#ExtraTime with women's hockey goalkeeper Phumelela Mbande
In the latest instalment of Extra Time we speak to SA women’s hockey goalkeeper Phumelela Mbande who shares her passion for the game and talks candidly about transformation.
Phumelela Mbande has been a crucial part of the national team since making her debut in 2012. The 27-year-old earned a Player of the Match award at the 2018 Hockey World Cup against Argentina – a rare achievement for a goalkeeper, and an accolade that kept her in the sport.
Born in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, and raised in Pietermaritzburg in the KZN, Mbande developed a love for hockey quite by accident. “I played sport here and there. The only sport we had at school was athletics, and I used to play sport on the streets with the other kids. When I was 10 we moved to KZN. I went to a very small school in iXopo called Lynford Primary School, and that’s where I first started playing hockey. I literally never saw the sport before. I had never heard of it before. One day, in our second term, they said, ‘right, we need a goalkeeper’ and for me it made a lot of sense because when I saw the ball I was like ‘Ja, this is where I belong’,” she said.
Mbande is a qualified chartered accountant who plays the game for the love of it, and for no compensation. Hockey in South Africa is not professional, and many of the country’s best players are based overseas, or have day jobs. It’s a source of great frustration for the hockey community which fails to capture major sponsors and attention from the sports ministry.
“More than anything, hockey has really given me a place to belong. If your hockey isn’t going well, your whole like seems like it’s falling apart. If you have one bad tournament then it feels like the end of the world. It’s becomes so much of who we are lies in who we are as athletes,” Mbande said. “I can’t imagine not playing hockey. When I look at how far I’ve come. If you look at the opportunities I’ve gotten, a lot of it lies in me being a hockey player. Hockey is a beautiful game and it has brought a lot of joy in my life.”
The postponement of the Olympic Games due to the coronavirus has disrupted the national team’s preparations for the year, a development that may be a blessing in disguise, said Mbande, given that many players are scattered around the world. “We get another year to bring things together as a squad.”
Mbande has also been a fierce proponent of transformation in hockey, being a part of a group of players who started Players For Transformation (PFT).
Hockey has struggled to establish roots in poorer communities. The game has primarily been seen as an elite sport played by wealthy schools and club members. Mbande wants to change the status quo by challenging the sports administrators to make the game more accessible.
“Quota systems have been put in place by the government. It often feels like we are just ticking boxes to ensure that we meet the requirements set by government. As PFT our biggest things is that the whole hockey thing needs a revamp, not just from an administrative perspective, but from a cultural rebranding. No one wants to be called a player of colour, no one wants to be in the team just because they’re black. No one wants any of those things, but realistically the hockey sphere doesn’t represent the demographic of the country,” Mbande explained. “It’s still very much a privileged sport. I only got to be part of a hockey system because I went to a private school in primary school, and I only got to continue the game because my university was able to fund my hockey career.”
Mbande’s stance on transformation has been welcomed, but lasting change is not guaranteed. A new crop of players coming through may face the same challenges if nothing is done about it. “If we want to increase sponsorships. If we want to grow the game of hockey then we need to look further than the current target market. We went as far as having an indaba. The new senior national coach has been clear that transformation is at the forefront of his plan. We never want to bring hockey into disrepute. No one wants to drag the name of the association but at the same time you get tired of saying the same thing over and over again, sending email after email. Funding will always be a factor, but changing a policy doesn’t need money. Yes, money is an issue but it’s also a lack of willingness to change the status quo.”