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Female athletes try to break barriers in South Africa

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Kimathi Toboti's women's basketball team has been playing catch-up to men's basketball from the get-go.

As four of Toboti's players run down a hill near the campus of Cape Peninsula University of Technology — starting their workout even before their allotted gym time begins — the head coach follows behind on the highway, peering through the window of his car.

Cape Town's famous Table Mountain provides a picturesque backdrop for the athletes, but as clouds roll in, portions of the mountain become nearly invisible — a fitting metaphor for women's sports in South Africa.

"Unlike in the United States, there's a different mindset here," Toboti said as his players entered the gym and started dribbling basketballs the length of the court. "The motivation for the players here is quite different."

With many of Toboti's players unaware of professional opportunities playing in the WNBA, the U.S. professional league for women, basketball for most here is a means to earn a college scholarship to better their education.

It wasn't until the end of apartheid 17 years ago that women's sports were taken seriously in South Africa. This generation of women is the first to be encouraged to play sports, and they are starting to excel at games that used to be off-limits.

"There's a lot of work left to be done, but you're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel," said 26-year-old Pumla Sathula, a member of South Africa's women's national basketball team. "The confidence is there and the females can compete with the other athletes that are out there. I'm not saying it's over yet, but we are working our way up."

Sports like soccer, rugby and cricket were once played exclusively by men. Now girls are being exposed to these sports as early as primary school.

Sathula, who is from Johannesburg, was drawn to sports because she wanted to be like her brother, who enjoyed playing basketball. As a kid she tagged along to his practices. But while she learned the basics by watching him play, she never envisioned basketball or any sport as a career path.

For South African women, the primary sport continues to be netball, the first sport many were taught to play in schools after apartheid. The sport is similar to basketball: teams of seven pass a ball back and forth and try to throw it through a ring atop a post.

"If you look at South Africa, you find that that's the way it's always been," Toboti said. "Males play cricket, rugby or soccer, and females either play netball or they run. That's how it's always been, but now the sports are starting to be for everybody."

In order to encourage more female participation, Sathula said, each sport needs to hold female-only camps, which would be a way to get women to eventually enter into coaching.

The difference between coaching men and women is something Masie Ntlali sees every day at the Western Cape Sport School, where he coaches both the girls and boys basketball teams.

"Females and males are just two different things," he said.

But he said that seeing his players — who come from poor areas in the townships surrounding Cape Town — learn basketball and use it as a tool to better their academics makes the effort worthwhile. And as the girls become accustomed to being a part of a team and learn how to take coaching, they're getting better.

Erasing gender differences was Mark Crandall's goal when he founded Soccer 4 Hope in 2007 — South Africa's first female-only soccer program.

Crandall, an American who came to South Africa after studying in neighboring Zimbabwe as an exchange student in high school, said his goal was to help girls learn to deal with life-or-death issues.

In the program, mentors and local professional athletes speak with girls about issues of sexual health, HIV and AIDS. His goal is that when they take the field to play soccer, they carry over the feelings of self-respect and empowerment that they learned through the program.

"Girls are four times more likely to end up with HIV," said Crandall. "These issues need to be addressed, and while their opportunities in sports aren't as developed, it's about having them be passionate about something and helping them in life."

Lungile Mtsweni's life revolves around basketball. It's her love and her dream, and she hopes it will one day become her full-time job. But she's aware that in her country that goal is elusive.

"I want to go overseas to play because it's my passion, and playing basketball is my dream," Mtsweni said. "I don't want to sit here and watch it die."

As Toboti's players glance across the gym inside the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and see the men scrimmaging, they don't look too long. It's almost immediately back to full-court layups, passing drills and shooting exercises.

"It's a bright future with sports here, because it can't get any lower than it has been," Sathula said. "But things are looking up."

(Snyder, a student at Penn State University, reported this story for a class in international journalism.)


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