Schools sport history in SA
Before the demise of the South African Senior Schools Sports Association (SASSSA) and South African Primary Schools Sports Association (SAPSSA), school sport was a vibrant activity on Cape Flats and beyond, especially during the months of February and March.
Sport historians, such as Malcolm Maclean, recently highlighted the fact that researchers focus very little attention on developments below the international agenda.
There is a compelling reason to listen to Maclean due to the fact that all athletes who competed in competitions organised by these two Associations, never had the opportunity to advance their careers internationally as South African senior athletes. Local history is therefore especially potent for communities that had the local as their only world of experience.
The acclaimed writer, Ezekiel Mphalele, wrote of his experience at St. Peter’s Secondary School in Johannesburg that “certain boys’ names linger in a school a few years after they have left, like your all-rounder, your sprinter and miler and high jumper”.
The same is true of Cape Town.
At a recent conference in Stellenbosch, a delegate made the point that the media is the last hope for recording, remembering and reviving non-racial sport in South Africa. Another raised the idea that we should valorise our non-racial sport past. Against this backdrop, it might be useful to attempt a re-creation of Cape Town’s marginalised local school sport history. One could argue, that many of Cape Town’s marginalised schools have lost a sense of their sports history.
The dominance of former Model C schools in the media, printed and social, leaves the largest number of Capetonians with what the American literary critic, Leslie Fiedler, calls “a nation with only half a memory”.
Although two of the provincial affiliates of SASSSA and SAPSSA, the Western Province Schools Sports Board (WPSSB) (primary schools) and the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) did much to promote school sport after the second World War, they evolved (although some may want to deny this argument) out of structures and practices from the early 20th century.
During the 19th century, the largest section of Cape Town’s marginalised communities were Black (in the generic sense) and poor, as they are today.
They were excluded constitutionally, as reflected in the official minutes of the Western Province Junior Rugby Football Union, from the Junior Challenge Shield Cup that was started on 4 May 1898. In 1902 the then Cape of Good Hope Education Department (later Cape Education Department), held a Coronation Physical Training Drill competition on a segregated basis: one for Public Schools (White) and one for mission schools (coloured).
Fortunately, this history has been researched and is preserved at the Centre for Education Conservation in Aliwal Road, Wynberg.
At the turn of the 20 th century, the term, “coloured” was very fluid (everybody who was not white was referred to as coloured) and ironically there were coloured children on the books of some of the participating public schools. In 1913 the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA) was established and it organised the Alexander Sports Cup competition for mission schools in 1916. This was possibly named after Morris Alexander, a liberal parliamentarian of the time. Too few schools entered and the competition had to be cancelled.
A more successful meeting was held on 1 October 1917, at the Green Point Track. This meeting formed part of the Weiner’s Day Holiday celebrations, and according to a media report, it was attended by close to 5000 spectators at the Green Point Track.
This track meeting, however, reveals much about Cape school society at the time. It shows a male (all the events were for boys) bias and the majority of age groups being in the junior division. This over emphasis on junior competition was because the bulk of mission schools provided education up to Grade Six only.
A further characteristic of this athletics meeting was that it had an urban bias and catered for schools with a status amongst the coloured population at the time. The participating schools were St Stephen’s from Paarl (the winners), Albertus Street Primary, Zonnebloem and Trafalgar High School (the only public high school for coloured children).
A final characteristic of the Alexander Cup Sports Competition was that organised sport was practised with a sense of social responsibility. Not surprisingly, therefore, the proceeds of the competition were donated to the Cape Corps Gifts and Comforts Fund.
A call for an organised school sports organisation came in 1922 when a writer, Quex, in the TLSA mouthpiece, the Educational Journal, wrote about a need for an association to encourage friendly rivalry between mission schools by means of soccer matches because no such body existed in Cape Town.
The Central School Sports Union (CSU) was established six years later as a multi-coded organisation and became the parent body of all Coloured school sport organisations in Cape Town and beyond.
Ernest Moses, a TLSA member, announced in 1929 that it was not generally known (by TLSA members and the broader public) that some teachers met in the Wesleyan School at Mowbray and established the CSU in June the previous year. Under the direction of Dan Abrahams, Ned Doman, Gilbert Little, Percy Biggs and Captain Mozley, the activities of the CSU expanded beyond Cape Town as far as Paarl.
The CSU was supported by the Perseverance and California rugby clubs who donated trophies. Because the bulk of children in schools affiliated to the CSU were in the primary standards, competition was only offered in the under-14 and under-16 age divisions in 1929.
The mayor presented the trophies in the Mowbray Town Hall on November 12. The CSU was affected by a poor state of schooling provision and therefore pursued a tradition of social responsibility, driven by school teachers with a self-sacrificing attitude.
Moses wrote that the CSU was intended for principals and teachers who were imbued with a spirit of self-sacrifice.
The columnist, ‘From my Tower’, expressed the following view in the Cape Standard in 1938: “[T]he sports masters and mistresses should be given a word of thanks for giving much of their time to encourage the youngsters to take a real interest in athletics. There is much self-denial in the job, long distances to travel home from Mowbray every Wednesday”.
The first athletics meeting was held at the City and Suburban Rugby ground in Mowbray on 2 November 1932 (the first competition in 1928 was a rugby competition).
When the CSU became too unwieldy, other unions were established. In 1933, a Northern Schools Sports Union was established to provide sport for mission schools in the Maitland–Durbanville area.
This Union provided rugby, soccer and netball for school pupils. The same year, Trafalgar High introduced the Wieners Day athletic meeting under the guidance of Percival Biggs.
According to the Cape Standard, this athletic meeting became the major athletic tournament in Cape Town. In 1939, the Athlone and District School Sports Union was established, under the chairmanship of Ned Doman, by the founding schools of the CSU and provided rugby, soccer, cricket and tennikoit for boys, netball for girls and athletics for both genders.
In 1945 a Salt River and District School Sports Union was established that initially provided soccer for under-13 boys. According to media reports, these unions formed the WPSSB on 17 May 1946. These Unions continued to display a ‘spirit of self-sacrifice and social responsibility’ forming social contracts with communities beyond the sportsfield.
For example, the CSU vice-chairman in 1941, ETC Mercury was president of the New Era Fellowship, a TLSA executive member and executive member of the Old Zonnebloem and Old Trafalgar Unions.
There is much to debate and reflect about school sport in Cape Town’s underclass for pupils.
Dr Cleophas is a senior lecturer in sports history in the Sports Science Department, University of Stellenbosch