It happens at the Vusa Rugby Academy, where the Langa Stadium has been turned into the field of dreams.
Langa is a township whose people know hardship, know struggle and know gang violence. In 2017 the township was hard-hit by ‘Gurans’, which is a name given to a fight between two feuding gangs.
Youngsters were targeted and remain a target. The streets, at certain times of the day, scream danger. The destructive gang influence is an ongoing presence.
Vusa gives boys an escape from those streets where gang fame so often turns to shame. Vusa every year upskills 120 youngsters, aged nine to 13, from five primary schools in Langa.
These boys, instead of being vulnerable to the elements on the streets, are strengthened by a structured post-school rugby and education programme.
Vusa means to awaken - and that was exactly the intention of Bishops Prep’s Brendan Fogarty when he launched an Academy, whose mission statement was to change a life more than to exclusively improve a rugby skill.
Fogarty is the inspiration for the Vusa Academy but he attributes the success to Langa community leaders and the passion from within these leaders to invest time and energy in each boy.
The rewards are obvious because so many of the young boys who arrived as nine and 10 year-olds are still involved with rugby in Langa. As many as 12 former Vusa Academy players are playing for the local Busy Bee RFC under 18s.
It’s a statistic which delights Fogarty.
“To see the likes of Mahle Mgqoboka, Lingelihle Ndabaninzi, Mbongo Sophasa, Siyamanga Sam, Sanele Mdumata, Thabo Tyantsi, Yanga Wambi, Thembile Justice, Aphumelele Sithole, Anga Nobetbe, Likhona Jezile and Nzwana Manentsa revelling in the U-18s just makes it all so worthwhile,” says Fogarty. “And then there’s a player like Siviwe Kewana who is on a scholarship at SACS and plays for the U-16As.”
Fogarty insists the rugby component is a snapshot of the true value of the Academy because education and the opportunity to change lives is fundamental to the motivation of the Vusa leadership.
Vusa is about creating opportunities for the boys. It’s about rugby and learning. For the group who train on the Monday, there’s a group in the Leap School classroom being tutored in Maths and English. On the Tuesday the respective groups trade places, and so it goes for Wednesday and Thursday.
The Fridays are traditionally about an activity outside of Langa and an emphasis is on social growth. Saturday is match day and Sunday is the only day the Academy isn’t operational.
Fogarty’s Bishops Prep is aligned closely with Vusa and learning opportunities take place in Langa and also at Bishops Prep. The essence of Vusa is to develop structures and people within the community. It’s about making a community proud of their community.
It’s about showing there is more to an environment than hardship, struggle and violence. Vusa is about excellence and reward. It is about change and reward.
Fogarty’s dream is to create hubs of excellence in communities where talent can be nurtured in a safe stimulating environment.
“From creche to tertiary and beyond Rise by lifting needs to be our mantra in South Africa,” says Fogarty, who believes no programme can succeed unless education is coupled to the sporting component.
He has experienced the transformation of those nine-year-old boys, who have prospered into fine young teenagers; youngsters who give back to the next generation of nine-year-olds through mentoring, example and presence at training sessions. “Vusa could not work if the community didn’t believe in it,” says Fogarty. ‘It’s an Academy that had to speak to the community and operationally be driven from within the community.”
The vision may have been his, but the execution of that vision is a collective. Corporate inclusion is non-negotiable because of the financial considerations. Investec Asset Management, KEPU Trading, and Shoprite are among the financial and product partners.
Bishops, UCT and African Impact share facilities and human skills. Capitec covers part of the academic programme. Regular attendance is essential to the Academy and no boy is ever turned away. Rugby isn’t the only consideration: the boy who may not have the best pass, may have the best academic mind.
It’s about promoting safety and comfort. It’s about giving a home to boys after school. It’s about them knowing that there is a life beyond the streets.
“The more the youngsters see the older boys succeed and create something magical, the greater the desire from each new youngster to be that older boy. Critically, it’s about them having an environment in which everything is done to make each boy a better human being.”
Several boys have been offered bursaries to traditional rugby-playing schools. It’s an inevitable consequence of any Academy, but the primary motivation for Vusa is to make rugby in Langa stronger and to keep the players in Langa. It is about building strength from within and not necessarily being a nursery for wealthier and more privileged schools.
It’s about giving those boys hope, as much as it is about opportunity.
Vusa recently thrilled at the Paarl Boys Primary’s rugby festival. The Langa Academy won 14 of their 16 matches in the U-11 and U-13 divisions. They were awarded the trophy for the most enterprising team and also the most attractive rugby played.
For all the boys, it was their first ever visit to a rugby festival in Paarl.
For Fogarty, it is only the start.
He wants to take them to Port Elizabeth later this year, along with Springbok captain and Vusa ambassador Siya Kolisi. He wants them to experience the cultural side of touring and playing rugby against schools from another province.
Mostly, he wants to show each boy what is possible when you dream big and work hard to make those dreams come true.@mark_keohane
Independent on Saturday