but it was impossible to turn in any direction without seeing the stickers, the signs, the clothing . . . the merchandising. 

Stadiums had been built, and existing structures had been renovated and otherwise spruced up in anticipation of the international spotlight to be glaring down on South Africa.

Just over a decade removed from hosting the Rugby World Cup, it was the second time in recent history that one of the country’s most popular sports was bringing the world’s attention to South Africa. First it was rugby, then soccer – two of the three main sports in South Africa along with cricket. American sports are rarely featured in South Africa, and basketball stands as the only American sport that has a significant presence.

But on the outskirts of the beautiful city of Cape Town is a township called Philippi located in the Cape Flats region. The kids in Philippi, surprisingly, love baseball.

Who would have thought that baseball would ever make its way to South Africa? Of course, when we think of Americans in South Africa we think of the obnoxious exploitation of the country in the form of McDonald’s, KFC, and especially Coca-Cola. Baseball may be the one of the last American things that we would expect to arrive in South Africa.

But in 1895, the gold rush in South Africa attracted a group of Americans who decided to bring with them some baseball equipment and ultimately became “missionaries for the sport”.[1] The first official South African baseball league was formed in 1899 and the sport continued to grow and spread around the country. However, the sport followed the path of apartheid and was not played by black South Africans, leading to isolation from other countries that refused to associate with the racist policies.

Today, much has changed in South Africa politically but baseball is still a sport that is played mostly by the upper class elite. Part of the reason why I wanted to look at baseball in South Africa is to see how race and class may have been a factor in who plays which sports.

The residents of Philippi live in cramped shacks held together by pieces of tin and wood, and the ground is made up of polluted dirt and layers of trash. The Township is just miles from the city of Cape Town, and a cloud of smog over the Cape Flats is often visible from the steps on upper campus at The University of Cape Town. The residents in the many townships surrounding Cape Town have lived in destitute conditions for decades after they were forced out of their homes during apartheid by the white-dominated government.

The word apartheid is derived from the word “apart,” as the government had a dream of creating a system in which all races were completely separate from one another. Officials from the South African government traveled to the United States after World War II to study the history of American segregation policies, some of which were folded into their own plans for an apartheid government.

As the government’s dream came true, everyone was classified by law into four broad categories: Black, Coloured, Indian, or White. The government had ridiculous ways of classifying people, such as placing a pencil in a person’s hair and using that to tell them which race they were. If an interracial couple was married before apartheid, they were no longer married when it went into effect. The government would even raid homes in the middle of the night and check bedrooms to make sure nobody was breaking the law.

Townships were designated as areas for black and coloured people, off-limits to white people like myself. And black people were not allowed into white areas, which included the city of Cape Town. Beaches were segregated, as were schools, benches, and most public facilities. The racist Bantu Education Act of 1953 limited education for black students and only taught them material that would prepare them for a career in cheap labor.

When apartheid ended in 1994, it was difficult for communities to form a melting pot after so many years of segregation. Apartheid left such a deep gap between rich and poor that the structures of communities remain relatively the same and townships are still fairly inaccessible to anyone who does not live there. As such, my journey to explore baseball in Philippi didn’t start and end with one simple cab ride as might have had I traveled to somewhere in the city, but rather a series of transfers and different modes of transportation spanning over a period of almost two hours.

The trip started at my home in Rosebank, a suburb of Cape Town. Accompanied by my friend Asanda, who grew up in Philippi, we took the train to the Cape Town station located in the city center. Once there, we walked to a minibus taxi station. Amid a loud and crowded atmosphere, we navigated our way through the crowd and found the outbound van heading for Philippi. These vans, which are often packed with more than 15 people and, as such, serve as a cheap way to transport people around Cape Town and the surrounding area. We squeezed ourselves in one of these crowded vans, passed up the cheap R13 (less than two dollars per person) cab fare, and rode to Philippi. Upon our arrival in Philippi, I stepped out of the van and into another world — a world reeking of apartheid’s suffocating aftermath but shockingly still within viewing distance of Table Mountain, a chilling reflection of the deep gap between upper and lower class within such close proximity.

Next, we had to get out of the van and transfer to a special unmarked car, which transfers people around Philippi. Confused, I asked Asanda whose car it was.

“These cars are the ones which bring you around the township, don’t worry,” he assured me.

This was our final ride of the trip, but all the transfers and the total time it took us to arrive to a place only miles from Cape Town gave me a glimpse of how detached these areas are from the city itself.

The isolation of these townships during apartheid meant that residents were largely shut out from the outside world. Throughout the darkest years of oppression, South Africans looked for an escape route from the harsh reality of life that existed in their hometowns. Many turned to drugs and alcohol, and gang violence escalated as South African youths realized then and even now that gangs were simply a way of life in townships. However, some found other ways to cope – and one of these ways was through sports.

Like everything else in South Africa, sports were also segregated: rugby emerged as a sport for white people while soccer became the sport for black people. In townships throughout South Africa, a game of soccer can be seen on any day of the week. I stood in awe as I watched teenagers casually kick up a ball and start doing incredible tricks, reminiscent of what American basketball fans might see from the Harlem Globetrotters. Soccer has been a significant part of South African culture for years.

But baseball, of all sports, was introduced to Philippi in 2007, and has grown in popularity.

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Standing with members of the Philippi team

Nyameko Gabada, the coach of the Philippi Angels baseball club, grew up in South Africa with some baseball in his background. He says he decided to bring the sport to the township as a way for kids to work together and stay out of trouble. Introducing baseball to an area as poor and isolated as Philippi was no simple task, especially when the teams they would be facing had all of the necessary equipment and facilities for their players. South Africa does not have a Little League baseball system, and many sport facilities are catered around the more popular sports of rugby, cricket, and soccer.

“Other baseball teams have diamond fields and we do not have nice fields,” Gabada explained to me during an interview at his home in Philippi. “With supplies it is a problem as well, and sometimes we get checks from other teams to support us.”

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Philippi’s home baseball field

Their field — mostly mud, and without any grass – is in such poor condition that opposing teams refuse to play games there. I found piles of trash scattered around the field, polluting the ground so badly that the puddles from the early afternoon rain had nowhere to drain. Unable to afford the costs of improving the field, the Angels have had to play all their recent games on the road. The coach has had to use his own car and pay for the “petrol” out of his own pocket.

“We have had some donations from the lottery and from overseas, but it is still not enough,” said Gabada.

Despite their financial situation, the Angels have continued to build their program while having success on the field, which has translated into international exposure. A trophy shelf perched on the wall in Gabada’s home displays the awards that have been racking up in recent years.

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National and intl. trophies awarded to the Angels

Among the people who helped in the founding of the Angels was Ian Edelstein, an American from New Hampshire who now works for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Pretoria. Before he moved away from Cape Town, he decided to become more involved with youth baseball after his son, a South African-American, was playing for a white team. When Edelstein saw the need for help in Philippi, he dedicated 15 hours or more hours a week to the development of the team. Despite the poor condition of their home playing field, he would try and help maintain it so they could at least try to host some games back then.

“It helped show the kids that they could take pride in where they were from and play host to teams from white communities,” he said.

He took the younger kids to watch games played by the older kids so that they could learn from them, and since many of the kids did not have access to television, he also showed them video of professional baseball games from America.

“We would show Yankees/Red Sox games and I would tell them the story of Jackie Robinson because they were blazing a similar trail as the first black baseball club in South Africa,” he said.

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In addition to interviewing Edelstein and Gabada, I also spoke with some members of the Philippi Angels. The moment I arrived at Gabada’s home, I saw two players named Masizole Jack and Sihle Mkhele dressed in baseball jackets and wearing baseball caps. They are former players for the Angels but remain involved as volunteers. I knew I was going to cover a baseball team but it was not until I saw the baseball attire that I realized, as a baseball fan, how intriguing it was to see baseball from the South African perspective.

Sihle is a 20-year-old woman from Philippi who first heard about baseball a few years ago but was not interested in it because she wasn’t familiar with the sport. She was with her friends one day when they invited her to watch the team. Why just watch, she thought, when she could go out there and play ball. Before she knew it, she was a ballplayer.

“Now my favorite sport is baseball,” she said. “Before it was soccer, but now I really like baseball. I played outfield and third base”IMG_1435

Masizole Jack, or “Jack” as he prefers, is 19 years old and he played a variety of positions – a utility player of sorts — and he was originally looking to find a cricket team. Clearly, he wound up playing baseball instead and now he loves it.

“I realized there wasn’t a cricket team here and I heard people were playing [baseball], so I came and joined. From there, I liked it because I got to do something different. You throw and hit the ball, which is what I originally wanted to do,” he said.

After the interviews, the players and coach brought me to the side of the house and showed me their baseball shed. Once the door opened, Jack and Sihle dug into the bat IMG_1436bags and pulled out baseball equipment to show me. I glanced around the room and saw helmets, gloves, bats, and even uniforms. Imagine the emotional impact these uniforms must have on these kids. While they are short on equipment and funds, they still have that priceless sense of identity when they slide on that uniform. And as they showed me their equipment, even as it was barely enough to keep the team going, the players displayed a special sense of optimism for the game of baseball.

During my conversations with Jack and Sihle, I noticed their faces were lighting up with distinctive smiles as soon as the topic of baseball entered the discussion. Their smiles and the way they talked about baseball reflected a special passion for the sport. These were genuine smiles that might not be seen from some South African soccer, rugby, or cricket players who spend their lives going through the motions of trying to live up to their family’s or society’s expectations. These smiles reflected their individual decision to play baseball.

As I wrapped up my conversations with them, I thought about the differences in the process of becoming a baseball player in America compared to South Africa. As Americans growing up in a society that pushes us into mainstream sports such as baseball, we not only take things for granted but we don’t always take the time to consciously realize whether we really make the individual decision to play.

When Asanda and I walked out of the house to leave on that rainy day in May, I thanked everybody and looked back at the two ballplayers as they smiled at me and said goodbye.

Thinking back, I can only hope that my smile back was as genuine as theirs.

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Edited by Boston Herald Senior Columnist Steve Buckley

[1] Josh Chetwynd. “A History of South African Baseball.” Nine: A Journal Of Baseball History & Culture. 16. no. 2 (2008): 73-79. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed October 10, 2012).

 

 

 

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