A MAN of few words, Kevin Africa just got on with it on the track.
He has the distinction of representing primary schools, high schools and senior clubs at Western Province level – with titles to boot – and ended his athletics career with the South African Amateur Athletics Board senior men’s 200m title in 1986.
Like many athletes before him, Africa’s career started on the school’s tarmac where girls and boys tried out for a place in the inter-house athletics teams. In his case, it was the tarmac of the quad at Heatherdale Primary School in Athlone.
Africa competed in a preliminary run with some of the best athletes while in Std 4 (Grade 6) at the school – he remembers an athlete by the name of Melvin (the surname escapes him), who was the top gun at the school based on his achievements at Union level.
Melvin had represented the Athlone Union athletics team.
“The PT teacher at the school, Franklin Jacobs, pitted me against Melvin a few times to really see whether I was better than Melvin,” explains Africa. Africa beat Melvin in the preliminaries for a spot in the inter-house team.
He cannot remember which colour house he belonged to (red, blue, green or yellow).
The two then competed at the inter-house meeting at City Park where he beat Melvin in the 100m and 150m in the boys under-13 age group.
These victories paved the way for Africa’s successful athletics career.
“I never looked back after that race in the sprints,” says Africa, who also did hurdles and long jump at primary schools.
He remembers that his first inter-schools meeting had been rained out at the Athlone Stadium: “The field was water-logged, and the athletics meeting postponed.”
The meeting was moved to the City Park stadium that season, only for him to injure his groin – he was out of athletics for the season.
The following year, as an under 14 schoolboy athlete, Africa qualified for the Athlone Union and Western Province primary schools team.
He made the Athlone Union team after finishing third in the 100m and 150m, and that was enough for him to earn his Western Province Primary school blazer.
“It felt good to be in the province team after missing out the previous year. The inter-provincial was held at the Dal Josaphat Stadium in Paarl in 1979,” says Africa.
He achieved all of his primary school athletics on the back of no coaching.
Vikings Amateur Athletics Club
When he reached high school in 1981, he started working with his first coach, Allan O’Ryan, at the Vikings Amateur Athletics Club.
“O’Ryan introduced the club’s athletes to the Friday night club meetings at Athlone stadium,” recalls Africa.
Though he was primed to be a shoo-in for the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) team in 1981, Africa was again unlucky not to have made the province team while a pupil at Alexander Sinton High School.
He came fourth in the boys under 16 100m final after the starting blocks gave way. He won the 200m convincingly, but the selectors would have none of it.
“I was disappointed again as I thought I had a good chance of being in the WPSSSU team for the first time – I had won the 200m at the champ of champs. However, the school did not get the phone call the Monday following the Champ of Champs,” says Africa.
Schools got phone calls on a Monday, following the Saturday’s Champ of Champs, to inform the principal of those athletes who made the WPSSSU.
This setback did not deter Africa as he continued to participate at club meetings. He would gain his reward at WPSSSU level the next year (1982) as a boys under 17 athlete.
Spartans Amateur Athletics Club
While at Sinton, he moved to the Spartans Amateur Athletics Club after the club’s secretary Herman Abrahams, a teacher at the school, approached him to join the club.
Africa’s fortunes changed under the guidance of club coaches Willie Davids and Robin April.
“Willie and Robin were dedicated coaches. You had to pitch for training come rain or sunshine. They also took the club’s athletes to various athletics meetings as far as Paarl and Worcester,” says a grateful Africa.
At Spartans, his team mates included Sintonites Emeraan Ishmail, Sharon Reynolds, Leon Pietersen, Lorna Daniels, Shaheeda Majiet, Clement du Plessis, Henry du Plessis, Troy Moses, Sharon Price and Dianne Carelse. George van der Burg (Spartans) made a brief comeback to club athletics in 1984.
Africa says he benefitted from club meetings.
“The club meetings were good preparation for high school meetings. I felt the club meetings were tougher than the high school meetings as the season was longer. The athletes were at each other every week, whereas at the high school meetings it was a bit of a lottery. As you know, one mistake cost me my WPSSSU colours, as was the case in my first season at a high school in 1981,” explains Africa.
“You got one chance to make the WPSSSU team and that was at the Champ of Champs. If you didn’t make it to the first two places, you were out of the team,” says Africa. “No second chance and no trials.”
In subsequent years, he made the WPSSSU team two times (1982, and 1985).
He felt he could have made the WPSSSU team more often had it not been due to his injuries of the hamstring and quadriceps muscles in 1983 and 1984.
“I can’t explain why I often got injured – perhaps those muscles were just weak. In hindsight, weight training could have solved the injury problem.” says Africa.
Due to the surplus of athletics meetings at club level, he was selected to the Western Province Amateur Athletics Union (WPAAU) junior men’s (1983 and 1984) and senior men’s teams (1985 and 1986).
His team mate in the WPSSSU team in 1982 was Shaun Henry of Livingstone High School, an athlete he comfortably beat in the 100m.
He was No 1 in his age group at school level in 1982.
In 1982, he won the SA Board junior men’s 200m title (under 19) in Paarl. He was second to Eastern Province’s Aladdin Maclean in the 100m.
It was also the year Africa was the boys under 17 SASSSA sprint champion.
“After all the disappointment of losing out to selection in the previous meetings, it was a good feeling to have won those titles,” says a satisfied Africa.
Breaking SASSSA record
Africa’s stocks were on the rise. In 1985, he smashed the long-standing South African Senior School Sports Association (SASSSA) boys open 200m record (in heat 1) of Ismail Collier of 22,0 seconds flat.
“I clocked a time of 21,8 seconds in Johannesburg,” says Africa.
The record lasted two years until another speed merchant by the name of Shaun Vester clocked 21,4 secs in Paarl in 1987.
In 1986, Africa won the SA Board’s senior men’s 200m title, after being placed second in the 100m (10,7 secs) behind the winner Joseph Jonas of Eastern Province who won the race in 10,4 seconds in Paarl.
He beat Jonas comfortably in the 200m in a time of 22,1 seconds on the clay and gravel track of Paarl.
He was at the peak of his prowess in 1986 and was selected to the South African Amateur Athletics Board’s track and field team in 1986.
At SAAAB level that year in Paarl, he won silver in the 100m, gold in the 200m, gold in the 4X100m and silver in the 4X400m – all at senior men’s level.
His 200m title summed up a career of a man who was a consistent sprinter over a long period of time. He was one of the few junior and schoolboy athletes who competed with success at senior men’s level.
He had a few more races at club level in 1987, but retired midway through the season – it was time to move on.
Africa is married to Benita and they have two daughters Lezhan and Britney.