No one would blame former Orlando Pirates goalkeeper Craig Hepburn for giving up on his dream of getting kids off the streets and employing homeless people at his African Brothers Football Academy.
Particularly after he came up against the City of Cape Town over a zoning infringement related to the academy which, three years ago, was a place for about 300 children and coaches to train in a safe environment.
During a protracted three-year legal battle with the city, Hepburn, who faced a five-year jail sentence or R100 000 fine, had to cut back on activities. Only a third of the children could be accommodated and coaches, who were previously homeless, were sent back to the streets.
Hepburn cannot contain his disappointment, anger and frustration over government’s lack of support for people who are trying to make a contribution. In 1996, he took a derelict school facility in Gardens, which used to be a place of business for drug dealers, and turned it into a safe haven for children to “rub shoulders” and play football.
On the same grounds, he trained South Africa’s Homeless World Cup team, which faced off against other international teams in Italy in 2005.
They were welcomed home by parliament, government and the city, which has since turned its back on his contribution because of zoning laws. In order to fund the soccer academy, Hepburn opened the facility in the evenings for adult football teams from the more affluent suburbs. But this went against zoning bylaws as it was considered a business.
The noise also disturbed 6% of the neighbours in the area. Hepburn said big business had also let South Africans down. According to the former professional footballer, despite alcohol and drugs problems in the townships, a large brewery promoted “double the volume and half the price” sales in townships instead of working towards eradicating alcohol and drug dependencies and gangsterism.
Hepburn grew up in the south of Johannesburg and starting playing soccer at the age of five at Robertsham Football Club. Being so close to Soweto, and without his mother’s permission or knowledge, he used to cycle to the Orlando power station to fish.
What he caught, he gave to the township dwellers and then sneaked back home. After becoming an Orlando Pirates player, Hepburn was conscripted in the apartheid era army, putting him in a difficult situation. He was labelled a “spy” by the army.
“I would drive in with a rifle, then I used to drive in with my soccer boots,” he said. One of the saddest moments of his soccer career was when his sergeant major refused to let him play in a historic game against Moroka Swallows. Instead, he had to guard a school right next to the stadium.
Even though he couldn’t play, he left his post to watch, still wearing his army uniform with his rifle over his shoulder. “There was hostility and yet I played with those guys,” he said. He still faces hostility, now from neighbours in the upmarket suburb of Gardens.
“I saw people dying, saw people being burnt. Now you have neighbours moaning about noise [from children playing soccer].” Hepburn cannot contain his disappointment over privileged South Africans’ lack of support for people who are trying to make a contribution.
“I’ve achieved this with nothing and without the politicians and even the community and the neighbours who are more focused on silence as opposed to tolerance and actually contributing back,” he said. “They are moaning. We need to change these things.” – firstname.lastname@example.org