People Before Profits: Izichwe Youth Football

By Peter Alegi | December 6th, 2010 2 Comments

2010 was the year of Africa’s first World Cup, a historic year for South Africa and for the continent. An hour west of Durban’s huge Moses Mabhida Stadium, in the KwaZulu-Natal hills, every weekday afternoon 46 boys train on a modest football ground at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. These 13-year olds symbolize the immense potential of grassroots football in South Africa.

In an atmosphere of quiet industriousness and positive support, the boys of the Izichwe Youth Football programme go through fitness routines, refine individual skills, and play small-sided games under the watchful eye of several local coaches.

Named after the regiment commanded by Shaka Zulu two centuries ago, Izichwe is a not-for-profit development program providing access to high-level football training and life skills instruction to black youth from the Pietermaritzburg area. Working on a shoestring budget, it helps to overcome enduring barriers to participation in sport for black youth in a democratic South Africa.

It has been an honor and a privilege for me to be part of Izichwe while a Fulbright Scholar at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am grateful to Thabo Dladla, Izichwe’s founding director, for warmly welcoming my family into this wonderful sporting community. One of my daughters joined Izichwe–the only girl and the youngest player by three years.

As our involvement with the program intensified, I realized that I had come full circle from my first visit to South Africa in 1993 as a young volunteer sports coach in Khayelitsha, a massive black township on the outskirts of Cape Town. Now I was here with my entire family and I got to rekindle and sharpen my coaching inclinations. I also gave occasional classroom lectures to the youngsters, prepared them for an oral history project, and helped with the year-end function (see video above).

There is something very special about Izichwe. Thabo Dladla, Mhlanga Madondo, “Styles” Mkhize, Patrick “Cutter” Mthembu, Xolani Madlala, Ronnie Chetty and Kristen Konkol provide specialized coaching and caring, constructive leadership. Their positive, non-authoritarian approach aims at unleashing the boys’ potential on and off the football pitch.

Izichwe’s approach is not so much about winning games and tournaments, but about teaching technical, tactical, psychological and physical skills that will serve the teenagers well down the road. This long-term vision of achievement can be tough on the boys. I have seen them lose against teams stacked with over-age players. A few years down the road it will be interesting to compare the achievements of the Izichwe boys with those of the over-age players.

To understand Izichwe is to appreciate how football is closely linked to the physical, intellectual and social growth and development of historically disadvantaged South African youth. Most players come from tough socio-economic circumstances and at Izichwe they learn sport’s values of teamwork, hard work, discipline, and achievement. The daily training routines provide needed structure to these student-athletes’ lives. In many cases, I have seen individuals acquire confidence, strengthen their self-esteem and self-awareness, and even improve their academic performance.

Next year I hope that a girls’ team will be up and running at Izichwe. It is important that the same opportunities offered to boys are also made available to girls. I am confident that a few years from now, many Izichwe veterans—male and female—will be representing their country and competing in top leagues. For those individuals who will opt for a career in something other than football, Izichwe will have empowered them with skills, knowledge and experience to become good citizens and community builders.

As I prepare to leave South Africa in a few days, I want to take this opportunity to thank my fellow coaches and the players at Izichwe. Their warmth, generosity and brotherhood will never be forgotten. This moving experience has reminded me of a German theologian’s response to a question about how to explain happiness to a child: “I wouldn’t explain it,” Dorothee Solle said; “I’d toss him a ball and let him play.”




December 19th, 2010 | 3:12 pm    

My article on the Izichwe function in the local paper:

Anniversary function honours football legends
The Witness (16 Nov 2010)


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