Sir Alex Ferguson had a strange relationship with the media. He was quick to take offence, quick to ban journalists from briefings, but, yet, could be generous. It is |unlikely that Sir Alex Ferguson will remember the late, great Rodney Hartman, but he had cause to be angry with him back in 2006 when Manchester United toured South Africa.
Sir Alex spoke at a dinner at the Turffontein Race Course. It is safe to say a few drinks had been taken by many of those in the room, and when Ferguson got up to speak, he didn’t hold back. He told them Chelsea were “hell-bent on ruining football”. I heard it. Rodney heard it, and I saw him write a note. A little later he said David Beckham was a “manufactured footballer”. Harters took another note. There had been no request for the session to be off the record, and both Rodney and I had been invited with the full knowledge that we would write about the evening and give publicity to the dinner.
We were the only journalists there. Rodney used the quotes in his daily column in The Star. The touring British journalists, who had been ambling along in a sea of nothing stories about the tour, were overjoyed. They ran the story, and they ran it big. “Fergie in storm for attack on Chelsea” shouted the Daily Mail. “Ferguson denies Chelsea attack,” reported the Telegraph. I wish I could remember how the tabloids ran it. Ferguson went on a damage limitation exercise ahead of the final match of the Vodacom Challenge against Chiefs in Pretoria at Loftus.
Imagine you’re a young professional footballer. You started playing football as soon as you could walk. You’ve always been a good kid. You’ve been brought up to respect your elders. You’ve known that there is a set path to your life, one expected of your by your family and its traditions. You finish school, get a job, meet a girl, get married and have children, and, then, die. But this doesn’t gel with you. You’ve always felt a little different to the other boys. You don’t get their brass-polishing fervour when they joke about girls and what they’d like to do to them. It takes you until your late teens to realise that you are gay. You’ve always known it. No one else can know it.
You keep playing football. You’re good at it. You get called up for Bafana Bafana. Before your debut match, the president of the country, Jacob Zuma, is introduced to the team. He walks down the line, shaking hands, smiling. He reaches you, clasps both your hands in his and wishes you luck. You smile, but all you can think is of what he said at that Heritage Day rally back in 2006: “When I was growing up an ungqingili (a gay) would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out.” You remember him saying that same-sex marriages were “a disgrace to the nation and to God”. You’re gay. No one else can know it. You’re deathly scared of what will happen.
Today is World Press Freedom day, a day when journalists all over the world are entitled to a free drink (alcoholic or otherwise) in any bar in any country that professes to uphold the rights of an autonomous and vigorous fourth estate. On this day the media in Johannesburg are also allowed free parking except in Parkhurst (now renamed PayasyouParkhurst) unlimited wifi, an absence of spin doctoring, at least three honest quotes an hour, a cure for the common hangover and interviewees who answer on the first ring.
On this day we are also allowed to sub press releases and send them back to the public relations or media department with the relevant corrections on them, a C-minus mark and some remarks. “The English language is not your plaything, 'colour’ has a 'u’ and commas are not added extras.”
On the road from Johannesburg to Sharpeville you drive on Boy Louw Street, named for the man Danie Craven once called the greatest Springbok forward he had ever seen. You turn left at the sign that says “Sharpeville Struggle Route” and head into the township where, 53 years ago, 69 people were massacred and the world finally took proper notice of the atrocities of Apartheid.
Turn right off Mareka Street and you arrive at the Tsoaranang Primary School, where on Thursday 11 rows of boys stood in what Louw would have called, in his famously mangled English, “straight stripes”. They were quiet as mice, peeking shyly towards the big, white box that waited for each of the 11 schools. On each box was written, “Dreamfields project” and “Dreams in Transit”.
“Watch this carefully,” whispered John Perlman, the founder of Dreamfields, the NGO that has been investing in football equipment and facilities to townships and rural areas since 2007. “Watch the change in them.”
The boys listened impatiently to Thabang Ramaboya from Dreamfields as he was giving them and their coaches instructions for the launch of the Sharpeville DreamLeague. Then, finally, they cut the tape that sealed the boxes. The rows of kids compressed; they stood on tip-toes, leaning desperately forward. Inside each box was a Dreambag, with 15 sets of kit, including shorts, jerseys, socks, shinpads, balls, shirts for the coaches and, then the showstoppers, the boots.
“Oooohhhhhh,” they sighed at the white boots. The silence was broken, the burble of excited kids filled the air as they hugged, slapped each other on the back and fell in love with a pair of football boots. “This is my favourite bit,” said Perlman. “It never gets old. The power that kit has on the kids is amazing. It changes them totally. They go from these shy, almost fearful boys to believing in themselves a lot more. You can see the confidence grow.”
Since Perlman founded Dreamfields in 2007, they have distributed over 2 200 DreamBags, created 75 DreamLeagues, put on almost 200 DreamEvents, held numerous coaching events, built 16 fields, which can be number-crunched into an impressive investment of over R34-million in six years. All but three of the fields have been built in small towns and rurals areas. “We don’t build stadiums,” said Perlman, “we build and upgrade fields to be the central places for football to grow in communities.”
Perlman’s inspiration for Dreamfields was to create a legacy from the impetus of the 2010 World Cup. Perlman loves football. He has always done. He played it when he was younger, wrote about it and commentated on it as an adult. He knows the value of it as a force for the community. Perlman is still a little stunned at how the project has grown. When BHP Billiton and Old Mutual gave him the capital to first fund Dreamfields, he had no idea how to run a company, but a friend, Graham Bath, a business expert who has started and run several successful companies, guided him then and continues to help. There are now six full-time staffers at Dreamfields.
The football on show at Sharpeville was enthusiastic if lacking in finesse. Martha Ramasia, an assistant coach with Vukazakhe Primary, said that would change. As we spoke, a boy dribbled a ball through cones, wearing his school shoes, his laces untied. “Some of them cried because they didn’t get the kit and the soccer boots, but there are only a certain amount for the teams,” said Ramasia, who played football when she was younger. “The problem is that we don’t have balls at our school. Now that we have these now, we’ll practise more often. They need to get better at controlling the ball, like passing. They only have the little skills. I think they will get better at it if they practise at it every day. This is the only team we have at our school. We sometimes have friendly games during the week with others, but this is the big one for them. If it wasn’t for this we wouldn’t have football.”
For the boys from Sediba Primary, the boots were the prize of the day. They had had jerseys before, but no boots. They were going to win the league, which runs until June. “Who is the best player here?” I asked. Five hands shoot up. Then a discussion ensued, a vote was held, but they couldn’t agree on one best player. Could I define terms of what would make the best player, they asked me. They all supported Pirates, and their favourite player in the world? “Messi!”
On Thursday, Xolani Mkhwanazi, chairman of BHP Biliton, told the Sharpeville children they were already winners just by being there. There wasn’t a single dissenting voice from the boys. While many corporates, smaller businesses and individuals have donated money, time and services down the years, BHP Billiton were the first corporate to back the project with R6.5-million in 2007. They extended their commitment with a five-year, R15-million deal in 2010, and, in addition, have funded fields in Richards Bay, Kuruman and Mpumalanga. The leagues are run in co-operation with the Department of Basic Education.
Perlman has learnt much about negotiation, patience, problem-solving and economics these past six years. His daily show on Kaya FM aside, Dreamfields is his full-time job now. One of his favourite stories is of a team they took to visit Soccer City before the World Cup. “We told them the stories about the famous players who would play here, that they would sit on the same benches they were sitting on and use the showers,” said Perlman. “Then one of the kids sprinted into the showers and turned on the water with all his clothes on. We asked him why, and he said he wanted to be able to say he had showered where the big names had showered.”
A few years ago, at a launch, a coach complained to him that the boots were the wrong size. “He was making this scene in front of the sponsors and I was mortified that we may have got it wrong,” said Perlman. “So I asked one of the kids if I could see his boots. I reached inside and took the tissue paper out of the toes. They fitted perfectly after that.”
And what were Perlman’s first pair of boots? “My mother bought me a pair of leather boots that were proper ankle boots. They had wooden studs with hobnails in them. I remember the other kids sniggering at me when I wore them.”
In Sharpeville last week the kids gasped when the boots come out. Perlman and his Dreamfields team are making dreams come true.
*For more information or to donate to Dreamfields, go to www.dreamfieldsproject.org
On the homepage of the website of the Presidency of South Africa, just under a link to the National Development Plan leading up to 2030 and to the left of a link for the “Programme to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development”, is a “Call for Nominations: National Orders.”
A click on that link takes you to a page with no information, but there is a downloadable “National Orders Nomination Form”. There you are told “National Orders are the highest form of recognition that a country bestows on deserving citizens. The President, as the Grand Patron of the National Orders, awards these Orders, which are inclusive and represent all South Africans. The Chancery of Orders is inviting nominations from members of the public, non-governmental organisations, civic-based organisations and faith-based organisations for individuals deemed worthy recipients of the following National Orders.”