The emotion on the face of stand-in captain and goal scorer Thembi Kgatlana told a powerful story. She was evidently emotional after beating Italy and making history in Wellington on Wednesday.
By winning the pool game, Banyana Banyana became the first senior national team to make it into the knockout rounds at any World Cup. They have outshone the men’s team and quietened their critics. Those loudmouth critics even included a SAFA NEC member who quipped that the team was going to Australia and New Zealand to have a holiday.
On the eve of the World Cup, the women of the national team took a firm stand against football authorities in the country. True to the example set by their compatriots in the United States years ago and in England this year, they wanted to be respected, to be properly paid and to have job security.
By beating Italy and making it into the knockouts, Thembi Kgatlana and her teammates have demonstrated that they are worth it and more.
Now as politicians and soccer administrators ride the wave of success, patriotism, and pride, it is time to seize the moment and harness the energy. The country must capitalize on the moment.
The reality is that women’s football in South Africa is still not professionalized. We do not have a professional women’s league. Many of the Banyana players are forced to go overseas to get real contracts. Kgatlana plays for Racing Louisville FC in the US.
Imagine what would be possible if we could nurture and cultivate young talent and develop true depth.
Think of the example of what rugby has done with the EPD Pathway and talent development. In his just-published book, World Cup-winning coach Rassie Erasmus speaks about why the development programme was such a success.
“I get immense pleasure from watching young players, who might otherwise not have had opportunities, become Springboks, and play in a World Cup final. Eventually, when we got to 2019 and the Rugby World Cup, we knew all the players because we had either coached them somewhere along the way or had seen them as part of the EPD Pathway,” Erasmus explains.
Sports broadcaster Robert Marawa told me on the Midday Report what needs to happen now is that the sport must be professionalised.
“South Africa still does not have a professional league so when you look at all these nations that are doing so well, they play in professional leagues around the world. We don’t and maybe that’s a wakeup call. Instead of politicians and people in football administration going to the airport to want to become a front they need to fight the cause of the women’s game because we can’t keep saying ‘Go Banyana, go Banyana’ but you are not fighting or trying to get sponsorship to get a professional league.
There is no way a country like ours with all these resources and venues and facilities cannot have a professional league. But look at the ladies how well they have done despite all of that,” argues Marawa.
It is a sentiment echoed by sports reporter Tholakele Mnganga.
“Beyond their success on the pitch, it should be a warning to those that are sitting at SAFA house today when it was such a battle for the team to get their bonuses sorted out. At the end of this, this Banyana Banyana side continues to shatter every single stereotype. They continue to break down the barriers, unfortunately for them, they are not recognized as the history makers they are in terms of the federation.
“We as the fans, the supporters of women’s football, not just football in this country, we can applaud them all we want, but until the policymakers, the decision makers actually take them seriously, these are sentiments we have been hearing for ten years now. As we sit here and we celebrate Banyana Banyana’s success, we are tired of hearing the same old things when it comes to, we will do, let’s start doing,” says Mnganga.
Sports Minister Zizi Kodwa agrees that it is time to professionalise and says his vision is for a women’s league to be set up soon. The problem, he contends, is football leadership.
“I think we have to appreciate that in 2023 we are correct to say it is the year of women in sport. What we have done, there are moments where I think we haven’t supported women in sport across all sporting codes. We need to make sure we focus on the next step and the next step is to have a professional women’s football league. We have as a department since the 2018/9 financial year given a lot of money to federations that they must indeed invest in and make sure they have a professional league. That has taken a bit of time. I have been asking why it has taken this long.
The pressure must be more now. I will need to make sure when they come back, we are already having briefings about how soon we can make sure we professionalise.”
Sport, and Banyana Banyana’s success, is an incredible tool and catalyst for social cohesion. Their victory has lifted the spirits of the country at a time when reality weighs heavily on the population. Now is the time to give them what they deserve in appreciation.