Soweto's oarsome canoeing crew
Chunks of concrete, scraps of plastic, bottle tops and a short piece of hosepipe lie in the shallow water on the shoreline, just where the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club (Scarc) youngsters step into the Power Park Dam to launch their canoes. But they don’t notice the debris – their focus is on sliding out on to the shimmering water, and paddling their boats into the sunset at the far end of the dam.
I spent an hour and more last week chatting to some of the around 20 youngsters who had turned up at the dam for training, beneath the colourful twin towers of the collapsed Orlando Power Station. They chat and fool about a bit, while some change into their paddling gear, and carry their boats to the water’s edge. Those who remain are waiting patiently to do a run around the dam with one of the club’s top canoeists, 22-year-old Thulani Ngamlana, who is flashing across the dam, water spraying into the air with each stroke, followed by the pack of canoeists.
The youngsters range in age from 7 years to 33 years, says club chairman and manager, 27-year-old Nkosi Mzolo. He became a canoeist at 12 years and turned professional at 16. He’s lean and muscled, in his tight yellow lycra top and black shorts, smiling easily and chatting to his charges. When he joined the club in 2006, there were around 15 members, now there are 75. He runs a training programme at the dam every day, and on Thursdays he loads up a bunch of canoeists in the sponsored Yum Yum combi to go to Emmarentia Dam for the 10km time trial, where his guys lead the close to 100 boats circling the dam.
Mzolo is from the Valley of a Thousand Hills in KwaZulu-Natal, through which the three-day Dusi Canoe Marathon dashes every year. Here his mother “fell in love with canoeing”, and persuaded him to take up the sport, and after he came to visit a friend in Joburg, he made the city his home. But he’s travelled down to KwaZulu-Natal to do 12 Dusis, his best position being 24th overall. This year he plans to finish within the top 20. He proudly names five guys from the club who have finished in the top 10: Loveday Zondi, Siseko Ntondini, Thando Ngamlana, Zonele Nzuzu, and Toni Ngcobo.
Thulani says canoeing takes him away from “bad things like drugs and parties”. His brother, 22-year-old Thando, says when he is on the water he feels “trouble free, a lot of things disappear for that moment”.
The club has nine girl canoeists. One is the petite 12-year-old Zanele Mpofu, who has been paddling for six months. She tells me with a shy but assertive smile that she likes getting into the water and chasing the others, and wants to do the Dusi one day. She comes from the nearby Elias Motswaledi informal settlement, as do most of the kids. She explains that her parents are happy she is paddling. “They want me to get strong.”
Mzolo attests to the effect the paddling has had on the youngsters. One paddler was shy to talk to him in the beginning, but now he chats to him readily, probably a good deal to do with Mzolo’s leadership skills. He has himself also grown enormously: while still professional he trained as a paramedic and is now stationed at the Hunter’s Hill fire station, where he works as a fireman. “Canoeing has changed my life,” he says. “The canoeing family is my second home.”
It has also changed the families of these kids - they now get monthly food hampers. This was motivated by a drowning at the dam five years ago when one of the paddlers collapsed and drowned while in his boat. It is believed he hadn’t eaten all day so became dizzy and light headed.
Scarc was established in 2004 by Brad Fisher, the CEO of Adreach, and his colleague, Ryno Armdorf, both canoeists with the Dabulamanzi Canoe Club, based at Emmarentia Dam. Armdorf says that when they started the club “nobody knew what a canoe was”. They went into the informal settlement to recruit kids, and the first step was to teach them to swim. The momentum caught on, and Joburg clubs donated canoes and equipment, and sponsors like Foodcorp, Lotto, Business Connexion, Eurosteel, hse Solutions, and First Rand came on board.
Armdorf says: “I am very proud of the kids and what they have achieved.” Six of the under-18s have competed internationally. “This gives them a chance to get out of Soweto and see the country and the world.”
Steve Jordaan, a director of Adreach, is on the board of Scarc. The Adreach Foundation has been created to help run the club, by getting sponsors, teaching the kids how to swim and paddle, and doing proficiency tests on rivers. “Canoeing is probably the most difficult sport to do development in the world, but it is the most rewarding,” he says. Canoeing is not like running, where all you need is a good pair of shoes. Rather, besides the expensive canoe and paddle, each canoeist must have kit which includes a life jacket and a cockpit cover, then transport to get to the races, as well as someone to drop and pick them up at the finish of the race.
But this is a much bigger story than getting youngsters into boats and having them grow in confidence and perform better at school. Adreach employs 12 canoeists in job shadowing; Eurosteel has taken on 10 youngsters for welding courses, and other internships. Sponsors have been found to put some through university, with two studying for a law degree, and one for an environmental science degree. Extra classes in English and Maths are given, as well as tracking their progress in school.
Over the past 11 years, 1 000 kids have been through the system, says Jordaan. “It is relatively easy to get a thousand kids to paddle; it is very difficult to get 50% through matric, and 10 to university. But every step of the way you’re getting a far better individual – we are making really great individuals in the new South Africa.” He adds that some are living in a shack, with no parents to look after them, but they are now “becoming great human beings”, pointing in particular to Mzolo, but indicating that there are others like him.
While other canoe clubs have development programmes for beginners, the Scarc model has caught the attention of the Gauteng government. Fisher was asked if Adreach would set up 20 canoeing clubs in the province, and, in a public-private partnership, he offered to use the same principles of linking schoolwork and discipline to sport to start a club offering boxing, swimming, soccer and netball, as “canoeing is so difficult and not practical,” he says. The first one was created in Winterveld, with a boxing ring now in place, and the plans for a pool approved.
“We are taking homeless children and they are getting gold medals at the Dusi,” says Jordaan, adding that it brings on tears to see. “It’s like a child climbing Everest.”