Belinda Nkonzo overcomes barriers on her way to the top

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STAR Gugulethu athlete Belinda Nkonzo took all manner of coaching on board to become a top athlete in the fold of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos) in the 1980s and 1990s. Reaching the pinnacle of her sport, though, did not come easily for Nkonzo.

As a young athlete, she was torn between the prospects of competing internationally and having to abide by the sports policies of Sacos at the time, which said ‘no’ to international sports until all South African athletes enjoyed equal opportunities.

Though her talent was recognised by coaches on both the black and white sides of the great apartheid divide, she could not go onto greater heights.

Belinda Nkonzo photographed as a young athlete with the Gugulethu Amateur Athletics Club.

“I felt caught between the possibility of competing in international sport and the sports policies of Sacos at the time,” Nkonzo recalls.

What followed was an uncomfortable dance of to- and fro-ing between coaching at a ‘white’ Atlantic Athletics Club and ‘black’ Gugulethu Club.

Asthmatic childhood

As a child, Nkonzo was asthmatic and her parents were not keen on her doing athletics. Little did they know that she would become a top middle-distance athlete.

“My parents were hesitant in allowing me to run. But they had a change of heart when they discovered I was beating my sister, Melinda, in athletics,” says Nkonzo. “Running helped me to ‘run away’ my asthma while I was in primary school. Before that, I was in and out of Red Cross Hospital!”

Born in 1973, Nkonzo grew up at number 4 NY 75. NY stood for Native Yard, an apartheid-era designation for a ‘black’ residential area. (Interestingly, this road was later renamed after her father, Jim Nkonzo, who was a community leader.)

Nkonzo was first spotted by her teacher, Mr Mguzulwe, at Vuyani Primary School in Gugulethu, who introduced her to the Gugulethu Amateur Athletics Club where he was also a member.

Belinda Nkonzo matriculated at Alexander Sinton High School, the school with the proudest record in high schools’ athletics.

She joined the club as a 13-year-old in 1986 and received training from Ta-Mzo (Mzoli Ngcawuzele), who himself was a champion athlete in all three disciplines of track, cross country and road running. (Ngcawuzele is the owner of the well-known Mzoli’s Restaurant in Gugulethu.)

While at primary school, Nkonzo represented ‘Gustu’, one of three athletics zones for black schools during apartheid. (‘Gustu’ was an abbreviation for the Gugulethu zone. The other two zones were ‘Lastu’ for Langa and ‘Nyostu’ for Nyanga.)

After primary school, she attended Fezeka High School in Gugulethu for two years before making her way to Alexander Sinton High School in Crawford, Cape Town, where she completed her schooling.

SAAAB junior ladies sportsperson of the year

Being at a school synonymous with athletics and training at club level, Nkonzo qualified for the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) track and cross country teams. She competed in the company of champion athlete and Gugulethu club mate Carol Khume, and Benita Paul and Francine Skippers (Farwa Mentoor).

She had been capped SAAAB junior ladies sportsperson of the year in 1990 – the same year Nelson Mandela was released from prison (11 February).

Belinda Nkonzo was capped SAAAB junior ladies sportsperson of the year in 1990 – the same year Nelson Mandela was released from prison (11 February).

“At the club, I was also training with Patrick Sogiba and Medoda Moshiyi, who were at school with me,” Nkonzo says. “We trained and held our meetings at the NY 49 Stadium in Gugulethu. Ta-Mzo (Ngcawuzele), Victor Vanyaza (Vicks) and Reginald Lizwe all helped with the training of the athletes at the club,” she adds.

Nkonzo first learned about the ‘white’ Atlantic Athletics Club at Green Point Stadium in Cape Town in 1990 through pupils at Gugulethu Comprehensive School – “a school that was the cause of great conflict in Gugulethu when they chose to participate in multiracial sport”, at a time when sports unity was not yet achieved.

The schools that Nkonzo attended in Gugulethu, as well as Alexander Sinton in Crawford, had all been affiliated to WPSSSU.

Atlantic Athletics Club

At first, Nkonzo’s training with the Atlantic Club was intermittent, but then she joined the club on a permanent basis in 1993.

“In 1993, I went to the Green Point club, Atlantic, to train with Gavin Doyle on a permanent basis, as school and club athletics were not functioning like before,” she says. “There was politics at Alexander Sinton High School. I didn’t understand what it was. I just know that that was the year the whole school did not participate in athletics,” Nkonzo remembers.

Belinda Nkonzo in her Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) colours.

Sinton chose in 1993 not to participate in athletics, because of the sports rivalry at the time between the national sports bodies Sacos and the National Sports Congress (NSC).

The political landscape in South Africa was changing.

A new South African sports order was in the making with the NSC outmanoeuvring Sacos in the ensuing years as the controlling body of sport in South Africa.

Sacos still believed participating in international sport was too soon and punted the idea that coaching structures and all sports persons had to be up to international standard before embarking upon international sport much later than 1992.

It was a strong argument that did not have the backing of all South Africans.

The lack of black athletes within the Sacos ranks also weakened the sports organisation as a genuinely mass-based sports body for all in a country where the majority of the people are black.

Gavin Doyle

In 1993, Nkonzo’s new coach Gavin Doyle put her through her paces at Green Point Stadium to see whether she had the potential to be a top athlete.

Belinda Nkonzo wins the junior ladies 800m race comfortably at the SAAAB meeting at the UWC track in 1990.

“He asked me whether I was sure I was an athlete. After sending me on a run and looking at my general structure as an athlete – the way you walk and so on – he told me ‘I can see you have the potential’ and started to coach and train me. I don’t want to lie; he was a good coach. He was the best coach ever,” says Nkonzo, who is 43 now.

She recalls how she would train with Gavin and then train with the Gugulethu Club.

“By then, I was training regularly on both sides, while also competing in both club meetings. Gavin could see how exhausted I was when I got to training,” Nkonzo says.

Nkonzo competed at many top national events.

She even competed once against Elana Meyer in a 1500m race, which Meyer won. “After the race, Elana wanted me to join the Maties Athletics Club,” says Nkonzo.

Smashing records

However, Nkonzo stayed put and used her training on both sides to smash the 800m record of the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB), an affiliate of Sacos. Her junior ladies record stood at 2 minutes 17, 7 seconds until the books closed in 1994.

Carol Khume and Belinda Nkonzo were team mates at the Gugulethu Club and at the WP senior schools and clubs level.

Nkonzo also gained Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU), Western Province Amateur Athletic Union (WPAAU), South African Senior Schools Sports Association (SASSSA) and South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB) colours in track and cross country events.

The Barcelona Olympic Games were held in 1992, but SASSSA and SAAAB were still hanging on to non-racial sport in line with the policies of Sacos.

In spite of Elana Meyer’s silver medal achievement at the 1992 Games, South African athletes were generally untested and ill-prepared for international competition.

The only other Olympic medal South Africa won that year was another silver that came from Wayne Ferreira and Piet Norval in the doubles tennis competition for a sum total of two medals in 1992.

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