Phumza Maweni was given her first pair of sandshoes when she was 28.
A year later, she was selected to play for the Proteas, South Africa’s national netball team. Brought up in an impoverished rural village and then the slums of Cape Town, sport transformed Phumza’s life. She grew from a shy little girl who played netball for fun, to a national icon. As a friend told her, “You started unknown and you finished unforgettable.”
The Transkei is the heartlands of the Xhosa people, who’ve lived there for generations. Bordered by the Drakensberg mountains, and several mighty rivers, it’s a difficult place to eke out a living. Hard to access, icy in winter and a furnace in summer, there are few schools and even fewer health centres. Most Xhosa farm, free ranging a few cattle and coaxing crops out of overused soil.
Phumza grew up in the small town of Cala in the Transkei, one of four children left after her brother died young. Always tall, she slumped her shoulders and sagged at the knees, trying to disappear into the dusty landscape. It didn’t work, and Phumza was dealt with mercilessly. “It was very hard,” she said. “I was bullied at school, and the kids all laughed at me. I grew up wanting to hide myself, and I had no confidence. I couldn’t be me.”
Her parents were strict but loving; her mum a strong woman. When Phumza told of being bullied, she advised, “Just go and fight back.” But Phumza couldn’t – she was far too shy.
To escape from her misery, Phumza turned to sport. On Sundays, women and children gathered to ostensibly play netball. Balls were made of wadded plastic bags, tied up with twine, while ragged heels scored the parched earth to make a court. It was a day of fun, of dance, of laughter and company. It was a celebration of life, albeit a hard one.
Her father moved to Cape Town for work, and at the age of 13 Phumza joined him there. They found housing in Khayelitsha, part of Town Two and one of the biggest slums in the world. It was a shanty town, kilometre upon kilometre of corrugated iron shacks, communal watering points, and little in the way of sanitation. For a girl from a small village, it was a difficult transition.
“Back in Cala people used to help each other and be kind. But living in the city was very different. If I went to the shops, people laughed at my height. I struggled to cope at high school, because of the bullying. They were torturing me. One of the teachers could see that I was crying, and she tried to advise the kids that it wasn’t right. But mentally, my confidence became very, very low. Even worse than before.”
Always a humble, honest child, Phumza was so unhappy she started lying to her parents. She’d leave home in the mornings, then spend the day in hiding. After a month, the school contacted her father and Phumza was sent back to school. Matters didn’t improve, despite the intervention of teachers. By the time she finished school, Phumza was as short on self esteem as she was tall in stature.
Phumza didn’t play netball at high school – she was just too afraid to stand out. But after her education was done she joined a local club, the Vultures, in 1997. She explained, “I played for fun and to keep my mind fresh. There were a lot of girls and we supported each other. We had a coach who treated us like sisters. We had a class where we could talk about our lives. I really fell in love with netball again.”
For the next twelve years Phumza played social netball. Her coach encouraged her to trial for a provincial team, but Phumza refused. “I didn’t know the channels, how to get there, what I should do. So I just kept playing with my friends.”
It wasn’t until 2008 that Phumza finally dared to lift her head and look everyone in the eye. She said, “It was the first time they saw my face, because I always used to hide. The club told me we had to sort it out, because I couldn’t hide any more. They believed that I could be better, and they wanted to support me.”
“I finally started to feel confidence with netball in 2009, and I also started to compete against teams around Khayelitsha. I remember the first game I won the best defender and I was so surprised. My coach said, ‘I told you. You hide yourself for nothing. Look at you now. You are the one playing netball, you are the one doing the work. Mentally you need to know who you are and just do it.’”
Phumza’s dad was happy that his timid daughter was finally enjoying herself, but he didn’t really understand netball. He certainly didn’t consider it a career pathway for young women. Phumza said, “He thought it was a waste of time, that I should do something else. But when I won that award he started to understand. He and mum have supported me ever since. I think they see how much it builds my confidence.”
When Phumza was 24, her team won a tournament in the local province. Another player asked why she was just playing at that level. Phumza thought, “In my mind I saw the Under 19s, the Under 21s and the seniors. I told her, ‘I don’t think I have a chance because I’m too old. I haven’t done any of those steps.’”
Just a week later, she received a phone call from Western Cape Province, asking her to trial. She felt lost and confused but asked her coach for help. Phumza was driven to the trials but was overwhelmed by the experience. None of her teammates were there, and she was playing against some very experienced opponents. Standing at 186cm, she was asked to play goal shooter. While Phumza tried hard, sanity prevailed. She was deemed too physical and moved back to her preferred defensive end.
In 2012, at the age of 28, Phumza was selected for Western Cape’s C team. It was a turning point in her life. “I started to think this was real netball, a real career, that my life was beginning,” she said. “The training was very professional and coming from nothing I had to adapt quickly. We were playing on a real court. I was lucky too, because a white lady thought I had potential and bought me a pair of tickies (sandshoes). I didn’t have any tickies before that.” Like all the local girls, Phumza had only ever played in bare feet.
She made rapid progress from that point on. The following year her B team won a gold medal, and were sitting on the side lines watching the seniors final. When one of the players was injured, Phumza was unexpectedly sent onto court. It was the biggest highlight of her life. She said, “The A team was behind by 10 goals. I was called on in the second quarter, and we went on to win by one goal. I told myself, ‘You can play netball.’ I respected those players so much, and to play with them made me very proud.”
But her fledgling career almost stalled: Phumza needed 6000 rand (AU$600) to take part in the next tournament. It was an unheard of sum for a girl from Khayelitsha. Her father couldn’t help – the family could afford food on the table, or for her to play netball, but not both. Phumza persevered. She had three months to raise the money, and devoted every spare moment to the formidable task.
“I knocked door to door at businesses, explaining my story, showing them the donation papers. This time I wasn’t ashamed to show my face. Everyone could see my tears, because I wanted to go so much, and I was desperate for help.”
A local business and Phumza’s community scraped together half the amount, but with just one week to go the cupboard was bare. Phumza steeled herself and visited a local politician. She explained, “When I got to his office I said I wasn’t going away. I got on my knees, and I prayed and I cried. Perhaps he just wanted me to go, but he decided to write a letter to the Western Cape Premier.”
It was a successful move. The Premier met with Phumza the very next day, and gave her the whole amount. “I’d been running around, struggling, for three months trying to get the money, not sleeping, not eating. If you didn’t have the money the selectors cancelled your place. I asked them to please keep it open a little bit longer and said I would come with the money. I’m so proud that I could.”
The fundraising was worth the effort. While Phumza’s team didn’t win the tournament, shortly afterwards she was selected for her first national team. “I was shocked. I was so shocked!” she exclaimed. “I’d started netball so late. Bear in mind I was 29 years old. But I’d hidden because of my height, my shyness, being bullied. And even after I was selected I thought they’d kick me out because I was too old.”
At Phumza’s first international tournament – Fast5 in 2014 – she was talent spotted and asked to play in the English Superleague. Phumza thought it would be impossible; she’d have to be away from home for four months. A devoted mother of her six year old son, she didn’t think she could leave him for that long. But Phumza’s family and friends argued the case. She owed her son, her country, and mostly herself. She needed to make the most of her life. Phumza’s son was left in the care of her father, and she temporarily moved to England.
After the 2015 World Cup, Phumza became a well known figure in South Africa. Speaking four languages, and with a wide range of life experiences, she could transcend cultural, economic and racial divides. But her heart remained in the slums of her childhood. “I wanted to help the girls, the kids from my location, because I know the feeling of not knowing what to do in life. I tell them it’s not easy, but if you fight for yourself, if you go for it, you can get there. I know I’m lucky that my community supported me, and now I need to help others there.”
“For me, I’d just been playing netball for fun, enjoying myself. People told me, ‘You are supposed to be there,’ but I didn’t know where ‘there’ was. I never saw myself playing in Australia. But this moment came for me when the road opened up.”
While Phumza is now away from South Africa for long stretches, she is still deeply involved with her local community. Late last year, a devastating fire ripped through the shanties of Khayelitsha. Over 1000 homes burnt to the ground. Phumza said, “Kids lost everything. Books, uniforms, everything. They couldn’t go to school because they had nothing left. I decided that this is where I’ve come from, these people have supported me, and now I want to help them.” Phumza worked with the principal of one of the local schools, quietly dipping into her own pocket to help buy what the students needed.
Moving to Australia to play in the Suncorp Super Netball league was a huge decision for Phumza. Preseason included, it meant leaving South Africa for almost a year. Described by all as a wonderful mother, she talks almost daily to her son on WhatsApp, but it isn’t the same. Phumza said, “It’s hard to be without your family for that long. When I was in the UK I lost a family member, and I couldn’t attend the funeral because I was too far away. My Dad became seriously unwell in January, and although he told me he’d be fine, I worried about what was happening next. Sometimes it’s hard to be in Australia for that reason. Luckily my Dad is well now, and I’m so glad to be here.”
Playing with the Sunshine Coast Lightning was a natural progression for the talented goal keeper, despite the fact that she’s the oldest player in the league. Her national coach, Norma Plummer, said, “She’s really smart, she picks things up quickly and puts them into practice straight away. She also trains hard, despite the fact that she didn’t grow up in a traditional pathway system. I’ve never seen her sit back and cruise. I’m really pleased that she’s got her opportunity, and I think we’ll continue to see her grow and deliver.”
What’s also pleased the Proteas’ coach is watching Phumza grow into a confident young woman. Plummer explained, “When I first arrived in 2015 she wouldn’t say much at all, not even on court. But Phumza learned that it didn’t matter who you were in the team, you could be put on the bench, given feedback and put back out again. So it was very fair and equal.”
“She became very comfortable with that, and now she calls the play all the time. Nic (Cusack, assistant coach) and I sit on the bench with huge smiles on our face, because we can hear her calling to her team mates. She’s now communicating, and as in life, it’s everything in netball.”
If making a national team at the age of 29 overwhelmed Phumza, she was overjoyed to gradually conquer her crippling lack of confidence and shyness. A prolonged process, it came about through surrounding herself with positive people, and learning how to trust in herself. Phumza explained, “On the first day I played for the national team I was shaking all over. I didn’t think I could do it.”
“But the other players told me I’d be fine, they’d all started like that. My friend Lushinka motivated me, kept contacting me to see if I was okay, made sure my family was fine. Another friend told me, ‘You are tall, you can’t make yourself shorter, so change your attitude instead.’ I had coaches who believed in me, and Norma Plummer built my international career.”
“Everyone was telling me I was good enough, and I finally realised I had to believe in myself. To trust myself. That I could do it, if I wanted to. I had to learn to stand tall and be myself.”
“All the people said, ‘We don’t understand where you’ve come from.’ But I knew. I came from nowhere, and look at me now.”