South Africa is known as the Rainbow Nation, and it has a history that's been largely defined by division. That's what makes it such a fascinating place: A country that prides itself on unity and cultural diversity was for years defined by discrimination and hatred. True to its rainbow nickname, South Africa has a unique mixture of culture and people unmatched anywhere in the world. In Cape Town there is everything from Dutch-inspired architecture to European-modeled fashion to American-style shopping malls. In the Soweto section of Johannesburg there is poverty so extreme that orphans live without clean water and have to travel five kilometers to the nearest school. On a trip to South Africa this spring, I learned that sport has helped tie those two extremes together.
Student-athletes typically don't get the opportunity to study abroad due to athletic and academic requirements. But thanks to a flagship program offered by Notre Dame's athletic department and international office, I went overseas with 15 other Fighting Irish student-athletes, including six of my teammates, to learn about how sport can affect change. South Africa was chosen as the location because of its divisive history involving race and sport. From May 18 to June 7, our group traveled to Johannesburg, Kruger National Park and Cape Town.
The sport in South Africa that has created the most change is rugby, which for a long time was regarded as the white man's game. Soccer was the black man's game. For years black players such as the famed Chester Williams could play as a member of the Springboks—the country's national rugby team—but only as a benchwarmer to fill a quota. Our student group had the chance to talk to Williams (South Africa's equivalent of Jackie Robinson) when he visited us for dinner one evening. He explained that he didn't play rugby because of politics or fame. He just wanted to be great.
After talking to Williams and seeing apartheid's impact firsthand, I realized that, as student-athletes, we have an immense responsibility to our communities. But an athlete can't change the world if he is not fully committed to his sport. Williams forever changed the standard of black athletes in his country, much like Robinson did in the United States. Through his sporting success, Williams had the opportunity to help change South Africa for the better.
Along with learning about how sports can change lives, our group of student-athletes also worked closely with two organizations, Grassroots Soccer and Hoops for Hope. Both use sport to teach life skills, raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and implement HIV/AIDS prevention techniques throughout the community. In Cape Town we taught basketball to elementary school kids—everything from dribbling drills to layup lines. But the real learning was done when we broke into smaller groups and focused on life skills.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
We played games like "Hide the Bottle Cap," in which the elementary school students surreptitiously passed around a cap that represented HIV/AIDS. When a life coach said to stop, they had to guess who was holding the cap. Impossible, right? That was the point: There was no real way to tell—just like there's no real way to tell if a person has HIV/AIDS unless he or she is tested.
Grassroots Soccer (GRS) uses sport to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and to promote gender equality. In Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town, women aren't allowed to play soccer. The game is seen as too masculine. GRS wants more girls playing soccer, participating in a positive after-school program and surrounding themselves in a supportive, competitive and educational environment. With that in mind, GRS sponsored the creation of RV United, an all-female soccer team in Khayelitsha. In just a few short years the team has gone from a rag-tag group to a well-oiled machine competing in the highest division in the country. We had the opportunity to play against the girls, and I have never felt so overmatched in my life. I couldn't even move 10 yards down the field before the ball was going the other way en route to finding the back of the net. To raise money for travel funds, the women on the team make decorative ragballs—soccer balls constructed out of newspaper wrapped in plastic bags and covered in fruit nets. RV United players weave fabric in unique patterns to create different ragball designs. We took a crash course in Ragball 101, and I brought my lopsided ball home as a reminder of the work that's going on in Khayelitsha. GRS sells the ragballs for 200 rand (about $16), helping it and RV United pave the way for gender equality.
In Johannesburg we visited SKY Soweto Kliptown Youth, an orphanage located in Kliptown, Soweto. Kliptown is an area with a 90% unemployment rate that's surrounded by polluted rivers with no consistent access to food or clean water. People live in corrugated metal shacks, sleep on blankets and have access to just four bathrooms in their village. Yet some kids use a type of music as an escape: Kwaito, the local brand of hip-hop.
The orphanage houses a small but professional recording studio with one semi-broken Mac computer. It offers an outlet for young kids looking to avoid the streets, gangs and drugs. Local rappers such as the orphanage's leader, Bob Namneg, record at the studio and incorporate children into their albums. Young adults like Terrence, a 26-year-old born and raised in Kliptown, make and design T-shirts, coffee mugs and sweatshirts. These funds help provide food and books for the kids.
Once we heard how big Kwaito was in Kliptown, we naturally wanted to have a freestyle rap session. We brought our cameras out and all of the children thought it was a rap video. Crowds of kids engulfed our newly appointed camera people and began rapping about Nelson Mandela. The message was powerful: black children living in poverty rapping about ending apartheid, bridging gaps between racial inequality and opening a new chapter for the country. After the children finished, the adults took over. For 15 minutes Terrence and his friends showed off their freestyle skills to my teammate, linebacker Doug Randolph, and me. I tried to contribute through beatboxing, but I was so bad that one of Terrence's friends took over the beat. Hey, you can't blame a guy for trying.
Overall, the trip was life-changing. Due to my time in South Africa, I will forever view my sport as an avenue to positively impact the lives of people in America and around the world. Sport has the power to not only change lives, but also to save them—which is evidenced by the success of programs such as GRS and Hoops for Hope. Like Williams, I hope to pave the way for aspiring youth in my community here in South Bend and back home in San Antonio.
Corey Robinson is a junior wide receiver on the Notre Dame football team from San Antonio. He was first-team Academic All-American last season and won the Rockne Student-Athlete Award for excellence in the classroom and on the field.