Trio carries the athletics baton


LOSING SPEED: The numbers of Wits Athletics club have dwindled since the start of the year. On the starting line (left to right) are Ndinannyi Maphula and Hope Mgwenya. Photo: Anlerie de Wet

Three women are the only members keeping the Wits Athletics club alive.

“We are not where we want to be, but we have a plan,” said newly appointed athletics coach and old Wits athletics champion, Richard Mayer. The coach doesn’t seem phased by the lack of members because, as he put it: “Where there is life, there is hope.”

The club began at the beginning of the year with nine members, but as academic pressures kicked in members started tailing off, according to Mayer.

“When people don’t take the sport seriously and with Wits Sport not funding us, it is really demotivating.”

The members who quit never prioritised athletics, said first-year BA General student Hope Mgwenya. “They just came to lose weight. They don’t have the passion or competitive urge for the sport.”

Mayer, however, is not bothered about people’s motives for joining the club. “Although we do need people to perform and profile Wits, we also need others, who may not be so talented, to commit and build-up the club.”

Ndinannyi Maphula, 3rd year Geology, said: “I am disappointed about the attendance. When people don’t take the sport seriously and with Wits Sport not funding us, it is really demotivating.” When Mayer joined the Wits Athletics club as a student in 1985, the club was thriving and produced champions such as Bruce Fordyce and Mark Plaatjes. “I want to bring back Wits Athletics to the success it was back then,” Mayer said.

Due to the lack of membership and funding the Athletics club will not be representing Wits at the University Sport SA (USSA) championships in Stellenbosch next weekend. Mgwenya believes the club will grow once they start competing and do well. “But now the club is not really active.”

Wits athletes vs sex workers

Wits athletes competing in Durban found themselves in a contest of a different kind: dodging the advances of prostitutes.

Female sprinter, Fikile Masikane, was among a group of 12 athletes who stayed at the Banana Backpackers Youth Hostel, which she believes also housed prostitutes working at the “brothel” next door.


Interactions with prostitutes

“I feel like we were staying with some of the prostitutes in the backpackers because there was a Japanese lady there who even asked me if I was ready to work [as a prostitute].”

Masikane said some of the male athletes were asked if they wanted “to buy” and were ogled by the alleged prostitutes as they stretched their muscles ahead of the championship.

SIES: Sprinter, Fikile Masikane was forced to stay next to a "brothel".  Photo: Mfuneko Toyana

SIES: Sprinter, Fikile Masikane was forced to stay next to a “brothel”.
Photo: Mfuneko Toyana

“As some of the guys were stretching some of the prostitutes watched them, and one said to the other: ‘Lona u-fit, uyamufuna?’ [that one is fit, do you want him?],” she recounts.

“One of the guys appeared to be freaked out but the other guy calmed him down and told him to ignore it,” she said.

The athletes were attending the United Sports SA (USSA) National Track and Field Championship in Durban.

Masikane said one of the male athletes texted Marcus Toerien, the athletics manager, complaining: “When they said ‘banana’ I don’t think they were talking about the fruit.” She said Toerien just laughed in response.


The manager’s reaction

Masikane said Toerien dropped off the students at the hostel and saw the conditions but did not react.

“He was there for like three minutes and said the lady would show us our rooms.

Marcus’ wife asked him if they shouldn’t maybe get us supper before they left. He said something like ‘they’ll sort themselves out’,” Masikane said.

Wits sprinter, David Okharedia, told Wits Vuvuzela that Toerien walked into the place and did not flinch when he saw it. He said he simply walked in and showed them where they would sleep.

“Even his wife looked shocked by the state of the place, but Marcus didn’t care,” Okharedia said.


Masikane’s discomfort

Masikane had to share a room with some of the male athletes as she did not feel safe or comfortable staying in the single room that was booked for her.

The hostel was also grimy with a strong odour from the toilets: “We used hand sanitizer for everything,” she said. The Witsies also had to lay their own towels on the beds to avoid having their bodies touch the filthy sheets.

“I slept like this, ngigqokile [dressed],” she said pointing at her clothes.

The showers also had a “horrible smell” forcing the Witsies to use the showers at the stadium.


“I was terrified”

Masikane was also worried about her safety. Her bed was near the door and she got a fright when some of her teammates came home late at night.

“When they came back I was so scared. I didn’t realise it was them. As soon as they tried to open the door my heart leaped. I was so scared. It only clicked in seconds later that it was probably the other athletes but that just goes to show how terrified I was.”

“I felt safer with the guys but I knew that if anyone were to come in and ask for me there was nothing they could do to help me,” she said.

When Masikane returned from Durban she called her mother and told her about the conditions of the hostel.

“My mom cried when I told her where I stayed. She hung up on me and I could tell she wasn’t okay. She called back and said ‘why didn’t you tell me’,” Masikane said.

Masikane said her mother wants an explanation about the housing and an apology from Wits.

Masikane said she didn’t feel like she could approach Toerien about her discomfort as he had fought about the disorganisation of the Wits delegation with Okharedia at the stadium.


Wits Sports responds

Acting head of the sports administration department, Marius Henn, said the accommodation was recommended to them by USSA and they had “no reason to doubt that it would be suitable”.

“Unfortunately time and circumstances did not allow us to source alternative accommodation. Wits Sport will take this up with the LOC [local organising committee] and USSA National to try and avoid a reoccurrence,” Henn said.

Henn said he welcomed athletes to bring “constructive feedback” to him so they could discuss the matter.

Athletes, escorts and dirty sheets

Wits athletes who attended a national championships in Durban last week were accommodated at the Banana Backpackers – youth hostel situated in the same building as an escort and massage parlour.

THE CHERRY ON TOP: The athletes neighbours at the building they were placed in. Photo: Axel Kayoka

THE CHERRY ON TOP: The athletes neighbours at the building they were placed in. Photo: Axel Kayoka

Sprinter Axel Kayoka said the toilets were dirty, the showers had a stench that would not go away and the cupboards were filled with property that did not belong to them.  He said the only female who had gone on the trip with them was too afraid to stay in the single room booked for her so she resorted to staying in the dorm with the rest of the guys.

The athletes were attending the University Sports SA (USSA) National Track & Field Championship in Durban where they competed with other universities across the country.

We just wanted a decent place to live in

“We really did not expect a five star or four star accommodation but we did expect something decent, a place that was at least liveable,” said Sprinter David Okharedia.

“We had to put our towels on the beds so our bodies wouldn’t touch the sheets. They were so dirty,” said Kayoka.

Kayoka and Okharedia said that their manager Marcus Toerien was attending a wedding in Durban and did not travel or stay with them.

Okharedia said Toerien walked into the place and did not flinch when he saw it. He said he simply walked in and showed them where they would sleep.

“Even his wife looked shocked by the state of the place, but Marcus didn’t care,” Okharedia said.

Kayoka said every time they left the backpackers their coach would warn them to keep their phones in their pockets.

The manager’s response

When Wits Vuvuzela asked Toerien why he had attended a wedding instead of devoting the whole weekend to the championships he said that the wedding had been planned months prior and “just happened to” clash with the championships.

Toerien said that there was nothing he could have done when they arrived at the accommodation on Thursday evening.

“The accommodation was on a list provided to me by the hosts [USSA]. I went with the guidelines given to us and the budget we had,” Toerien said.

He added that having looked at the accommodation online he felt there was no need to question that it was suitable.

When Wits Vuvuzela told Toerien that athletes had said they would have felt better if he stayed with them and felt the area had been dangerous he responded: “What difference would it have made if I was there? Did anything happen to threaten them?”

Toerien said if the coach was aware that the area was dangerous then he should have advised them, of that beforehand.

Okharedia said some of the athletes had issues with their registration for certain events. “If Marcus was there he could have sorted it out but he had left.”

Toerien denied that he was not there and said he had made every effort to sort out the registration issues but was unsuccessful in doing so.

“I didn’t have the information for the events that they said they wanted to take part in. Their names were never on those lists. That was the information they gave to me and the information I then communicated with USSA,” said Toerien.

The previous manager was better

Okharedia said this was not the first time Toerien had “failed” them. He said there were several accounts where he needed to follow up with Toerien about events when it was Toerien’s responsibility to inform him.

“I do not understand why they fired the previous manager. She always went the extra mile for us,” Okharedia said,

Onkabetse Matlhaga, the former manager explained that she was not fired but that her employment contract had come to an end and not been renewed.

She said she could not comment on Toerien’s management style but felt he could have done all he could to ensure that the place the athletes were going to stay in would be safe.

“Even if they arrived there and realised the place was not suitable, he could have communicated with Marius to figure out an alternative solution,” Matlhaga said.

“Instructions from the top not to respond to Wits Vuvuzela”

Wits Vuvuzela contacted Marius Henn, acting head of the sports administration department. He responded by saying he had been given instructions “from the top” not to respond to Wits Vuvuzela as we “publish what we want anyway.”

He then asked the reporter to send him questions via e-mail, to which he had not responded by the time of publication.