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Photo: Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor.
Juliet Mzibeli (front) is 12 and has been kayaking with the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club (SCARC) since she was nine.

Every story I share here comes bundled with Covid-era caveats. You know: are the people still doing on Saturday what was reported on Friday? I’m counting on the thought that Omicron having peaked in South Africa, the kids in this article are back to enjoying their sport.

Ryan Lenora Brown reported from Soweto for the Christian Science Monitor, “As a kid growing up in South Africa, Nkosi Mzolo and his friends had a front-row seat each summer to Africa’s largest river kayak race, a 75-mile endurance paddle over bone-rattling rapids.

“But as he sat on the banks of the Msunduzi River near Durban watching the paddlers stream by in a rainbow of bright spandex, he couldn’t imagine being in their shoes. ‘I thought that was a sport for white people,’ he says.

“But Mr. Mzolo happened to grow up straddling a revolution. When he was born, in 1988, Black South Africans like Mr. Mzolo couldn’t vote or live in most parts of the country, let alone play sports with white people. By the time he was 12, though, paddling was changing in post-apartheid South Africa.

“A local Black kayaker invited Mr. Mzolo to learn the sport. … Now Mr. Mzolo runs a canoe club that trains Black paddlers, opening up a world to them, just as it opened to him.

“ ‘Canoeing pulled my life off the course it was on and put me on a different one,’ he says.

“Today, he coaches more than 75 young, Black kayakers in Soweto, near Johannesburg, hoping the sport, known to South Africans as canoeing, might do the same for them. ‘I want to give them something in their lives to look forward to,’ he says.

“In a sports-mad country still wrestling with the legacies of segregation and colonialism, integration in sports is a deeply political issue. During apartheid, South Africa was banned from international competitions like the Olympics for refusing to send racially mixed teams. Today, there are controversial racial quotas for the national teams in most major sports. But Mr. Mzolo’s paddlers are part of a generation that grew up thinking they could play whichever sport they chose.

“The club Mr. Mzolo now leads, the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club (SCARC), was started in 2003 by Brad Fisher, the advertising executive and paddler who sponsored Mr. Mzolo’s education. He later hired Mr. Mzolo, who was working as a gardener in Johannesburg, as one of the club’s early coaching recruits.

“Since then, the club has trained some of the country’s top Black paddlers. Mr. Mzolo himself has gone on to finish the Dusi Canoe Marathon, the long-haul race he watched as a boy, 17 times. But more importantly for coaches like Mr. Mzolo, the club has given thousands of kids a passion they might never have otherwise found.

“ ‘My talent is in the water,’ says Chwayita Fanteni, who is 16 and has been paddling for three years. ‘I like the energy I get from winning.’ … 

“ ‘My goal is to go to Russia. For the Olympics,’ says Nhlamulo Mahwayi, who is 12 and has been training with SCARC since he was nine. So far, he’s only been as far as Cape Town, which he rates as ‘so fun and so clean. I saw people surfing.’

“Like many of the young paddlers here, when Mr. Mahwayi joined the club in 2018, he didn’t know how to swim.

“ ‘Ninety-five percent of these kids, I would say, they come here not knowing how to swim at all,’ says Mr. Mzolo. That too is a legacy of apartheid, which barred Black South Africans from most pools and beaches. Today, many parents never teach their kids how to swim because they themselves don’t know how to.

“New recruits to SCARC, then, often spend months in a nearby public pool before they ever dip a paddle in the water. …

“Mr. Mzolo comes here when he can, when he isn’t working a night shift as a firefighter and paramedic, or sleeping one off. … It’s exhausting, he says, but nowhere near the worry he felt last year when the club was closed for five months during South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown.

“During those months, he spent his days rushing COVID-19 patients to hospitals, and his nights wondering how his athletes were doing, many attempting to do homeschooling with no internet, computers, or even sometimes electricity. Some lived in informal settlements with no reliable water or power. Many of their parents had lost their jobs.

“With public facilities like parks and dams closed, the club couldn’t train. Mr. Mzolo went door to door visiting his athletes and bringing food parcels to their families – just as he often did before the pandemic. … On a recent afternoon, the coaches arrived in a minibus loaded with heavy bags of cornmeal, rice, tinned beans, and oil, enough for every athlete to take home a share.

“ ‘Looking at myself, I started where these kids are,’ he says. ‘Now I’m trying to be part of their journey.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here.

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