The 26-year-old chartered accountant and hockey goalkeeper has successfully balanced sport and her studies, in addition to making an impact as an athlete activist.
Phumelela Mbande, the South African women’s hockey vice-captain and goalkeeper, never thought of herself as politically conscious. Raised in a Christian home by conservative parents, she was encouraged to keep out of trouble. She lived the first 23 years of her life devoted to her sport and to fulfilling her dream of becoming a chartered accountant. She had a solid group of friends, enjoyed her studies and mostly traversed an ordinary path.
Today, the 26-year-old is one of South Africa’s most inspiring athletes. As a founding member of Players for Transformation (PFT), a quasi-union of black hockey players, she has become a champion of athlete activism in a nation sorely lacking in firebrands willing to use the platform afforded by sport to change the world around them.
In November last year, the PFT opened a Twitter account and declared: “The South African Hockey Association [Saha] has FAILED players of colour.” To this day, it remains the most public demonstration by active athletes in a national sports team demanding an accelerated rate of racial inclusivity.
That change is yet to materialise. White men coach the senior men’s and women’s indoor teams, the senior men’s and women’s outdoor teams, and the men’s outdoor Under-21 team. And the majority of the players within these teams don’t truly reflect the country’s demographics.
But because of the PFT and the noise it has made, Saha has promised to address this ongoing disparity. Dialogue has intensified. Promises have been made. Previously marginalised players have become emboldened to speak out against the injustices they face and there is hope that similar movements might take root in other sports.
To think it all started with a young woman who once completely disregarded the struggle for transformation.
“I thought that people who spoke about such things were looking for handouts and were just being lazy,” said Mbande. “If I saw something like that on social media, I would avoid it. I thought hard work was enough to take you where you wanted to go. I’m actually ashamed to think of how my mind used to work.”
Mbande likened her own transformation to an awakening. She was blind but now she can see. “And I can’t unsee the way things really are,” she explained. “Now that my eyes are open, I see now how much things still need to change.”
She blinked into consciousness on 22 February 2016. She was in a lecture at the University of Pretoria (Tuks) – where she was on a dual hockey and academic bursary, and completing a chartered accountancy honours programme – when a group of protesters burst through the doors chanting “One Language!” and “Afrikaans must fall!”.
This article was initially published at NewFrame