Netball is “still caught up in a developmental Africa and it’s the wrong approach"

Vitality Netball World Cup - Day Seven

As the African nations thrive at this year’s Vitality Netball World Cup GiveMeSportWomen meets with the President of Africa netball Tebogo Lebotse-Sebego PCH to learn the story behind Netball Africa and the four teams taking the sport by storm.

Netball World Cups of the past have always been dominated by the Trans-Tasman rivalry of old and entertaining though they were, there was always a sense of inevitability attached. No other nation ever able to truly compete in the two-horse race.

This year’s Vitality Netball World Cup, however, has seen the world order change. We speak freely and readily of England making the final, words never dared uttered before. We witnessed for the first time the Sunshine Girls of Jamaica fail to make a World Cup semi-final. 

It is a game-changing of course, but this is not the true earthquake that has shaken up world netball. That is an accolade that belongs to Team Africa.

Stealing the spotlight, and rightly so, the African nations of Malawi, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa will all finish the Netball World Cup in the top eight. South Africa is guaranteed a top-four placing.

Where precisely these teams will finish will be determined over the course of the last three days of the tournament.

For many, this outcome has defied expectation but there was one person who predicted it when no one else perhaps dared, Tebogo Lebotse-Sebego, outgoing President of Africa Netball.

Tebogo Lebotse-Sebego PCH

Sitting across from me, Lebotse-Sebego has an immediately engaging demeanour, one that draws you in and commands your attention. She seems surprised that I begin by asking about her and the journey she has been on to get to where she is today. 

“I used to play. I played for both my U21s and my senior team. I was captain of the U21s and then, later on, became captain of the national team.”

“I officially stopped playing I think in 2007 after my son was born and I came into administration around the same time and I was Netball Botswana President for 10 years. I stepped down in 2017 after the Netball Youth World Cup [in Gaborone] and I became the President of Africa Netball in 2010."

“I have been the President for the last nine years and I am stepping down in October and these games.”

Having been on the international netball scene since 2007 there is no one more qualified or better experienced to discuss the journey of the African nations at World Cups and that is where our discussion begins.

The Vitality Netball World Cup 2019

Reflecting on past World Cups, Lebotse-Sebego starts by tracing the journey of the African nations at the competition over time.

“New Zealand hosted the World Cup [in 2007] I saw Botswana then causing quite an upset, then we went to 2011 Singapore and it was not our best performance. In 2015 we had Uganda coming in, causing an upset and then we had Zambia, also causing an upset. 

Vitality Netball World Cup - Day Seven

“So I knew that our three most consistent countries, South Africa, Malawi and Uganda, had now garnered the experience they needed to compete at this World Cup.”

“For me, this was the time for us to get a top-eight finish for all our teams and it looks like we’re going to get into the top four and that will be fantastic for us.”

This ambition for all four African nations to achieve a top-eight finish was a vision Lebotse-Sebego acknowledges was “brave,” but following an extremely successful World Cup campaign by tournament debutants Zimbabwe, her expectation became reality.

Having never competed with countries outside of Africa the so-called ‘Zim-Gems’ have stunned everyone with their emphatic performances, even testing world number one ranked team Australia when the two teams collided in the tournament’s earlier stages.

“People did not know what to expect from Zimbabwe like they did not know what to expect from Uganda and Zambia.”  

Vitality Netball World Cup - Day Eight

“[Zimbabwe] come as a breath of fresh air, for me, because they bring diversity to the International Netball Federation.”

It also not just ‘fresh air’ the Zimbabwean team has brought, but energy that fans from all nations have found deliriously infectious. In their crowds, the fans have sung, danced and urged their team onwards from the stands, and when their matches have ended they continue their celebrations outside the arena and into the streets. They have become for many, a tournament highlight.

Something else that has stood out prominently throughout the tournament has been the style of netball the African nations adopt. I asked Lebotse-Sebogo what she believes is its defining feature: “It’s unexpected, our style of play is unexpected.”

“There’s the way that you play netball in Europe and Australia. But look at the Zimbabwean shooter - her technique is off! It’s not what the coaches and the players are expecting. African teams just do what they do – it’s impulsive, it’s awkward for what it is “acceptable.”

It is also not just about the mechanics of how the game is executed for Africa’s Netball President, passion is also a crucial ingredient.  

“We had a board dinner and someone from Australia was saying she was worried that Zimbabwe would not keep up their momentum and the energy in their other games and I said what they don’t have in stamina they make for in heart. They have the heart for it they are hungry for it.”

With spirit and talent in spades, Lebotse-Sebogo believes that it is not ability separating teams the more established African teams such as Uganda or Malawi from medal contention this year but rather it is a matter of finances.

“The biggest reason they are not taking the step into the medals is funding. If they were funded and as organized as South Africa they would be competing at the same levels but they are not able to obtain their players in camp longer.

“The reason South Africa is able to get more players into the Suncorp is not because they have more talented players it’s because they’ve got more contacts and the relationships so they’re managing that relationship very well and they’re getting their players in there – so it’s a contract management issue, it’s not a lack of talent.”

Netball in Africa

I ask further about what the challenges are present in growing netball across African countries and for Lebotse-Sebego creating an environment of consistency where the players can compete consistently at the highest level is one of the major hurdles they must overcome. 

Vitality Netball World Cup - Day Six

“The league system is not as defined as I would like it to be. The players don’t play as much as they should if you compare them to the bigger nations. It’s mostly an issue of funding, not getting the private sponsors to come into the game, it’s not been so successful in Africa, well in the exception of maybe South Africa, but you’ve got countries like Uganda, Malawi and all the other countries who do play consistently but not consistently enough. So for me, bringing the sponsors into the game has been one of those things that I feel that we have not done very well in that space.”

Where there is consistency for Lebotse-Sebego, there is a success and that she sees most clearly in Norma Plummer’s South African side who poached a semi-final spot from Jamaica in their electrifying encounter.

“Norma has been in South Africa for a while now. In 2015 you could see the potential coming in but they had not really gained from the international experience that Norma brought into the game but now you can see the confidence. You can see that South African players are professional leagues. You can see the team has transformed.”

I press the African Netball President on whether she is concerned that the continuous crop of talent the countries in her region produce leave to compete overseas. But it is not something she at all apprehensive about. For her, those that compete internationally are vital. 

“The international players, they know the game and they’re able to guide our players who do not really have that exposure that you need to play at this stage.”

“If you look at the major players they always go back to their countries. I mean South Africa, all the six players are playing back home. The one from Zimbabwe who plays in England is playing back home. I’m not afraid we’ll lose talent to the bigger nations. I think the bigger nations have enough talent of their own, I don’t see a situation where we lose players.”

It is also not just the African players that need continued consistent exposure and experience. Lebotse-Sebego also highlights coaching as an area of growth for netball in Africa.

“For me, and I keep saying to the African nations, yes it’s brilliant you want the African coaches to be there to tailor our game and tailor our style of play but you need the techniques, talent and experience that international coaches are bringing.”

“I’ll give you an example of what we did in Botswana when we hosted the Youth [Netball Youth World Cup]. We bought in Kate Carpenter in from New Zealand to work with our coaches for the duration of a year. She was not in the front-facing; she was coaching the coaches and preparing them to compete at that level. So yes, the face was our coaches but they had very strong technical support in Kate who was supporting them.”

With the fast-growing progress, the African nations have made in the face of the varying obstacles they confront there is one aspect that visibly frustrates Lebotse-Sebego. 

Vitality Netball World Cup - Day Eight

“I am INF but they are still caught up in a developmental Africa and it’s the wrong approach. Africa is beyond development. We are way past development. Yes, you want to develop, but we’ve got four teams here and all four have gone into the top 12 and we can get them into the top eight. So if you’re still talking to me about developing Africa, going to non-English speaking countries and getting more countries I don’t think you’ve got the right focus.”

“Africa has produced the most numbers coming into the World Cup in the past ten outings. For me, it’s about getting the countries that are already established to be more competitive. And I keep saying, for me, the mark will be the Commonwealth Games because it is about ranking. It is twelve teams in the Commonwealth Games and I will be happy, I won’t be head of Africa Netball anymore but I will be happy.”

2023 and beyond

As we touch on the Commonwealth Games in 2021 we turn too, to the future ahead and Lebotse-Sebego shows great optimism about where netball in Africa is going. For one, the next World Cup is to be hosted in Cape Town, South Africa. It will be the first time an African country will host a senior tournament.

“I think it’s a great story for South Africa to host the world cup. It’s the first World Cup in Africa so it’s a huge story. So out of the display of these games, if they continue this level of play then the excitement back home should continue even after 2023."

“For a host like South Africa, I would really like them not to let go of the first two years. Most host countries tend to let go of the first two years after a World Cup and then it starts in 2021 so for me, I think if they started with momentum then continue that momentum.” 

Crucially, hosting creates the possibility for a long-term partnership between netball and SuperSport a South Africa-based Pan-Africa group of television channels that provides sports content across many African countries.

SuperSport have already committed to showing all 60 games in Liverpool and Lebotse-Sebogo is definite that the momentum from the coverage should carry through and with it bring the promise of sponsorship and branding that the African nations need to support their sport.

“Because that’s what we lose in netball, we have this big event happening once in every four years, and it’s a global event but it’s in England or Australia or New Zealand so you don’t really get a global feel. So I would like South Africa to retain that global feel and continue the momentum in 2023.”

For Lebotse-Sebego her future remains still in the beating heart of the netball world. Bridging the gap for teams such as Malawi, Uganda and Zimbabwe by securing contracts for young players is her new motivation. “To look for opportunities for the African players in leagues it’s really what I want to focus on beyond Africa Netball.”

“Not necessarily the big leagues but the next level because if you can get them in. Not into your big paying leagues, but your second-string leagues or your state leagues, I think that is where we should be starting. Because once you get into that level the big teams will get them. So it’s personally what I will be focusing on going forward.” 

Vitality Netball World Cup - Day One

As for next President of Netball Africa Lebotse-Sebogo had this to say:

“I think, for me, there’s nothing much more I can do for Africa at a personal level so I think it’s time for someone else to take the journey to the next level.”

“What I would like to see in the next leader for Africa, we need someone who can unify us. We need someone who is not self-serving. I told Botswana if I become president of Africa Netball Botswana does not come first; it’s going to be the biggest loser because I am not going to push Botswana before other countries so we need to find someone who can unify; we need a leader that really wants Africa to shine as a continent.”

I round off our conversation by asking whether Lebotse-Sebego believes that netball can be an empowering, transformative force for good. It is something she immediately answers with passion and pride.

“Oh yes. It is inspiring. The stories that I have of people’s whose lives have been transformed by netball… I’ve got three girls in Botswana who have won a scholarship from the government to study in Australia. One is studying to become a pilot because she played netball. We just had our first signing for the state league for one of our players in the U21s. She was living in a small village and now living in Adelaide playing netball. She would never have had that opportunity if it were not for netball.

And it’s not just the lives of others that the sport has impacted, Lebotse-Sebego credits netball for the way her life has so far unfolded, “I never thought my life would turn out this way. To lead an International Federation and to sit on the board of an International Federation – it was scary for me. I mean sitting at a table with women, people don’t think it is but it is the scariest thing to do. There’s ageism also. Just being in the presence of them not understanding you especially as a younger woman so it was really, really opened me up from a growth point of view. I’m eternally grateful for the sport.”

News Now - Sport News