Blazing a trail for female sports in South Africa

02 April 2020 | Story Fabio De Dominicis. Photo Supplied. Read time 6 min.
UCT sport coordinator Mel Awu attended the Women in Sport Leadership Training Workshop in March and said that it was “one of the best” workshops she has ever attended.
UCT sport coordinator Mel Awu attended the Women in Sport Leadership Training Workshop in March and said that it was “one of the best” workshops she has ever attended.

With the success of sportswomen in South Africa ever increasing, it is not only the action on the pitch that has been receiving much-deserved plaudits and support. Amid the International Women’s Day celebrations in March 2020, 25 women in sport – including a group from University Sports South Africa – came together for a countrywide three-day Women in Sport Leadership Training Workshop.

From female student athletes earning three of the country’s five gold medals at Napoli 2019 and former Universiade star Refiloe Jane joining AC Milan, to swim sensation Tatjana Schoenmaker being nominated for the FISU Female Athlete of the Year award and rugby pioneer Babalwa Latsha becoming the first contracted women’s player abroad, female student-athletes past and present have been flying the flag high for South Africa over the past year.

Amid the International Women’s Day celebrations earlier this month, 25 women in sport from across South Africa gathered in Johannesburg for a three-day Women in Sport Leadership Training Workshop hosted by the South African Women and Sport Foundation (SAWASF), facilitated by the Women Sport Leadership Academy (WSLA) from University of Chichester and the Anita White Foundation (AWF).

A Sports Management graduate from the Nelson Mandela University, Mel has worked in sports administration at five different tertiary institutions across the country while serving on the national committees of USSA Squash, USSA Chess, USSA Athletics and USSA Rugby, where one of her highlights was donning the coveted green and gold blazer when she managed Team South Africa at the 2018 FISU World University Rugby 7s Championships in Swakopmund, Namibia.

The passionate administrator, who has long fought for gender equality in the sports arena, was thrilled with the informative and inspiring workshop, which poignantly drew to a close on International Women’s Day, March 8.

“This was one of the best workshops I have ever attended,” she claimed, before further explaining, “It was a safe space, and everything was practical. We were broken into smaller groups, and sometimes paired randomly, which gave us more of an opportunity to get personal with our partners, and great friendships were formed. I left there knowing everyone's name.”

Topics covered over the three days included Conflict Management, Networking, Communication, Presenting with Impact, Having the Difficult Conversations as well as Team Building.

“The practicality of the entire workshop blew me away,” Mel said. “We did group activities, we role-played, and I learnt so much. It was a safe space to not be afraid to approach someone and network, ask for help, or share knowledge.

“Learning with sisters who have the same passion for development was very special for me – it was all very supportive, the feedback was given in a structured manner, and we all went away with lessons.”

The workshop has definitely provided Mel with renewed impetus for her work as she acknowledges the many challenges women in the sports industry face.

“Besides being thought to only be able to take minutes at meetings, I feel, as a woman, I have to be at my best game all the time, meaning I have to work thrice as hard at everything compared to men. And if I don't cut it, then it’s 'these women...'”, she admits, before choosing to see the bright side. “Having said that, I have enjoyed great encouragement and respect from some male colleagues and mentors, so I always choose to celebrate that.”

“She is a hard-worker, she is efficient and she is a woman!” Mel says of the association’s leader. “She is amazing, and the wonderful thing about her is that she is so down to earth and willing to teach others. She is an inspiration; when seeing her, every female believes that 'we can do it too’.”

While facing the challenges of being a female sports administrator on a daily basis, Mel feels a lot needs to be done to encourage equality, starting with a change in mentality from her male counterparts.

“RESPECT,” she spells out when asked what can be improved. “Men need to learn to respect women for who they are, their character and their abilities – and not just as 'possessions', but as leaders. As women we need to step up, and hold each other accountable. I dream of a day when there will be a 50:50 gender split across all Sports Committees, which will be full of competent leaders who want to take the sport forward, not their personal agenda.”

Mel feels that women should not merely sit back, but take action themselves.

“As women, it is our responsibility to empower ourselves – we cannot leave that responsibility to men,” she says. “As a woman, you have to want to constantly improve yourself, upgrade yourself and keep opening doors – we need to be demanding a seat at the table, and not waiting for someone to put out a chair. We have to empower and uplift each other, while we must also realise that there are men who are advocates for gender equality, and we need to celebrate them and work with them in this fight.”

“As a country we need to put systems in place for the development of women, and demolish destructive patriarchal systems,” she argues. “Women need to initiate that, because some men see nothing wrong with the current systems, as they are in a position of privilege. We need to open up safe spaces for those conversations.”

This month’s successful workshop was indeed one of those safe spaces, inspiring Mel and her female colleagues to continue the ongoing struggle for gender equality in sport.

The South African Women and Sport Foundation are continually doing their part in assisting female sports leaders where possible, and with their annual sports conference set for August, Mel will no doubt be joined by many more to continue blazing the trail for South African women in sport.

This article was originally published by FISU.

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