To Live and Play in Soweto

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WHEN SOUTH AFRICA was readmitted to the world of international sport three years ago, there was talk among the country's sporting establishment of a renaissance. Few seriously expected South Western Townships, the group of towns and squatter camps better-known by the notorious acronym Soweto, to share in it; nor has it. South Africa's athletes have competed at the Olympics again; its cricketers are again a respected force; the country will - probably - host the 1995 Rugby World Cup; there has even been talk of the former pariah of global sport making a bid for the 2004 Olympics. To most Sowetans, such events are of little relevance.

South Africa is one of the world's richest sporting nations, with magnificent stadiums, pitches and clubs up and down the country; but not in the townships. Facilities for blacks in Soweto range from the poor to the non-existent. Few of them can afford the membership fees at sporting clubs in the white suburbs; fewer still would be welcomed if they could. Yet there is in Soweto a deep reservoir of sporting potential. Four million people live here, a few miles from Johannesburg, in a country whose total population is only 38 million. No amount of prejudice and disadvantage can wholly extinguish their aspirations.

Soweto already has a reputation for producing footballers - games, organised and disorganised, can be seen on every scrap of land there - and world-class boxers. Hidden from the outsider's eye, however, are all manner of other sporting endeavours. Many of the sports - golf, show-jumping, tennis - are traditionally games of affluence and seem painfully incongruous in Soweto's mean streets. Many venues are unlikely and, in some cases, shockingly inadequate. Yet the enduring impression is one of optimism. However bad life is in Soweto, sport seems to make it better.

The Soweto Rugby Football Club is just one of many unexpected institutions to be found here. Traditionally, blacks never play rugby (though there are coloured players in the national squad). Yet every Wednesday night, club founder Lomax Tshandu gathers his 15 players for practice on the pitch above Orlando police station. Even the tamest tackle can cause injury, because the ground is covered with broken glass, cans and pot-holes. But, despite the hazards, his men cheerfully brave the cold and darkness of a winter evening, in the hope that one day the club will have the 60 bodies required for acceptance into the (mainly white) Transvaal Rugby League.

Other sports provide an opportunity for contact between communities. At the Dube Bowls Club, for example, tucked away in the heart of Soweto, retired blacks are practising hard for a forthcoming competition against whites in Pretoria, heart of Afrikanerdom. Such contact may seem trivial, but it should not be dismissed lightly.

Soweto's athletes train in the cold evenings in an atmosphere thick with choking coal smoke: electricity is widely available in Soweto, but few can afford electrical appliances, and coal fires are the main form of heating in the black community. Every playing surface is hard and dangerous to an extent that few white sportsmen would tolerate. And racial prejudice means that even the most successful Sowetan sportsmen have little prospect of securing the sponsorship without which few modern athletes can realise their ambitions. Theo Raffiri, for example, came second in South Africa's prestigious 'Comrades' ultra-marathon last year. He is still looking for a sponsor. 'If you're white and do well in the Comrades then you'll make a lot of money,' says 27-year-old Raffiri, who works as a security guard at Johannesburg's Civic Theatre. 'But for now I'm lucky to get my kit supplied by Asics. I know I could easily turn professional if it wasn't for being black.'

Even when financial support is forthcoming, there are other hazards. Sowetan world flyweight champion 'Baby' Jake Matlala trains in a tiny hall with 60 others under one neon strip light in Dube township with an exhausted punchbag and no ring. A few miles away stands a neglected purpose-built boxing academy, money donated by Toyota, empty because of the constant threat of violence from the Zulu hostel nextdoor. Similarly, the tennis courts that Arthur Ashe once built here have long since been destroyed.

None the less, it is impossible to consider the world of Sowetan sport without feeling a sense of hope: not because things will necessarily get any better (although a Soweto Sports Congress was recently created to promote sporting activities in the township), but because things even as they are provide so much evidence of the unconquerable ingenuity and exuberance of the human spirit, and of the triumph of optimism over adversity.-

(Photographs omitted)