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Desiree Ellis is a trail blazer for sport in SA. Picture: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix
Desiree Ellis is a trail blazer for sport in SA. Picture: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

It is 66 years this week since the historic Women’s March in Pretoria back in the 1950s.

In the years since, women’s rights and the recognition of women in SA society have thankfully received a lot more attention.

In a sporting sense, this week we asked five VIP SA women sports stars and administrators (in order of age) just how far we’ve come, or haven’t, in the sporting world.

DESIREE ELLIS was born almost seven years after the Women’s March. She’s gone on to play for, captain and coach the national women’s football side. The jewel in her crown was guiding Banyana Banyana to the WAFCON title in Morocco in July. 

“The women who marched in the ’50s created opportunities for us to do what we love and be who we want to be. Their contribution can never, ever be forgotten.

“Winning WAFCON means so much ... we’ve tried so long. I was involved in the campaigns in 2000, 2014, 2016, 2018 ... and now finally we have it. The magnitude of this win is huge, when you hear that the country’s president and minister of sport both saying that us women deserve equal pay.

“This win was for the players and coaches that have come before us and for sponsors like Sasol who have stuck with us since 2009.

“A personal example of what it means is that I was back in Cape Town the other day and saw the young daughters of some of my relatives have suddenly starting playing football.

“On a personal level, I lost my job while playing for the national team back in the day, so something like this makes those sort of sacrifices so much more worthwhile.

“Football in SA has come a long way ... I remember, as a 15-year-old playing for my club, regularly having to pull my pants down to show people I was a girl, I was told that I wanted to be a boy because I played football.

“Times have changed though. I played for the national team for 10 years and got 32 caps, these days the girls get 10-12 caps in a single year which is good.

“So we’re getting there ... in SA we have more women’s leagues, as in varsity and provincial leagues, more of our players are sponsored and playing abroad. The next step is to professionalise women’s football nationally but for that you need more sponsorships, and hopefully this victory will bring those on board.

“Remember, the game is the teacher, the more our girls play, the more they learn.”

ELANA MEYER is one of the biggest names in SA women’s sport, having won SA’s first individual Olympics medal after the long years of isolation when she ran to 10,000m silver at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. She leads the Endurocad Academy and is a brand ambassador for the Cape Town Marathon.

“I think women’s sport has come a long way in general, not enough though. Women’s sport is exciting to watch but we still need more support and acknowledgment.

“In athletics/road running our ladies are doing well with the likes of Gerda Steyn, Dom Scott, Tayla Kavanagh, Glenrose Xaba and Irvette van Zyl, we certainly have the talent.

“Then, if you look at the result of the women’s football, Desiree has achieved so much and our swimmers are also doing really well.

“It’s also so good to see more women involved after their careers [like Des] and it’s also brilliant to have Zola Pieterse [double Olympian and former world track recordholder] back in SA and part of our team.”

DUMISANI CHAUKE is a go-getter netballer with passion running through her veins. She’ is the SPAR Proteas assistant coach, head of department of sport at TUT Ga-Rankuwa campus and also a Laureus Sport for Good Foundation ambassador.

“By and large, women’s sport in SA has drastically improved ... 10-20 years ago we wouldn’t be talking about how Banyana are performing or the number of female football players going to play at clubs in different countries.

“It’s very encouraging to young girls at school who can see it is possible to become household names — now we have players in various leagues in Australia, New Zealand and England.

“And look at the Euro 2022 women’s football championships, with a packed stadium and extensive media coverage.

“At the Commonwealth Games it was great to see we had so many women as team managers, coaches and officials. The sporting landscape in SA is definitely changing.

“What also excites me is to  see young girls following my own story of coming through the system. And with SA hosting the Netball World Cup in Cape Town next year it’s going to be huge to have young girls around the country watching the likes of current stars Bongi Msomi, Phumza Maweni, Karla Pretorius and Shadine van der Merwe all playing on home soil.”

MICHAELA WHITEBOOI won judo gold (48kg) for SA at the recent Commonwealth Games. Growing up, her mom made untold sacrifices, working as a domestic worker in Gqeberha, to make sure her daughter could flourish.

“My mom is my hero, the things she went through, making the right decisions for me that have finally enabled me to give back to her.

“As SA women we’re definitely blooming, we’re opening doors, opening space, breaking down barriers and people are realising we deserve to be recognised.

“Recently, when Des received recognition for making Banyana champions of Africa I saw a social media comparison with Benni McCarthy being appointed to the Manchester United coaching team.

“Now that was NOT the moment to compare, or bring him into the equation. It was a moment for HER to shine.

“Comparing her to Benni makes no sense. When he was appointed at Manchester United, he wasn’t compared to a woman, was he?

“So yes, SA women are getting recognition but the man-woman comparison isn’t needed ... sometimes I get asked what it’s like to be doing good in a sport often seen to be a men’s sport.

“Sure, men have fought battles down the years but women can do exactly the same. Right now, we are fighting not only for our own achievements but for all women in sport, and so that the next generation doesn’t have to be compared against men’s achievements.”

LARA VAN NIEKERK is SA’s new golden girl on the swimming scene, having won double gold at the recent Commonwealth Games. She barely had time to celebrate Women’s Day with her family in Pretoria before rushing off to the SA Short-Course Championships now taking place.

“I hope my two medals in Birmingham give recognition to women’s sport or even just sport in general. Hopefully I have inspired someone along the way and can raise awareness that us women do well in sport, it’s not just the men. I hope I can inspire some little girl who watched me on TV. I mean, when I watched Tatjana [Schoenmaker] win the two swimming golds on TV back in 2018 it inspired me to win a gold [or two] this year.

“I do feel relatively appreciated in sport as a woman although it can always improve. Personally, in SA swimming I think men and women get appreciated about the same. What I do think though is that we as swimmers really need funding. We get nothing, no help, funding would be amazing.

“We really need swimming pools ... I know the country has no money but our facilities are in bad shape, or in need of upgrading ... in general, swimming just needs more support. Swimming won the most medals for SA at the Comm Games so we are there and we are performing. Someone just needs to speak up for us and let everyone know we need help, that would be amazing.

“Women’s sport in SA is very important ... and although men and women are equal we did perform better in Birmingham so the women power is definitely there.”

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