‘My talent is in the water.’ Black South Africans embrace kayaking.

By Ryan Lenora Brown

South Africans love sports, but the legacies of segregation and colonialism cast a long shadow, particularly when it comes to integration in sports. There are controversial racial quotas for national teams in most major sports. But for the 75 young Black kayakers that paddle for a club in Soweto, their generation believes they can play whichever sport they choose.  

The Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club is run by Nkosi Mzolo, a firefighter and paramedic, who learned to paddle as a youth and has since competed many times in Africa’s largest kayak race along the Msunduzi River. Most young paddlers must first learn how to swim before they can dip a paddle. Under apartheid, Black South Africans were barred from most pools and beaches, so many Black parents today can’t teach their kids how to swim because they don’t know themselves. 

Black South Africans, who were once excluded from kayaking, have embraced the sport in Soweto, where a Black-run club brings new talent to the fore.

The club is free to members and raises money from sponsors so that paddlers can participate in regional competitions. Just as important as competing for trophies is that the club, founded in 2003, has given thousands of kids a passion they might never have otherwise found. 

“My talent is in the water,” says Chwayita Fanteni, who is 16 and has been paddling for three years. “I like the energy I get from winning.” 

As a kid growing up in South Africa, Nkosi Mzolo and his friends had a front-row seat each summer to Africa’s largest river kayak race, a 75-mile endurance paddle over bone-rattling rapids.

But as he sat on the banks of the Msunduzi River near Durban watching the paddlers stream by in a rainbow of bright spandex, he couldn’t imagine being in their shoes. “I thought that was a sport for white people,” he says.

But Mr. Mzolo happened to grow up straddling a revolution. When he was born, in 1988, Black South Africans like Mr. Mzolo couldn’t vote or live in most parts of the country, let alone play sports with white people. By the time he was 12, though, paddling was changing in post-apartheid South Africa.

Black South Africans, who were once excluded from kayaking, have embraced the sport in Soweto, where a Black-run club brings new talent to the fore.

A local Black kayaker invited Mr. Mzolo to learn the sport. Then in 2007, Mr. Mzolo caught the attention of a wealthy, white hobby kayaker in Johannesburg, who paid for him to train as a firefighter and paramedic, and eventually hired him as a kayaking coach. Now Mr. Mzolo runs a canoe club that trains Black paddlers, opening up a world to them, just as it opened to him.

“Canoeing pulled my life off the course it was on and put me on a different one,” he says.

Today, he coaches more than 75 young, Black kayakers in Soweto, near Johannesburg, hoping the sport, known to South Africans as canoeing, might do the same for them. “I want to give them something in their lives to look forward to,” he says.

In a sports-mad country still wrestling with the legacies of segregation and colonialism, integration in sports is a deeply political issue. During apartheid, South Africa was banned from international competitions like the Olympics for refusing to send racially mixed teams. Today, there are controversial racial quotas for the national teams in most major sports. But Mr. Mzolo’s paddlers are part of a generation that grew up thinking they could play whichever sport they chose.  

Members of the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club practice near the Orlando Cooling Towers, which were built in the 1950s to help provide electricity to white residents of Johannesburg, while nearby Black residents of Soweto lived in darkness.

The club Mr. Mzolo now leads, the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club (SCARC), was started in 2003 by Brad Fisher, the advertising executive and paddler who sponsored Mr. Mzolo’s education. He later hired Mr. Mzolo, who was working as a gardener in Johannesburg, as one of the club’s early coaching recruits.

Since then, the club has trained some of the country’s top Black paddlers. Mr. Mzolo himself has gone on to finish the Dusi Canoe Marathon, the long-haul race he watched as a boy, 17 times. But more importantly for coaches like Mr. Mzolo, the club has given thousands of kids a passion they might never have otherwise found.

“My talent is in the water,” says Chwayita Fanteni, who is 16 and has been paddling for three years. “I like the energy I get from winning.” 

On a recent afternoon, as cars buzzed past nearby on an arterial road, Ms. Fanteni dipped her paddle into the Orlando Dam and pushed off, joining her teammates on a paddle around the 1.5-mile long dam. Behind them, the sun ducked behind a pair of decommissioned electrical cooling towers.

Nhlamulo Mahwayi (left) and Juliet Mzibeli finish a practice with the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club on Sept. 27, 2021. Both 12-year-olds have been with the club since they were nine. Their goal, both say, is to compete in the Olympics.

The young paddlers trained at SCARC compete in a league with teams across Gauteng, the province where Johannesburg is located, and often travel across the country for races. Gauteng has 16 recreational paddling clubs, scattered across formerly white and Black areas. South Africans have had kayaking success on the world stage, including Hank McGregor, who has won 11 gold medals at the Canoe Marathon World Championships.

For the young paddlers training at Power Park in Soweto, there is also an idol closer to home. Siseko Ntondini, an elite kayaker who was the first Black paddler to make the podium at the Dusi, grew up in an informal settlement not far from here, and got his start at SCARC.

“My goal is to go to Russia. For the Olympics,” says Nhlamulo Mahwayi, who is 12 and has been training with SCARC since he was nine. So far, he’s only been as far as Cape Town, which he rates as “so fun and so clean. I saw people surfing.”

Like many of the young paddlers here, when Mr. Mahwayi joined the club in 2018, he didn’t know how to swim.

“Ninety-five percent of these kids, I would say, they come here not knowing how to swim at all,” says Mr. Mzolo. That too is a legacy of apartheid, which barred Black South Africans from most pools and beaches. Today, many parents never teach their kids how to swim because they themselves don’t know how to.

Members of the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club gather after practice near the Orlando Dam, where they train, Sept. 27, 2021.

New recruits to SCARC, then, often spend months in a nearby public pool before they ever dip a paddle in the water.

“No, it wasn’t hard. It just took time,” says Juliet Mzibeli, who is also 12 and has been canoeing since she was nine. Her answers are short and blunt. She doesn’t have time to speak to a journalist for long – the few hours between the end of school and sunset are precious, and they’re for canoeing.

Mr. Mzolo comes here when he can, when he isn’t working a night shift as a firefighter and paramedic, or sleeping one off; on other days he sends his junior coaches, young men who came up through the club themselves. It’s exhausting, he says, but nowhere near the worry he felt last year when the club was closed for five months during South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown.

During those months, he spent his days rushing COVID-19 patients to hospitals, and his nights wondering how his athletes were doing, many attempting to do homeschooling with no internet, computers, or even sometimes electricity. Some lived in informal settlements with no reliable water or power. Many of their parents had lost their jobs.

With public facilities like parks and dams closed, the club couldn’t train. Mr. Mzolo went door to door visiting his athletes and bringing food parcels to their families – just as he often did before the pandemic. The club, which is free to join, raises money from corporate sponsorships and personal donations to cover the cost of equipment and entry fees for competitions.

In 2007, a young paddler in the club drowned during a training here. “After he died, we tried to understand what had happened, because he knew how to swim,” Mr. Mzolo says. “The only thing that we could think is that he didn’t have much strength because maybe he came to training hungry.”

Since then, he says, the club has provided monthly food parcels to all its members. On a recent afternoon, the coaches arrived in a minibus loaded with heavy bags of cornmeal, rice, tinned beans, and oil, enough for every athlete to take home a share.

“Looking at myself, I started where these kids are,” he says. “Now I’m trying to be part of their journey.”