Why Are SA’s Sportswomen Not Getting The Recognition They Deserve?


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By Michelle October and Wanita Nicol

Sports stars are the gladiators of our time — larger than life, living the dream. Or so you’d think. SA’s nameless heroes show us the true cost of success.

They’re Not Going To Play With Girls

“As a black child growing up, the first sport you’re introduced to is soccer,” says , Banyana Banyana defender. It’s a busy Wednesday for Sanah: she’s on lockdown at a training camp in Joburg, and by the time you read this, she’ll be in Brazil, getting ready for her second Olympic Games. But for the half hour we’ve stolen from the coach to talk to her, she’s sitting in a quiet place, away from her , and musing about her life.

Sanah grew up in a rural Free State town called Villiers and played sport in the street. “I grew up with my brother and guy cousin,” she says. “They used to play soccer in the streets, and because I used to do everything they did, I would go and play with them,” she says. “The boys didn’t really like the idea of me playing with them because they felt like I was bad; not as good as they were,” she says. “They’d say, ‘No, we’re not going to play with girls!’” But Sanah kept coming back, and, eventually, they gave up and let her play.

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School was kinder. “There wasn’t really a girls’ soccer team at my primary school, but there were a few girls who wanted to play, so they let us play in the boys’ team,” Sanah recalls. At first Sanah believed she wouldn’t be able to match the boys or keep up with them physically, but her coach was having none of that. “He used to push us every day and at times he’d tell us we were better than some of the boys.” It was just the encouragement Sanah needed. “It clicked it in my mind that we’re the same age as these boys and I ended up feeling that there was no difference between me and them.”

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Nine-year-old Sanah started devoting herself to soccer in earnest — much to her parents’ dismay. When her parents refused to encourage her unladylike hobby by buying her kit, she would steal her brother’s boots to play in until they, too, eventually gave up and bought her kit of her own. At high school she and the other girls set up a women’s soccer team and started taking the game more seriously. “When school ended at 2pm, I half an hour to get home, get prepared and get back to training by 3pm. I’d get home from training at 7pm, then homework and then the day was over.”

The hard work paid off. In Matric Sanah was scouted by a university team manager and offered a soccer scholarship to the University of the Free State. It was the beginning of her professional career and, had she been a man, would probably have been the first step down the road to fame and glory. But things work differently when you’re a woman.

Now, Twirl Your Skirt For The Cameras

At a women’s Protea T20 cricket game against the West Indies at Newlands in March, sports journalist Antoinette Muller sarcastically “Excellent media turnout for the Women’s T20 vs West Indies”. The picture shows a total of four people in the media box. “I must note that there was some media presence later in the afternoon,” Muller told later WH. “But only really because the men were playing later.” And it wasn’t just the media box that was disappointingly unpopulated. At the same match, one fan a picture of empty stands with the caption, “Wonderful to be watching our women’s team here – but where are the fans?!”

Excellent media turnout for the Women’s T20 vs West Indies.

— Antoinette Muller (@mspr1nt)

It seems we just don’t take women’s sport seriously — and it’s not just a South African phenomenon. When Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard won the biggest tennis match of her career in 2014, becoming the first Canadian to reach the Australian Open semi-finals in 30 years, a reporter wanted to know which celebrity she’d most want to date. At the same event the following year, she was asked her to twirl her skirt, as was legendary Serena Williams. The question prompted outrage on Twitter under the hashtag #TwirlGate.

is an online campaign that seeks to end this. In its , reporters ask sportsmen the kinds of questions their female counterparts get asked — questions about their dating lives, body shapes, and weight. Their reaction? Total confusion. The same kind of confusion most South Africans would probably demonstrate if asked who’s who in women’s sport.

Nobody Knows Who The Women In Sport Are 

“If you ask a normal South African who the Banyana captain is, they wouldn’t be able to tell you,” says Lindsay Du Plessis, cricket editor at and . “They might know Portia Modise’s name, maybe, if they’re a very big sports fan,” she says. Even in her office, she’s the most invested in female sports, with her male colleagues finding her interest amusing. “I, probably more than most other websites, do write more about women’s cricket, because I’m interested in it, and I’m a woman so I want to include those stories. But not many others do,” she says.

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With little media coverage and even less public support, sportswomen who achieve their dreams of representing South Africa soon discover that green and gold blazer has a steep price tag. In 2009 journalist Cheryl Roberts wrote a in the Mail & Guardian about weightlifter Malaysia Babalwa Ndeleleni who returned home from the Commonwealth Games with a gold medal and went right back to subsisting on R2 000 a month. Tragically, in the years since, not much has changed for SA sportswomen, regardless of whether or not they’re successful.

Representing SA Is Essentially An Expensive Hobby

When it comes to the finance of sport, the rules are clear: to generate an income, you need sponsors. To attract sponsors, you need audiences watching you compete. Once you have a crowd, people know who you are, which makes you an attractive prospect for corporates looking for influential people to associate with their brands.

For the top sports in the country — men’s soccer, rugby and cricket — this model works very nicely. “The men’s cricket team gets the TV viewership, and sport is run on TV revenue,” explains Du Plessis. “If you don’t get people watching a match on TV, it’s not going to be televised, which means it’s not going to make money. That’s why the men’s cricket and football team get paid so well — because they bring money in.” If yours is a less popular sport — or worse yet — you’re a woman, things start getting tricky. In the US, the women’s soccer team is in the middle of a lawsuit with their federation because they win more matches and attract a larger viewership (by far) than the guys, but are paid 40 percent of what the men earn. It’s markedly different in South Africa, where Banyana just doesn’t get the kind of viewership numbers that the guys enjoy, not matter how well they play. “You can’t pay Banyana the same amount of money as the men’s team because they don’t bring in the same amount of money,” explains Du Plessis.

Dominic Chimhavi, head of communications at the South African Football Association (SAFA), agrees. “It’s not like we want to give them such a little money,” he says when we asked him about the meagre Banyana earnings. “We just don’t have the money — corporates are too conservative.” He explained that when sponsors come on board, they have conditions about where the money should go. As a result, it all goes to the boys, leaving the women with little to nothing. He finds fault with it himself. “FIFA is pumping money into women,” he says. “Women are the fastest-growing area when it comes to sports. The future of sport lies in women and corporates must sit up,” he added.

Sportswomen Sacrifice More Than The Guys 

Sanah, who has a full-time job in marketing, knows first-hand how tough it is to get any kind of sponsorship going. “I’ve tried so many companies; no-one seems to be interested in women’s football,” she admits. “I don’t know what the reason is. Is it because we’re women? Is it because women’s football doesn’t get much exposure? Because we don’t have a professional league? It really puzzles me.”

As a result, she’s left to make ends meet by herself. “In women’s football, there’s no such thing as a contract — not in South Africa,” she says. To pay the rent, Sanah works a desk job and takes unpaid leave when it’s time to compete. “I sacrifice my monthly salary — which is way more than what I get playing football — to actually be here and do what I love and represent the country,” she says.

I sacrifice my monthly salary – which is way more than what I get playing football – to actually be here and do what I love and represent the country

Sanah’s fortunate to have an employer who allows her time off — sometimes a month or more at a time — for soccer commitments, even if it is unpaid. But it still takes a toll on her job. In 2013 she announced her retirement because she couldn’t handle the pressure any longer. But she loves the game and, when the coach of Mamelodi Sundowns came knocking, she couldn’t say no. Still, the anxiety over making ends meet remains constant.

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“Bafana can go and play a match. With whatever earnings they’ll get from that match, they’ll be able to pay for a car in cash,” she explains. “We’re here, sitting on 100 caps, but some of us can’t buy a car. That’s how unfair it is. No-one can afford a house. We’re all staying at home or renting, but we’ve been playing for Banyana for our whole lives!” After the friendly Banyana played against the USA last month, some of the players took taxis home from the airport because they didn’t have cars. “You’re all jet-lagged and carrying your luggage. It’s sad,” she says.

There is only one sponsor for the Banyana Banyana team. Bafana Bafana are sponsored by nineteen companies. 

And if you think soccer players have it hard, imagine playing a sport that South Africans don’t follow. Olympian Mari Rabie, our top triathlete, juggles a job and is a student. Sanani Mangisa, SA’s hockey goalie, works a part-time gig while training for world championships. “I think most female athletes work part-time, as they financially can’t afford not to,” says Rabie. “I’m an Olympian and at the beginning of this year I was ranked in the Top 10 and still had to rely on family, friends and my part-time income to make it financially possible to do the sport I love.”

The reality is, without a desk job, most sportswomen in SA wouldn’t be able to fund sports equipment, coaches, physiotherapists, accommodation, and trips to compete in events. Essentially, representing SA on the world stage is a very expensive hobby.

Women Wouldn’t Be Taken Seriously Anyway  

So why don’t we get excited about women’s sport? One answer is that we’ve been conditioned to believe women’s sport is inferior — from the little boys in the street who don’t get checked by an adult for saying they don’t want girls like Sanah playing soccer with them, to top flight tournaments, like the Olympic Games, where the women’s final is always a precursor to the main event – the men’s final, regardless of how bright the stars in the women’s event might be. If you’re not a big tennis fan, it may take you a while to remember that Andy Murray won the men’s final at Wimbledon this year, but you better believe the whole world knows Serena Williams claimed her twenty-second grand slam title in the “warm-up” event.

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Even the rules are gendered: for tennis, men play five sets while women only play three. The Tour de France, cycling’s most famous race, is for men only. Only recently have the organisers decided to host a women’s version, La Course. It’s 89km long and only lasts around two hours. Ahead of the inaugural event last year, journalist Madeleine Pape listed some of the racer organisers’ arguments as to why a full women’s event just wouldn’t be viable. Foremost among them — women wouldn’t be physically capable of completing the 3 360km course. This year, seven women rode the full course one day ahead of the men to show that it can be done.

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In Formula 1, women are almost entirely underrepresented. And there’s a prevailing idea that women just can’t do it. Just this year, F1 chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, women “wouldn’t be taken seriously anyway, so they would never have a car that is capable of competing.”

Remember Their Names

So how do we start getting the world to start taking women’s sport seriously? The solution is surprisingly simple – go to the games. Follow sportswomen on Twitter and Instagram. Watch them on TV. “The more people watch women’s sport, the more they’ll learn the players’ names, the more interested they’ll become, the more kids will start playing, because little girls will see (Banyana captain) Janine van Wyk and (Proteas captain) Mignon du Preez are playing on TV, and they’ll also want to do that, which will increase participation numbers,” says Du Plessis.

The more we make a fuss of our sportswomen, the more likely it is that they’ll get the opportunities to compete. And then the world won’t be able to ignore female superstars any longer. For Sanah, who’s been playing for ten years, not much has changed since she started, but she’s not letting that get to her. “When I fell in love with the sport, I wasn’t doing it for money. I never even thought that someday I could get paid for playing. I just did it because I loved it,” she says. And even though the odds are stacked against her, she still plays, and she’s still hopeful. “For the sake of the girls that will be playing football in the future, I hope and pray that things change.”

Watch ON: Fitness Fitness Advice International Women's Day SA Women In Sport