South Africa – country of hills and fences, beauty and disparity
In October I was contacted by Fergus Klein, Chairperson of the Gauteng Flying Disc Association. Ferg graduated from Sussex (Mohawks) in 2014 and unbeknown to me had stayed heavily involved in Ultimate. The GFDA were looking for a coach to come over to up the level of the game in the region, which typically lags a little behind Cape Town, so I said I was keen to get involved! Ellie Tournier (GFDA Secretary) immediately got to work in planning fundraising efforts and making a packed schedule to make the most of every day I would be in SA. We coordinated to make this awesome video which tells a little about the history of Ultimate in South Africa, and the short and long-term aims for my trip:
I’ll break my report into three sections: Frisbee, Socio-economic-political environment, and Nature.
Teams in the Gauteng region of South Africa play in a weekly mixed league consisting of 6 teams; two from the local universities – Wits and Zone Rangers (Tuks + graduates, from Pretoria), two teams which have developed from outreach efforts – Soweto and Orange Farm, plus Skyveld (originally Wits graduates), and last year’s champions Ultitude Grey Wolves.
Separation between university and club teams seems to be similar to how it was 15-20 years ago in the UK – i.e, university teams often enter club-level tournaments, and players who have graduated continue to play for them – or form their own team of graduates. For example, SA Nationals last year was won by the University of Cape Town (who play Hex Offence).
Whilst in SA I had the pleasure of running sessions with most of these teams, plus extended advanced clinics during my final weekend aimed at higher level players, and potential coaches.
I ran two sessions at the University of the Witswatersrand. They’re a fun group who haven’t been doing too well in the league recently, and have suffered a bit in the last few years from changes in personel and leaders. For the first session, their captain Paul had requested I teach horizontal stack, so I put together a comprehensive 3hr session which drilled all the major aspects of the offence as it was played when I was on Clapham – with “peppermill” cutting patterns. They were attentive and picked up the ideas pretty well despite the fast-moving nature of the session, and when it came to implementing the ideas in the game they did well but were usually let down by simple catching or throwing errors.
For the next session, I spent the first hour focusing on catching and throwing fundamentals, and moved on to Hex offence. Ho-stack can be very effective for developed teams against person-to-person defence as it simplifies cutting and throwing options, however from a development point of view it can be counter-productive to impose rigid structures on a team who are just enjoying exploring their options on the field whilst developing their catching and throwing skills – allowing them freedom to choose from a variety of fluid options provides a more sound foundation for the learning process. The game at the end felt different when applying the Hex principles – still fairly stop-start due to turnovers, but the turns seemed to be happening in the middle of good sequences of play, rather than being like punctuation marks at the end. With some practice dedicated to catching/throwing fundamentals, and training with the freedom Hex allows, Wits have a good vibe and strong characters to hold them together whilst they go from strength to strength.
Pretoria / Tuks / Zone Rangers:
The session in Pretoria, a city just north of Johannesburg, brought together players from Tuks Uni and the Zone Rangers / Ranger Danger players. Whilst in Pretoria I stayed with Justus and Arno, who have a couple of amazing German Shepherd dogs, and five puppies! I’m a total sucker for cuteness and spent most of the evening sitting on the kitchen floor playing with them – though they do hurt when they decide to bite your socks – and they don’t give up! Justus took me on a trip to the Voortrekker Monument during the day where I learnt about the history of Afrikaners – a Southern African ethnic group descended from predominantly Dutch settlers who first arrived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who make up the majority of the Pretoria population. The players even joked about whether I could repeat what I was saying in Afrikaans, a daughter language of Dutch. Photos and videos from the Voortrekker Monument are in the full album.
The Pretoria bunch were really good fun – the session had a really great vibe and a wide spread of experience, they don’t take themselves too seriously but they are more than capable of pulling out some great plays when they want to, and really put their heads into learning and applying the things I had to teach. By the end of the game they were absolutely shredding zones, using the Hex structure to move the disc around in a flurry of short passes to get around and through the cup. I can’t quite get over how they differentiated between the two teams just with very thin orange or green sashes (you can see an orange one in the photo) – shirt colour was completely irrelevant! That said, I didn’t notice any of them getting confused on the field, so I guess they have adapted. Consensus seemed to be that Hex suited their approach to the game, so I look forward to hearing how they’re getting along with it all in the future!
A few miles south of Johannesburg lies the township of Orange Farm. The Orange Farm Ultimates were started 8 years ago, and have competed in tournaments in the past but are geographically isolated. The captain, Bongani, is a sports teacher at a local school, which has allowed him to add Ultimate to the curriculum and ensure a flow of new players. Their objective is to become competitive enough to compete on an international level, while providing an alternative to the youth of Orange Farm to get them off the streets and live an active and positive lifestyle through sport.
The journey to Orange Farm started by leaving a street with large houses surrounded by 10ft high walls with electric fences, driving to the southern outskirts of Johannesburg, into the township, alongside homes made from corrugated iron sheets, through the dirt-track bustling town centre, and onto a large field with long grass. During the session we worked on throwing techniques, forcing & breaking the force, and then Hex principles in the game. As the game went on, everyone got into it more and more, and by the end I was finding it very difficult to contain U24 squad member Sizwe as he passed and moved all around the field – getting the disc back at will like a Hex pro. Towards the end of the game Lindelani, also on the U24 squad, caught an incredible backwards layout which got everyone cheering. It was great fun playing with them and seeing how much they improved during the time I was with them!
They went on to beat Wits in the league a few days later, 15-8. Congrats Orange Farm! Big things to come in the future.
As we arrived in the western outskirts of Johannesburg at the Soweto fields, we saw 20 players wearing yellow shirts with frisbees flying between them. It was immediately apparent that these players train a lot. Throws were coming out smooth and flying great distances. They apparently meet up 3+ times a week, but have had little contact with the outside frisbee community. I had been told they have a fast-paced style and would run for days – however upon talking to them, they seemed to think fitness was one of their biggest weaknesses! Certainly nobody can say they don’t have a fast-paced style – they took to Hex like ducks to water, and seemed to really appreciate the throwing/catching tips and strategy chat that I had with them at lunchtime.
Playing in the game with them at the end, at times on defence I honestly felt out of my depth. They were able to move the disc around without hesitation, tossing backhands over defenders with ease, rarely allowing the defence time to figure out what was going on.
The enthusiasm of this team, combined with the amount of training time they’ve had and the lack of influence from the external frisbee community, mean they have evolved a natural organic style which I think any player can learn a lot from. Toss passes were particularly common – a natural counter when tight person-to-person marking stops short flat passes, and very hard to defend against if thrown accurately. They were all on the same page regarding their style; when James stepped onto the field – a Skyveld player with very solid but ‘traditional’ style/technique – the rhythm/tempo was occasionally disrupted and flow halted, showing that this team had truly developed their own way of playing which didn’t line up with the traditional approach – and I preferred it!
Hex works fantastically with this style, providing a guideline for creating and using space effectively which supports quick movement, without restricting the freedom of the players to run where they want at any given time. I ran a load of Hex drills with them, and if they dedicate training time to perfecting those drills then I wouldn’t be surprised if they were competing for the National title in a couple of years.
My final weekend in South Africa was the big one – players travelled from afar (some flying 2 hours from Durban – the same distance as London->Paris) for a coaching clinic on Saturday and a players clinic on Sunday. It was great having representatives from so many different teams – we took the opportunity to share our thoughts about Spirit of the Game at the start of the coaches session, and progressed onto coaching theory, methods for teaching sound techniques, designing and running drills and set plays, planning sessions, coaching advice for match/tournament situations, and guidelines for adapting your team strategy in response to what your opponent is playing in real-time. We had practical sections where the participants would role-play as coaches welcoming beginners to practice – throwing around with them and then offering technique advice in a way that encouraged the pupil to buy-in to the idea of being coached. Participants also paired up to design a drill and run it with the (incredibly attentive) group we had, before receiving feedback from the whole group on how they thought it went – hopefully everyone went away with the knowledge and confidence to improve their teams training sessions!
At the player clinic I introduced myself by talking about having played Ultimate non-stop for 17 years, and coached non-stop for 15 years, before talking about how we were going to look at sound catching & throwing fundamentals today, followed by some Hex offence drills and play. Fergus prompted me by asking what my relation to Hex was, and when I said I had invented it, there was a noticeable sound of surprise from those gathered – most if not all had heard of or even played it before, but hadn’t known where it had originated! Hex is quite big already in South Africa as it’s played by Chilli (club team from Cape Town), University of Cape Town, SA Masters at WUGC, and was taught at the SA U24 training which took place just before I arrived (unrelated to my visit).
Teaching the fundamental catching and throwing techniques I’ve come to trust really surprised a lot of the experienced players – some commented that they would have to completely re-work their techniques. We went through a variety of different throwing skills, such as how to put touch on passes and key elements to efficiently transferring power from the core to the throw when hucking, and I believe everyone got something useful from the technique section of the day, with some people almost being overwhelmed with the amount of stuff to learn!
In the afternoon we went through a number of Hex drills quite quickly – the Give-Go-Swill Drill, Hex Puzzle Drill, Hex Huck Drills, Keepdisc, and the all-new Red Zone Drill to practice scoring without breaking away from the Hex principles. The game at the end was high quality and I was really happy with how everyone was adopting the principles. I stopped the game a few times to highlight points at which we were surrounding the disc, not rotating the shape or crowding the narrow channel, and these elements got better and better as the game progressed. When the defence put on a zone, we experimented with surrounding the disc and it felt awesome – so I ended up learning quite a lot from the session too!
Ellie arranged for me to go on a ‘Disc Run’ a couple of days into my stay. All I knew is that a guy called Lionel would be picking me up on his motorbike in the morning, and I had to be ready at 5am outside the house with a disc in hand. Sure enough Lionel turned up before sunrise, so I hopped on as he told me to relax (it was my first time) and we rode to to a nearby (huge) park. Whilst we warmed up other disc runners arrived – Brett, Jon, and Angus, and they explained the basic rules; basically a cross between throwing around, speed disc golf, and hill running – you go round the course in pairs completing long passes to each other between tees and trees or disc golf baskets. An incomplete pass counts as a dropped shot, and you aim to complete the course in as few shots as possible, as quickly as possible. This effectively means you throw long to a partner, then hill run past them, read & catch a long throw from them, and repeat the process until you’ve putted out (all holes are par 4). We completed 36 holes – a front 18 and back 18 – and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, combining loads of things I love together!
To top it all off, the sunrise scenery was absolutely awe inspiring, and I captured it in one of the best photos I think I have ever taken. #nofilter
Johannesburg is not a safe place if you don’t keep your eyes open and your wits about you. The streets in the area I was staying were lined with 10ft high walls with 10,000 volt electric fences on top. When approaching your house, you press your key to activate the rolling gate, but you must not approach the gate before it fully opens, as this gives hijackers a chance to drive up behind you and block you in. Keep your car windows closed and your doors locked. This is all taken for granted by those who live in Johannesburg – do not allow yourself to be in situations where you may be a victim of crime. Those situations are far more common than one might imagine – essentially, there must be security in order for you to be secure. When I arrived it all seemed a bit over the top, and perhaps fear is one of the most damaging elements here – first comes the fear, then comes the walls, then comes the crime… underlying it all is a huge economic disparity and a conflict between people who want to keep things pretty much as they are for as long as they can, and those who are keen for real change to happen but often powerless to do much about it.
Apartheid ended in 1994 – really not very long ago – and the years since then have been troubled, under the ANC party who were originally Mandela’s party. Now the general feeling is that the ANC remain in power as the masses are kept in the dark, believing they are still voting for the party that will bring the change and equality Mandela championed. In reality, president Zuma has gone mad with power, has lost touch with reality, and does scant to improve the situation. Recently the 3rd most popular political party, the EFF, got evicted from the houses of parliament because they were asking Zuma when he was going to pay back the money he spent on his sprawling mansion for himself & his multiple wives. The 2nd most powerful party, the DA, staged a walk-out protest immediately after, when the speaker could not confirm nor deny that those who evicted the EFF were police officers – which would be a gross violation of the constitution. The political situation however is far from hopeless – democracy does seem to be alive, and the main enemies of change in this situation appear to be mass ignorance and a desire to hold on to privileged comfort. Who knows how Zuma will react when he loses grip though…
The economic disparity on the ground is like nothing I could have ever imagined. Generally speaking, white South Africans live in secure residences with high walls, electric fences, maids, gardeners, and security guards at the complexes, whilst black South Africans reside in townships constructed on the outskirts – small bricked bungalow houses, some with corrugated iron roofs, signs on planks, with a supply of electricity and water if they aren’t the unlucky ones. These two extremes exist just a couple of kilometres away from each other (or less) and there are no middle-ground houses – no semi-detached or terraced houses which are so common in England. You can’t just hit the middle ground and build a ton of terraced houses for everyone to live in though – this divide runs deep.
At every road junction, modern first world cars (mostly populated by one white driver) pull up at the red lights whilst black street entertainers, beggars, window cleaners, rubbish collectors, street vendors, and so on come to their windows and ask for money one way or another. Every single junction. Practically all outward-facing jobs are populated by black South Africans – road workers, waiters/waitresses, security guards, parking attendants, shop assistants, maids, gardeners… whilst this other class of white folk somehow exist between the cracks, safe in their cars and fortified residences, writing the paychecks and keeping the financial and business worlds spinning throughout it all. This division of labour leads one to think that whilst these two worlds are existing within one country, it naturally follows that those who have it want to keep it, and those who don’t have it want to take it.
In the end it comes down to the government, and so long as internet data is kept expensive in South Africa, knowledge is controlled, ignorance is king, and the ANC with Zuma will continue to rake in the votes from the townships who are in the most need of change.
The political situation is very complicated and I have a limited understanding of it from my two weeks in the country – I simply tried to soak it up from the experiences and conversations I was able to have in that time, which means my opinions are pretty biased and I have generalised in order to save space – so I’m not claiming to do the situation justice at all. I’m sure there are many elements I am missing and you should by all means form your own opinions from your own information sources. Guard dogs, which are an essential security measure for residences, are all massive racists though – that’s for sure.
The South African landscape is awesome. Huge hills everywhere, vast expanses in valleys. In the typical garden you’ll find birds with extravagant colours, lizards, and apparently the occasional snake or scorpion – though I didn’t encounter any. On the roads there are zebras and other large mammals just hanging out. Whilst visiting the Cradle of Humankind (where there were signs warning of deadly snakes as soon as you strayed from the paths) with Andy, we went on a walk through the Sterkfontein Caves, where there was an underground lake which went on for miles and miles – nobody knows how deep it is, and one person died trying to find out!
I visited the Lion and Rhino park with Paul from Wits – not a very big place, containing plenty of big cats and other animals. There was a resident cheetah that I heard purring loudly as some guests stroked it. I got to feed a giraffe and play with some lion cubs using a frisbee… it was a fun and interesting experience, but ultimately a bit saddening that they were being kept in fairly small areas, and even more so when I later found out some of the cubs will almost certainly be used for caged hunting later in their lives.
Fergus took me and his brother Lewis to Pilansburg Nature Reserve & Wildlife Park – a massive expanse of land where animals roam free, and humans are strictly forbidden from interfering in any way. The main tracks through the park were tarmac, but the others were dirt tracks which were often incredibly difficult to navigate a regular car through without getting stuck – thankfully Ferg has hundreds of hours of experience as a qualified field guide so we didn’t get stuck once, and he was able to identify all the animals we saw, and bird calls we heard! Whilst going along the tracks you have to keep a keen eye out to spot any animals in the vicinity, as you never know where they will be. Sometimes we’d just catch a brief glimpse of something flat and grey between the bush, reverse the car, and suddenly a full grown elephant would come into view… or the top of a tree would look funny, and it’d turn out to be a giraffe. Sometimes the animals would appear on the road in front of us, or pop out of the bush right next to us!
Seeing wild white rhinos and elephants on the track about 15m in front of us felt so unreal. I was acutely aware of how the animals regarded us – did they have a concept of humans as an animal?
Likely they just saw cars as an uninteresting animal – they don’t smell nice, they keep to the tracks, they keep their distance, and they don’t bother us. This meant they seemed to be totally relaxed in our presence – we even saw the rhinos playfully tussling a little – though when they started coming down the road towards us we made sure to back off and keep our distance.
Also seen were; hippos – minding their own business in a swampy lake; kudu – nice looking large stripe game-type animals; and plenty of wildebeest, impala, birchel zebra, and more. It felt fantastic to be surrounded by nature, and encouraged thoughts of “could I survive in this environment?”, but there was a lingering awareness I had that the whole area was ultimately surrounded by a fence, leading me to realise we were having to fence the most dangerous animals out – humans – and in places where nature exists without any fences, poaching is very rapidly reducing the large animal population to nil. Nature reserves are becoming like a window into the past, where we can witness how beautiful, balanced and diverse the earth had become before human evolution spiked.
All the photos and videos I took on my trip are available in this Google Photos album – some of my remaining favourites are below. Lastly I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who made my stay in South Africa possible, and so hugely enjoyable – Ellie, Fergus, Justus, Arno, Paul, Andy, Charlotte – everyone who let me crash at their place and drove me around to show me the wonders your country has to offer, and all those who donated to the fundraiser! I hope my work has long lasting impact in the region and I aim to return in the future (to talk about defence!).