Langa’s kids and their hockey ‘bats’

The Cape Town township has become a centre of excellence for producing players, signally hope for the next Olympics.

First published in Mail & Guardian, 14 October 2016.

“There is no reason why Langa canʼt have five players in the Olympic team in the next decade.” So says Langa Hockey Club coach John McInroy, but there were no Langa players on the field, or any South Africans players at all for that matter (men or women, black or white) when the Rio Olympics hockey tournament was played in August.

The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) has ruled that winning the African competition is not good enough (since 1993 the menʼs team have won seven out of seven, the women six out of six) and the teamsʼ lack of representivity is a problem. At the last big competition, the Commonwealth Games in Scotland in 2014, South Africa finished fifth and Lungile Tsolekile was the only black African in the menʼs team. The first black African to play hockey for South Africa, Lungile’s cousin Thami*, also played Test cricket for his country and Owen Mvimbi from Southern Gauteng made his debut for the Proteas in 2011. Until this year, that was it in terms of black African representation.

But how can hockeyʼs selectors be expected to select black African players if soccer is the game black people love? Thatʼs a bad question that is easily answered. Firstly, there’s a township club in Cape Town that’s in its seventh straight year of premier league hockey.

Secondly, the latest national men’s Under-21 squad has eight “players of colour” of whom no fewer than six are black African. Many of these young stars learnt their hockey at KwaZulu-Natal’s big boys’ schools like Michaelhouse, Maritzburg College and Kearsney and there should be no doubting that the likes of Nqobile Ntuli (now at Stellenbosch University) and Tyson Dlungwana are the real deal.

Several of these players have already made their senior Protea debut because, as in 2000 when SASCOC last ruled against hockey’s participation in the Olympics, there have been a slew of resignations and “unavailables” in senior hockey ranks. Club hockey in the Netherlands or Britain becomes much more attractive when the great prize is no longer in sight.

A massive day in the history of Langa Hockey Club. Chairman Mthuthu Msizi and captain Lungile Tsolekile celebrate on 12 April 2014. PHOTO: John Young.

As it happens, there are no Langa players in the current South African mensʼ Under-21 team, which is a bit of a surprise considering the club plays in Cape Town’s fiercely competitive, eight-team, Grand Challenge league. (Stellenbosch University won the league this year, Langa came seventh). Langa first won promotion to the Grand Challenge (GC) in 1998, the young players having first been exposed to hockey sticks in 1987 and playing their first match in the third division in 1991.

The age profile of the top players at the pioneering club just happens not to coincide with Under-21 selection this year, but Western Province selected ten Langa juniors this season, and the older group contains several ex-WP and South Africa players. This includes both Tsolekiles and player-coach McInroy, who played 45 Tests for South Africa.

The club runs two senior teams and has two junior girlsʼ and three junior boysʼ teams. A mini-hockey session is run for all-comers on Fridays on the astro turf, which was laid by the City of Cape Town in 2014.

How did a township club comprising mostly Xhosa-speakers come to be a centre of excellence for hockey, a sport supposedly foreign to black people?

The catalyst was the late Bob Woolmer who worked for the Western Province Hockey Union before he became a famous cricket coach. A very good hockey player himself, Woolmer one day delivered a car boot-load of hockey sticks to a group of keen young boys. Like every youngster in Langa, they knew all about cricket so the hockey implements came to be called — and are called to this day — “hockey bats”.

Very quickly they were playing morning hockey for their schools and mensʼ league hockey on Saturday afternoons. Between 1991 and 1998 they moved steadily up the leagues. A turbulent time followed which culminated in the club disbanding in protest at perceived unfair treatment from hockey authorities. Sports Minister Ngconde Balfour resolved the issues and Langa Hockey Club got access for the first time to their own patch of grass within the Langa Stadium, having for years practised in the in-goal area of a rugby field. After 2003, the University of Cape Town and then Bishops allowed Langa the use of their astro-turfs.

By 2008 Langa’s team was again in good shape, but the club declined an offer to be “jump-promoted” in that year, having finished third in the second league. In 2009 they drew just one game and won the other 14 to regain their Grand Challenge status in style. The first game of the 2010 season was “probably the greatest game I have ever been involved in”, says John McInroy. Previously unbeaten provincial and national champions Stellenbosch University were beaten, and Langa has been competitive in the GC ever since.

Mthuthu Msizi played for South Africa at Under-16 and Under-18 level (with McInroy) and was coach of the First XI from 2013 to 2015. He now works for the Western Cape Department of Sports and Recreation, and he’s enjoying watching other members taking up the reins and coaching the juniors. He learnt a lot during the last five years “when we were up against it” in terms of resources. The players learnt that “we have the strength of mind to compete”.

One of the junior stars who might go to a future Olympics is little Litha Kraai, who plays as a nine-year-old in the Under-14 team (and the Under-11s). His older brother Zenani is another bright star who has already earned provincial colours.

The club has taken a new approach to selling the game to the community of Langa. The stadium itself is located in the western end of Langa, “eLokshin”, so on Friday members run with their hockey sticks through other parts of Langa; the Zones, New Flats, Flats and Settlers. (Because McInroy is involved the Langa Hockey Run is also a Red Socks Friday run, but that’s another story).

For Msizi, the key thing about the current Langa Hockey Club is that it is “by Langa guys, for Langa guys” although all the members acknowledge the partnerships and support of Nolands (an auditing firm) and the Leap Maths and Science School. Freelance photographer Phumzile Malotana who promotes the club on social media says: “It is not only about bringing fans to games per se, we also want people to contribute whatever they can, a lunch or transport for juniors.”

Langa Hockey Club will soon celebrate its 30th birthday. When Langa Cricket Club turned 25, Bob Woolmer wrote that “real development is to see … the once young boys now running their own ship successfully”. The Langa Hockey Club has the wind in its sails, set fair for some of its members to be Olympians in Tokyo in 2020.