South Africa: A Policeman Using Football for Change

Stellenbosch's Sergeant Simphiwe Mgwetana formed Barca Juniors to give youngsters a positive platform to use their talent rather than resort to a life of crime because of a lack of resources.

If you spend some time in Kayamandi, just outside the picturesque town of Stellenbosch, you're likely to run into Sergeant Simphiwe "Charlie" Mgwetana doing his daily patrols in his police van along the bustling township's narrow roads.

The 43-year-old is regularly on the beat in the densely populated township situated on a hill overlooking the famous Winelands town.

Besides dealing with crime in the area, Mgwetana also spends a great deal of his free time monitoring and mentoring the township's youth who often hang out around the nearby mall smoking, drinking and sometimes committing petty crimes.

Tired of arresting vulnerable teenagers and running the risk of them picking up more bad habits in jail, the policeman decided to tackle the problem in a creative way. In 2011 he started Barca Juniors, a football club named in honour of Spanish giants Barcelona, a team he admires for their free-flowing style of play as well as their famed youth development programme.

In fact, together with sponsor Nick Dupper, director of Flying Kites, they took three of the team's players to the Camp Nou to watch Barcelona against Villareal in 2014.

"It was a great experience and the boys learnt a lot from it," he says, but hastens to point out that running the club in a financially depressed community presents a completely different challenge.

"Providing kit and equipment is a challenge. At first I had to use some of my own money to buy what we needed. When I met Nick we formed a management team and organised some sponsors. In most cases, there are people that are willing to assist. But it hasn't been easy in these difficult economic times."

Sergeant Charlie, as he's affectionately known in the community, reckons a lack of recreational opportunities and facilities are the key reasons behind the community's teenagers resorting to crime.

"It's hard to turn a blind eye when you see the children doing naughty things. It's not an easy thing to arrest them, particularly if you know them or their parents, but at the end of the day I have a job to do. I'm trying to make a difference in the community so that these children don't end up taking the wrong direction."

Being taught to help from a young age

Sergeant Charlie credits his upbringing for inspiring him to help the teenagers from Kayamandi through football. He has been a resident of the area since 2004.

"Where I come from in the Eastern Cape they taught me very well. My mother Norawuntana, especially, ingrained in me the need to help others. The reason I started Barca Juniors was that I noted a lot of children in my community don't have anything to do when they come from school in the afternoons. Some of them end up taking drugs while others steal things like cellphones," he says.

Mgwetana himself played the game in the Eastern Cape district of Komga where he grew up. He is fully aware of the power of football to shepherd children onto the straight and narrow.

"I knew football would attract a lot of children. Even if you have one ball you will attract so many kids. In our community, soccer is the most popular pastime and from experience I know about the discipline and teamwork it instills."

The club has over 80 members who play in five teams starting at Under-11 level through to the senior side. While the initial aim was to provide Kayamandi's children with the opportunity to play football, Barca Juniors certainly does not lack ambition.

Not satisfied with simply steering the children away from trouble, Mgwetana is also keen for his players to use the club as a springboard to bigger things. "We need role models from our community because it will boost our club. People won't take us seriously if they don't see us making any progress."

The senior team has already made its way up to the Promotion League of the Stellenbosch Local Football Association, one level below the SAB Regional League, which is the fourth-tier of South African football. More encouragingly, local boy Leletu Skelem is currently making waves for premier division rookies Stellenbosch FC. The 22-year-old was named as the club's Young Player of the Year at their end of season function.

Skelem joined Barca Juniors as a 14-year-old before moving to the SAB league side Maties FC. Two years ago he was snapped up by Stellenbosch FC when they were campaigning in the National First Division.

"I'm proud of him and what he's achieved. He's a role model to the other boys. I'm still in touch with him and when time allows I'm hoping he can spend some time to motivate the boys to show what is possible," says Mgwetana.

Developing well-rounded individuals

Another former Barca Juniors player, Nkanyiso Dorho, is with Stellenbosch FC's academy, while Melvin Boji spent some time with the SuperSport United academy a few years ago.

Besides focusing on the technical side and the social cohesion fostered by the game, Mgwetana also places great emphasis on developing well-rounded individuals with a special focus on education.

"Soccer is about discipline. When we tell the players to report to training or be at the venue for a game at a certain time they are normally there. We also follow their academic progress and if they're not doing well their parents call us to discuss the issue. We encourage them to concentrate on their studies. There has to be a balance so that their education and soccer go together."

The importance of education has filtered through to 18-year-old Mihlali Tyatyeka, the first team's attacking midfielder. A grade 11 pupil at nearby Luckhoff High, a school that produced the likes of former Cape Town Spurs and Hellenic winger Reggie Jantjies and Proteas spinner Omar Henry, the team's "Number 10", as he calls himself, is a young man with a plan.

Tyatyeka says while he would like to take his football career as far as he can, his primary goal is to become a chartered accountant.

The ambitious youngster, who has been with Barca Juniors since the club's inception in 2011, is grateful to Mgwetana for providing Kayamandi's children with an opportunity to nurture their talent.

"The establishment of the club is one of the best things that could have happened in our township. Sergeant Charlie is a very good coach and I like the way he teaches us to play Piano and Shoeshine football," Tyatyeka said.

"When he's with us as a coach he is very warm and friendly but he also instills discipline in the boys. Of course, it's different when he's in his uniform and has to assert his authority."

Mgwetana, who has a South African Football Association Level D coaching certificate as well as having completed a course with a visiting Royal Dutch Football Association, is clearly adept at juggling his roles as policeman and coach.

And he says his involvement with Barca Juniors has spinoffs for his work as a policeman. "Everybody in the community knows me. When I'm patrolling they call out my name. I'm well respected in the community which helps a lot when I need information to follow up on solving a crime. They support and respect me."

Being a policeman is often a dangerous and thankless job. Mgwetana seems to have had a different experience, however. He is one of those law enforcement officials who has used his profession to help uplift his community by using the positive power of the beautiful game.

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