JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - AUGUST 08, Simnilawe Ndaka (left) and Ilzeri Britz from Gauteng Central collide in their game against Gauteng North during day 3 of the SPAR National Netball Championships at University of Johannesburg on August 08, 2012 in Johannesburg, South Africa Photo by Reg Caldecott / Gallo Images

Pretoria – Netball will be a professional sport in South Africa from April 2013, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula said on Tuesday.

The news received huge applause at the Heartfelt Centre in Pretoria on Tuesday, at the launch of the four-day Diamond Challenge.

“Our plans for netball are big,” said Mbalula, who had rushed to the venue after greeting Team SA at the airport on their return from the London Olympics.

“This Diamond Challenge is the centrepiece, but next year in April – just to give you a bite of the cherry – we are going professional.

“There is not going to be any girl playing netball for free or part-time.

“Two million players will be on the payroll and they will play netball week in and week out.

“Netball will be faster, better and (more) beautiful.”

Mbalula said it was just the beginning of greater things for netball in SA and called on investors to get involved.

“Those doomsayers who don’t believe in this, we still call on them and say 'invest in this because you’re investing in the future of the country'.

“If you invest in a woman, you are breaking the cycle of poverty and this is what it’s about.

“Two million girls on the payroll is a way of fighting poverty and unemployment.”

In the Diamond Challenge, which was Mbalula’s own initiative, the Spar Proteas compete against continental rivals Malawi, Botswana and Zambia, starting on Wednesday.

The minister found time to take a dig at the country's rivals when welcoming them to South Africa.

“Botswana, did you get an Olympic medal? Oh yes, just a silver one,” he joked.

“I’m not sure about Malawi and Zambia, but don’t worry, we represented the continent, so it’s okay.

“It’s going to be a fantastic display of talent and may the events starting this week inspire netball to greater heights, not only in South Africa but on the African continent.

“Everyone who looks down on netball, their minds and hearts will change this weekend.

“Netball is the premier, number one sport of women in South Africa so let's go.”

On receiving the news that the sport will turn professional next year, national coach Elize Kotze was overwhelmed.

“It the happiest day of my life,” said the stunned Kotze.

“We’d heard rumours, but now I’ve heard it from the minister himself.

“We will hold him to it, so there is no going back now.”

The decision has been a long time coming as netball, with its two million registered players in the country, has struggled to get bigger sponsorships in the past.

“I’ve tweeted it, so it has to happen,” said Natasha Marot, media liaison for the Spar Proteas. – Sapa