Wednesday, June 19, 2024

CSA: Rolling out red carpet for women’s cricket no easy feat – Zola Thamae explains

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Photo Credit: Cricket South Africa

The Boardroom was in the past a preserved monument of patriarchy that was permeating all organs of society. In these self-created castles, women were systematically secluded of membership nor entry. Only women with the bravery of a lioness dared to interrupt that space. In the wake of – sometimes forced – change, history records women who dared to challenge the status quo, pioneers who rattled the cage, disrupted comfort zones, and demanded a seat at the oft-forbidden table. It is their courage that heralded a more gender-free open Boardroom where ideas are canvassed. One such woman who joined the brigade to dismantle the make-up of the Boardroom and without compromise put women’s cricket firmly on the agenda is Nokuzola Thamae – affectionately called Sis Zola. Later to be called “The First Lady of Cricket” by friends and foes alike, Thamae was born in the sport-mad sprawling township of KwaZakhele in the Eastern Cape. She was a teacher at Cowan High School in New Brighton, which was active in all sporting codes. Following her move to Bloemfontein in the Free State, Thamae got her first taste in cricket through her involvement with the National Sports Council (NSC), at which body she was representing Netball. The people who were representing cricket at the NSC structure, having recognized her prowess and passion in organizing women’s sport, requested her to establish a women’s cricket structure, in line with the drive that was spearheaded by the then United Cricket Board (UCB). Thamae immediately got to work. She went hunting for young girls in schools who were interested in playing cricket, organized structures, started provincial leagues, and established requisite committees to oversee the programme. “I realized at the time that I wasn’t cut of the cricket-playing cloth; I was more interested in coordinating and ensuring that young girls got the benefit of playing the game,” recalled Thamae, who instead registered for an umpiring course to be equipped with the basics and rules of the game. From setting up the women’s cricket structures in the Free State province, she was to be elected Chairperson of women’s cricket in that province. “Realising my capability, the UCB came knocking and I was promptly elected by the structures Deputy-Chairperson for women in the national structure for women’s cricket. This paved the way for my co-option to the Council to advance African sport. “Among the three Black Africans that were co-opted, I was the only woman. In fact, the UCB Constitution was amended to allow that to happen,” said Thamae wearily. Her rapid progression in the women’s cricket administration landed her a deserved election of Deputy-Vice President in the province, a post she held for four years. It was in 2013 that Thamae would be elected President of Free State Cricket, becoming the first woman in the country to ride that wave. By virtue of her Provincial Presidency, Thamae was eligible to be a member of Cricket South Africa’s Members’ Council. It is from that structure that Thamae was elected to serve in the Board of Cricket South Africa, at which she served two terms. In 2004 Thamae was deployed by the Cricket South Africa Board to fill the vacancy of Proteas Women Team Manager after it was summarily vacated by its incumbent. “Gerald Majola, who was CEO at the time, convinced me to take up the position, given my track record. As this was not an ordinary appointment, it had to be ratified by Council. And Council gave it the nod. They all supported the deployment,” said Thamae, who was to serve in that position until 2009. “When I started, Nolubabalo Ndzundzu was the only one Black African player in the women’s team. Other players, who played during my tenure were, amongst others, Marcia Letsoalo, Marizanne Kapp, Trisha Chetty, and Shabnim Ismail,” she reminisced. In November 2014 Thamae won the Administrator of the Year Award for her contribution to the Proteas Women’s Team and cricket in general during the Sports awards that were organised by the then Sport and Recreation South Africa. Reflecting on challenges that besieged women’s cricket at the time, Thamae said: “The biggest challenge was the absence of contracts for women cricket players as well as technical staff such as physiotherapist, video analyst and assistant coach. I fought hard to get these in place, albeit that they took time to manifest.” “It is unfortunate that women’s cricket was not given a priority. There was no marketing of this space whatsoever. This gave ammunition to those who were intent on marginalizing this code to ignore our repeated calls for women’s cricket to be professionalised, with a retort that the sport was not generating any revenue,” she recalled wryly. Thamae applauds the “great strides” that have been achieved to date in putting women’s cricket firmly on the agenda. She however calls for consistency and sustainability of all plans that are being implemented for this sector. “Seeing how full the stadia during the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup in South Africa vindicated my repeated arguments that women’s cricket is a marketable product that can attract a huge following. This is a wonderful era for women’s cricket in South Africa,” she said, adding that the current professionalization of women’s cricket to domestic level is the step in the right direction. “There is a dire need for women’s games to be televised more often than it is the case. I am confident that we can do better seeing The Hundreds in London, which has a worldwide broadcast coverage. In this way, women’s cricket will attract more sponsorship.” Going to the Boardroom where her Armageddon moments ensued, Thamae said: “Getting into a male-dominated space, where the narrative did not favour a woman was hard. There were those who doubted my credentials to the extent of going out to verify my bona fides. I therefore had to prove myself twice – that I am a human being endowed with equal intelligence to engage constructively, and a woman of substance. Chauvinism and patriarchy are social cancers that I chose to battle with all my might,” she boldly declared. She does concede to have received some level of support from men in the Free State province during her tenure, which accounts for her re-election into office. “Men had to be introduced to the new era where women would have equal opportunities to contest for positions. It was a reorientation that it’s not about gender but about capabilities and unique qualities,” she said. Of her involvement in the cricket space, Thamae, who is now a sought-after advisor and mentor on women’s cricket issues, has no regrets. “The investment that cricket has done on me as a woman has opened horizons for me. I was exposed to things that naturally I wouldn’t have known. I now know things like country-to-country nuances and protocols, which I was exposed to because of the game. I attended courses, workshops, Indaba’s, and all manner of skills-enhancing interventions which were geared at making me a better person. It is for this reason that I am called out from time to time to make input on women’s cricket issues on various platforms.” Thamae was in 2015 awarded recognition as the Most Influential Women in Sport by the CEO Communications for SA & SADC Region for the period 2015/16. Fondest memories? “It is everyone’s dream to be at Lords, in England. I was there. We played there. I wouldn’t have done it on my own,” said Thamae, giggling shyly. “We have a strong U19 feeder system to the national team. We only need to strengthen the U16 setup and bridge the gap between Mini-Cricket and hard-ball. This will add an incredible value to the entire pipeline ecosystem,” she advised. As South Africa concludes Women’s Month, Thamae has a special message. “As South Africans, let’s support women in sport, and women’s cricket in particular. I call on sport administrators to make stadium amenities and infrastructure friendly to women players. Local government and the South African Local Government Association should construct more women-friendly sporting fields. We need more playing fields in order to avoid congestion. “Cricket has opened doors as a career for women. There are now women umpires, coaches, commentators etc. I wish to see women taking up technical expertise such as video analysis. But on many fronts, cricket has opened so many doors for women. This is a game-changer. Women should know that the sport is now a paying career. Therefore, they should expose themselves to professional conduct, and manage their finances wisely. “I feel privileged to have been part of the cohorts who fought for women cricketers to enjoy the benefits they are seized with today. However, it was no easy feat. I am certainly not fond of the Boardroom but can confirm that it was those fights in the Boardroom which rolled-out the red carpet for women’s cricket.” Ladies and Gentlemen, “The First Lady of Cricket” has spoken!

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