The healing Putt

Bongi Mokaba… “With golf (in South Africa), the interesting part is that the black middle-class are beginning to play the sport. So there is tremendous growth there.”-Bongi Mokaba… “With golf (in South Africa), the interesting part is that the black middle-class are beginning to play the sport. So there is tremendous growth there.”

“Golf teaches discipline and honesty, because you have to be honest to yourself first, then to your counterparts. It teaches you punctuality and patience. You can have a good round of golf one day and a bad one the next day,” says Bongi Mokaba, the Director of Events for Johannesburg and in-charge of the Joburg Open, in a chat with G. Viswanath.

It is an amazing story of how Bongi Mokaba was urged to take up golf in order to overcome the death of her sister in 2000. Mokaba is currently the Director of Events for Johannesburg and in-charge of the Joburg Open, where eight Indian ProAms will get the opportunity to play next year.

Mokaba used to take part in athletics, play netball, table tennis and squash at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.

In an interview to Sportstar at the Willingdon Sports Club at Mahalaxmi in Mumbai, Mokaba said: “As part of mourning and grieving, I gave up all sports until my daughter said to me that I was battling to deal with depression and yet refusing to go for therapy. Then she said, ‘I will introduce you to a sport (golf) — either you will love it or hate it. If you love it, you will continue playing it, and that would be a part of your therapy; if you hate it, you will have to go for therapy’. I agreed, and that’s how I was introduced to golf. This started in the late 2007 and I have been playing golf, I have not played any other sport (since then).”

Employed with the Municipality of the City of Johannesburg, and at the office of the executive Mayor, Mokaba made golf a part of her life. “The City looked at sport that was considered elitist. So, we looked at golf, swimming, cricket, rugby and I was given the responsibility of promoting golf. So through the engagement with the Mayor’s office and business people, we were introduced to the Joburg Open. It is a co-sanctioned tournament of the South African Golf Association and the PGA Sunshine and European Tour. This February, we had the night edition of the Joburg Open. Next year, we will be celebrating its 10th anniversary,” Mokaba said.

She has also worked for the 2003 ICC Cricket World Cup in South Africa, coordinating the services offered by the City with Dr. Ali Bacher.

Excerpts:

Question: Tell us something more about promoting golf among the previously disadvantaged people of your country?

Answer: As a part of the legacy of the Joburg Open, the city of Johannesburg decided to embark on the development of golf. There is the Alexandra Township outside Johannesburg; a fairly black-dominated community lives there, very disadvantaged. So we built a driving range for them. Former professional golfers who live in that area coach the schoolchildren in the skill and art of golf. So that’s what the City and the South African Golf Development Board are doing to create a platform where golf is introduced to the previously disadvantaged and underprivileged communities.

Is that (Alexandra Township) the only locality where golf has been introduced for the previously disadvantaged people?

The City is presently focusing only on Alexandra; but there is another facility for another coloured community at Eldorado Park.

What kind of programmes do you follow?

The kids start learning only at the driving range. It’s for boys and girls in the age group of eight to 21. The 8-year-olds play quite well; they play with clubs designed for younger people. We get support from sponsors to buy equipment, and the members of the clubs also contribute. We collect golf clubs, shoes, T-shirts and provide these to the kids.

The boys and girls are from public schools. In our system, the Municipality is not responsible for education; there is a different level of government, which is the middle or provincial, and also the national government. Recently, in February, we had European professionals contributing to the development programme; about 300 kids showed interest, but we could only accommodate 80 for the special training in two or three hours. There are in all 600 (kids) training at the Alexandra Township. There are more boys than girls. We have created sections for driving and putting.

It’s been five years since the programme was started. Are you impressed with the interest shown by the trainees and the progress they have made?

It’s grown. The tournaments also take some of these kids — who have played only at the driving range — to help them get the experience of playing in a full golf course. They don’t become caddies now, and not all of them finish the training course until the end though.

What do you tell the schoolchildren — that they can make a career and a living out of golf, and that they can make money?

We tell them that golf teaches discipline and honesty, because you have to be honest to yourself first, then to your counterparts. It teaches you punctuality and patience. You can have a good round of golf one day and a bad one the next day. This is what the children are taught.

We don’t tell them that our objective is to produce a Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, or your Shiv Kapur. We tell the kids that they should look at golf as a sport, but they may not turn professionals, and that there are other opportunities; that they can work as a caddie, run a pro shop, become an administrator of a club, maintain the golf course and work as an innkeeper. That’s the message we give to the schoolchildren.

How many such programmes have been established for the previously disadvantaged in South Africa?

There is one in Pretoria, East London, Durban, and there is one more in the east of Johannesburg — all run by local municipalities. Parents who can afford, send their kids to private clubs and to private instructors.

Golf is not the number one sport in South Africa; there is rugby, soccer and then golf. Boxing has died down a bit, but it is picking up again. With golf, the interesting part is that the black middle-class are beginning to play the sport. So there is tremendous growth there. We also have a number of women — white, black, Indian, coloured women — playing golf. So even in terms of gender, sport is taking a different shape.

What has golf taught you in life? Obviously, it has helped you come out of depression caused by your sister’s demise…

She was 30 when she died. Golf gave me something to focus on, and it turned out to be a comforting distraction. I found a new passion. I met new people and made friends. It enhanced the work I did and gave me opportunities to travel. So I looked at my pain with a positive outlook. As much as I lost my sister, I found people with whom I could relate and in the process, my pain slowly diminished.

I love golf. I played 18 holes here at the Willingdon Sports Club. I am a 19 handicapper. I normally say to people that when a professional taught me golf, he did not teach me only golf, he instilled the love of golf in me. I am going to play golf until I am old. I play during the weekends. I play twice or three times in a month with friends. I belong to a club and Saturday is for the ladies. I also play ladies’ league golf. Thousands of women play golf in Jo’burg in about 13 courses, all 18 holes. In the past, it used to be a sport for the privileged, for white people, now it is open to all, thanks to the ANC government.