Ongeziwe Mali was introduced to hockey after visiting a friend. She was 10 years old and in grade 4.
“A friend of mine invited me to play and her mom gave me the equipment. I started making the Eastern Province teams,” says the 19-year old from Zwide Township in Port Elizabeth.
Mali would go on to win countless awards including the junior player of the tournament at the Premier Hockey League (PHL).
The turning point in her life came in 2016 when the 16-year-old shone at the St. Mary’s Hockey festival. She was voted player of the tournament earning a bursary to the Investec Hockey Academy.
One might say Mali’s success in Hockey was in part a result of the 2013 White Paper on Sport and Recreation detailed the Department of Sport and Recreation (SRSA) policy. A central part of the vision was supporting grassroots sport through a functioning school sport programme and transforming representative national teams at all levels to more accurately reflect the demographics of post—Apartheid South Africa.
In making this vision a reality, SRSA under the leadership of Minister Fikile Mbalula adopted priority sporting codes. The argument was that many of the historically white sporting codes required targeted intervention to make the sports more accessible at grassroots level and to produce more players of colour that could one day play for South Africa.
Hockey was one of those initial 16 sporting codes and in 2016 the Premier Hockey League was launched. The four week tournament in September was comprised of six men’s teams and six women’s teams who converged on the Randburg Astroturf in Johannesburg for R50 000 and the right to be crowned national champions.
Mali who was at Pearson High School in Port Elizabeth at the time played in the PHL.
The bursary she received from Investec Hockey Academy placed Mali under the mentorship of Proteas Shelley Russell.
Mali improved and was a surprise addition to the national team that took part at the Commonwealth Games in Australia earlier this year.
“I got an email telling me that I made the SA Women’s hockey team to play at the CWG. I wasn’t expecting the call-up at such a young age but I thank God for the talent and it was an amazing experience,” said Mali.
She has now been selected for the SA team that will take part in the Hockey World Cup in London in July. Mali has also earned a hockey scholarship to further her studies at James Madison University in Virginia in the United States.
Mali’s rise gives us an example of a model that can be used to unearth talent in some of the less well-resourced sports. Because hockey is not a professional sport, the targeted government intervention through the creation of the PHL provided an enabling environment for players to hone their skills. Skills that then attract private funds in the form of corporate sponsorship. This is simply an example of a public private partnership without a contract.
Government has created an environment for talent to shine and for that talent to then attract sponsorships from the likes of Investec and Brutal Fruit. This was done by government’s ability to articulate and implement their vision for a transformed South African sporting landscape and targeting sports such as hockey and netball,
This model provides a blueprint on how we can move South Africa forward to create generation of Mali across all of the country’s sporting codes.
Whitehead is a sports broadcaster and writer.