Occupation of Training Grounds Kills Sport in Poor Communities

2 February 2021

The future of many amateur football players is in the balance after open spaces of land they have been using to practice have been occupied in recent months. Myolisi Gophe and Khanyisile Brukwe investigate

For the past 15 years, the small piece of land next to Sinako High School in Makhaza has been “home” to *Ace Mahashe (not his real name), where he has been shaping his skills to pursue his childhood dream to become a professional footballer. 

The site could be his real home for ever after he was “left with no choice” but to join a group of residents who erected their housing structures on the land as part of the on-going occupation of open land in Cape Town’s disadvantaged communities. Sadly, that could also be the end of his efforts to train football and follow his dream. 

“We really tried to plead with community members not to build on our training ground,”Mahashe explained. “But our pleas fell on deaf ears as the majority of people felt that housing was more important than sport. So as players we felt we should also put our own structures. This has been our land all along after all”.

Mahashe, who has played for various clubs in the area, said their only hope now was to convince the school management to allow his club to utilise the school grounds to conduct their training sessions. “Otherwise it will be the end for us as far as football is concerned because there is nowhere else we can train.”

His club, which cannot be named for legal reasons, was one of three clubs that have been sharing the same site for many years. They, together with many clubs in areas that have been affected by land occupations around the Cape Peninsula, have found themselves homeless – to the detriment of the sporting careers of many youngsters.

Zibele Mahamba, President of Makhaza Local Football Association, one of the 34 LFAs that constitute Safa Cape Town, agreed. “The occupation of land used by amateur clubs for training is killing clubs, is killing the dreams of many children and will eventually kill our LFAs,” he said. “We used to have more than 20 clubs in our LFA, but last season (2019) we had only 13. What happened to the other clubs? They are dead because the spaces they had been using to train have had housing structures built on them.

“And now they don’t have anywhere else to train. Initially, they would come to matches but after losing two or three games in a row they would say ‘no man, we are not moving anywhere with football development’. If you have a 12-year-old boy you expect to see some improvements when he turns 16. But there won’t be any improvement if they don’t train. Training sessions are more of lectures or classes. It is where learning takes place. And matches are more of exams.”

Mahamba said the City of Cape Town-owned formal sports facilities are available for matches only. “But before you play a match you need to train. As much as the open spaces are not suitable, at least we had a place to train.”. 

Mahamba pleaded with the community to rethink their decision. “Our view is simple: before we are members of the LFA, we are members of the community, and whatever affects the community affects us, too. We genuinely sympathise with the residents regarding their housing needs, but we are appealing to them to think deep when dealing with these issues. Because we will build houses then what about our children? Because human development is not only having a roof over your head. 

“Yes, it is important before you go and play football to have a roof over your head. But imagine if we fill every open space with housing structures. What will happen to our kids? We will end up with criminals all over the place. We are appealing to the community to leave spaces that are used by sports clubs. As much as we sympathise with them they must also sympathise with us. Let’s not fix problems by creating other problems.” 

Anele Atoni, a resident and executive member of the neighbouring Monwabisi Park LFA, also in Khayelitsha, said sportspeople in his area had a stand-off with residents who tried to occupy a land they use for soccer practices. “They even took off the poles but we put them back and told them no housing structure would be erected there. That site is for our kids to play and practice sport”. 

Atoni echoed Mahamba’s sentiments that sportspeople understand challenges that backyard residents have but argued that sport is also helpful to the community. “Without sport, drugs and other social ills will be worse in our communities. Some community members don’t understand that.”

Zusiphe Kapa, a MPhil candidate at the University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, said the land occupations expose the current injustice that is caused by landlessness for poor people. “When people are landless or if they do not have a place to stay, the last thing in their mind is reserving open spaces for recreation. If you are poor and living in poverty and slums, your first priority is to find ways to get out of that unfortunate situation. 

“Unfortunately, recreational parks, nature reserves and other spaces have no significant value to the people needing land for shelter. This is the result of the spatial design of an urban area. Black and poor people are concentrated in overcrowded townships. Any available space they see is an opportunity to build a new settlement”. 

Kapa noted that sports facilities require large open grounds but unfortunately those spaces are contested for housing and other developments. “There is an ongoing space contestation in townships: land is being contested for many reasons and unfortunately the available land is insufficient to cater for the needs of the township people”.