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EYES ON THE PRIZE Panellists Nichole Taljaard, Zanele Mdodana and Prof Debbie Hamman in conversation with SuperSports commentator Cato Louw. Photo: DPK Productions.

The Stellenbosch Women Alumnae Network (SWAN) and Maties Sport came together to celebrate the achievements of women in sport at Stellenbosch University (SU). The event was hosted at Die Stal, Coetzenburg on 11 July against a 17-day countdown to the Netball World Cup kick-off where two SU alumnae, Nichole Taljaard and Nicola Smith, will represent South Africa in the SPAR Proteas squad.

“We wanted to celebrate the Matie alumnae that have contributed and continue to contribute to sports in South Africa,” explained Sindiswa Jamba, alumni co-ordinator at SU’s Development and Alumni Relations Division, of the decision to host a joint event with Maties Sport. “We also wanted to inspire upcoming athletes currently studying at SU and learners in high school to show them that anything is possible if you keep on believing.”

Beyond the acknowledgment of the student-athlete-player commitment at SU, the event aimed to celebrate the stellar performances of women athletes, both on domestic soil and internationally. This intended aim was illuminated by the year 2023’s declaration as an explosive year for women in sports.

“We celebrate women globally that are involved in sport in various capacities, because 2023 has been declared as the year of women in sport, and we are saying to those of you present that we are here for ‘her’ now and beyond 2023,” said Ilhaam Groenewald, the chief director of Maties Sport who also acted as programme director for the evening.

Groenewald emphasised the need for financial support in keeping women-dominated sport alive and thriving at SU, and that the role of alumni in remedying this issue should not be underestimated.

“There are various ways that [the alumni] can contribute. [This can be done] through professional coaching, mentoring, skills transfer and participation in our various events,” said Groenewald.

Jamba shared the same sentiment, stating, “It’s important for our alumnae to show up for female athletes who they don’t currently support. [This entails] showing up and availing their time by being mentors. Alumnae can also influence change by advocating and investing in sports programmes and initiatives at the university that support our women athletes.”

The event’s panel discussion was facilitated by SuperSports commentator Cato Louw, and gave the panellists the opportunity to reflect on their respective journeys and regale the audience with their tales of struggle, progress and triumph. Maties Head Coach Zanele Mdodana and Prof Debbie Hamman, who retired from lecturing law at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in July 2022. Prof Hamman served as captain of the Proteas team from 1986 to 1995 and led the national team in their return to international sport after a 25-year isolation brought on by apartheid sanctions. 

“We left here, and no-one even knew that we’d gone!’ said Hamman of the Proteas’s departure to Birmingham to compete in the Netball World Cup in 1995, where they achieved second place.

“The nicest thing for me now is to see that this team is up there with all the other sports, and that the marketing and the publicity is appropriate and well-deserved,” said Hamman. Hamman also recognised the growth that she has seen in the area of professional netball. “I just think back on how little we knew. The players, the coaching staff and the support personnel behind you – everyone is now in the area of professional sport. You people play full-time professional netball and that is going to translate into the results – I have no doubt about that.” 

Maties Netball’s Mdodana, who has 82 caps for the Proteas, emphasised the significance of the hard work and effort that has gone into preparation for the prestigious championship. “Netball deserves their time in the sun. It deserves the support, the airtime, the financial support and that is going to pay off,” said Mdodana. “Having the World Cup at home and knowing that the whole country is backing you – this is their time to change the narrative. They are going to have a very tough campaign, but they have everything it takes to really bring the difference and to put South Africa on the map where it actually deserves to be.”

Being weeks away from her Netball World Cup debut, the panel discussion gave Taljaard the opportunity to reflect on her netball career, which started at the tender age of 5. With a wide range of accolades for netball, which range from playing netball for Maties to her selection as captain of the Western Cape Southern Stings netball team, Taljaard reminisced over her journey to becoming the netball player that she is now.

“As much as it is amazing, it is very overwhelming. I am very used to the highest performance being [Maties netball] and the [Telkom Netball League], so it was really amazing for me to be able to take the next step,” said Taljaard. “The people I am playing with are the people I used to look up to as well. It’s really cool to be able to play against the players I looked up to and to think that I now have to outsmart them. To be able to not only play against my idols but play with them [is amazing and overwhelming].  It feels like another tournament of working hard, putting in the hours and going out and doing what God has blessed me with.”

The 2023 Netball World Cup is set to begin on 28 July. The Proteas expect to clash with Wales at the Cape Town International Conference Centre (CTICC) in the first stage preliminaries.

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