Sports minister Fikile Mbalula.

Sports minister Fikile Mbalula believes netball will soon become a professional sport in South Africa.

“Netball remains one of the largest sporting codes in the country,” Mbalula said at the launch of the Netball Diamond Challenge in Johannesburg on Thursday.

“It deserves to have a professional league and roar to a stature of the likes of soccer, rugby and cricket.

“Suffice to say, netball will be undergoing a major change in South Africa and we will soon announce further plans to make it fully professional by launching the national netball professional league.”

The Diamond Challenge, which was Mbalula's initiative, sees South Africa, Malawi, Botswana and Tanzania competing in a round robin tournament in Johannesburg and Cape Town from August 11 to 19.

One of the main objectives of the tournament, he said, was to elevate the profile of netball in South Africa – a sport which has two million registered players.

“We cannot continue to treat the most popular women's sport in South Africa as a marginalised and cinderella sport,” Mbalula said.

“We have agreed to increase the profile of netball and make it more attractive and marketable.

“We are very excited about the Netball Diamond Challenge, and our plan is to grow it into the premier netball event on the African continent.

“It is only the beginning of a process to develop women's sport, netball in particular, and take it to new heights.”

Mbalula said netball was thriving in schools, at universities and in rural areas, and professional leagues would help alleviate poverty and create employment.

“Together with Netball South Africa, we have developed a strategy to deal with the sustainability and the development of the sport,” he said.

“The Proteas team continue to perform beyond our expectations, notwithstanding the fact that we have many challenges, such as shortage of sponsorship and our team is made up of part time players.

“We are proud of your (Proteas) achievements and have resolved to change this around so when we bid for the Netball World Championships and host it in 2019, we will be able to be number one in the world.”

Mbalula appealed for the support of Olympic body Sascoc, the private sector and broadcasters to seriously consider getting involved in netball.

“You must also come to the party because no one in South Africa can then accuse us of anything, if we invest in programmes like this,” he said.

“The money is not going into our pockets or anyone’s pockets – it must go to the girls.

“South Africa is highly ranked (fifth) in the world yet it is playing with volunteers.

“Can you imagine if we were professionals? No one would touch us.

“An investment in netball is an investment in women in our country and the time has arrived that we must claim our rightful place in the annals of history by placing netball where it belongs.”

Mbalula spurred on the Proteas, who were all present at the launch, and said they were part of history in the making.

“You girls must know that it is your generation that planted the seeds of success – the successful story of netball in South Africa.

“Be proud and be part of history and be proud that you made your mark in the field of netball.” – Sapa