South Africa: The Only Weightlifting Club in Soweto Is Changing Lives

Weightlifting - Assistant coach Tiisetso Hlabathe (21) started weightlifting when she was 11. “Weightlifting taught me a lot of things. Through it I managed to finish school, [because] I was disciplined, ” she says.

Started in 2019, Lifting Dreams is running out of space

On Letsoala street, just meters away from where the 1976 Soweto Uprising took place, is the only weightlifting club in Soweto.

Operating out of the front yard of defending SA Weightlifting Champion Khati Mabuya's mother's house, Lifting Dreams Soweto offers free weightlifting training for children aged nine to 17.

Website for Lifting Dreams

Mabuya started the club in 2019 with his brother, Katleho, to get children off the streets and out of trouble and to teach them discipline and perseverance.

"I wanted to build a gym which was going to be a place of safety for the kids," says Mabuya, "A space where they can gather together after school and do their homework and train."

Soon after starting the club, the Mabuyas met Hein Badenhorst when they turned up at a weightlifting competition with 14 youngsters from Soweto. Badenhorst introduced the club to British weightlifting Olympian Sonny Webster, who helped them raise funds. With their help and donations from the National Federation of Weightlifting and My Fitness gym, the club has functional equipment.

Assistant coach Lesego Mogotsi, Mabuya's neighbour, said, "For me, it's literally a lifesaver, because I was in a dark place and then this place brought the light I needed in my life."

Mogotsi says people seem to believe that "certain sports are for white people only". When they go to competitions, they are usually the only black competitors.

Weightlifting in Soweto used to be held at Donaldson Primary School (for girls) and Morris Isaacson High School (for boys), but when teachers stopped it apparently worried about dropped weights damaging the floors, Hlabathe (and many other weightlifters in Soweto) didn't have anywhere to train until Mabuya opened his club.

Currently, the club trains 60 youngsters and their biggest problem is a lack of space. They can only accommodate 20 at a time. With schools being on rotation due to Covid-19 regulations, the youngsters train on alternating days.

"More kids come every day. We don't have space, that's our main problem," says assistant coach Tiisetso Hlabathe (21), who started weightlifting when she was 11 years old at Donelson Primary school.

Lifting Dreams also focuses on improving academic outcomes. All members have to get a minimum of 60% at school, and if they don't they have to do a set of squats for every percentage point they missed.

Boy Meje (14) who went to the SA junior weightlifting champs in Durban in 2019, says his grades have greatly improved because of this.

Zandile Zungu (13) comes to the gym every day and says, "Everyone is welcome in this gym and nobody is going to judge you and say no you can't do this. Even schoolwork, our coaches help."

"I love teaching the kids," says Hlabathe, "I always tell them that, what we learn every day it becomes a part of who we are. In weightlifting, it teaches us discipline, it teaches us how to be dedicated, it teaches us how to be independent."

The team hopes to open more clubs in Soweto and in schools to make weightlifting accessible and affordable for children in their community.

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