May 27, 2011

From the Slums of Alexandra to the Corporate Glitz of Sandton

I would love to tell a rags-to-riches story here, but sadly it is not quite that. It's just that I recently spent a day trying to solicit much-needed corporate sponsors for our Alexandra baseball team. I started out on a street corner in Alex where I picked up Tedius and Cedric, the two coaches/managers/owners - whatever you may call them - who I've been working with, and I ended up in the lobby of SAB (South African Breweries, who not only have the South African beer market pretty much cornered but also own ABI, one of the largest Coca-Cola distributors in the Southern hemisphere). See the contrast for yourself:

Makeshift sports field in Alexandra

SAB lobby in Sandton, just minutes from Alexandra
You just wonder: How many of those huts above could you build for the cost of that one wooden piece of art I was staring at in the SAB lobby?

Such was the contrast between rags and riches, all in the space of one morning. Only we didn't actually secure any riches. Instead, we dropped off proposals with secretaries who promised they'd show them to their bosses. I'm a bit dubious if this will lead to anything and didn't quite like the inefficiency of it, but Tedius and Cedric insisted a personal appearance was preferable and I can't claim that I've made any more progress via phone and email. At first I didn't actually see the need for me to tag along, but this soon became apparent. When you come from Alexandra and have no appointment, no one wants to talk to you. My purpose was to lend some white-skinned and eloquent respectability to the team. Though I'm not sure that I made much of an impression, I might have gotten us past the doorman.

What I learned is that things move slow in Africa, but even slooooooower when you're asking anybody for money. The task is daunting: Large corporations like SAB have tons of money they already spend on outreach and community development (Tedius tells me they're South Africa's largest taxpayer and I don't doubt it) so you'd think they'd be quite willing to spend some of it on us, but they're already very entrenched with their existing programs and not all that interested in starting something new. Small companies, on the other hand, don't have that kind of money in the first place and therefore are even  harder to convince. What you need is good connections, and as a newbie here in South Africa I'm a bit short on those.

I read the other day that some U.S. billionaire bough a ragtag soccer club in England which is now flush in money and the envy of their league. So, if you have any extra cash for this type of thing or know anyone who does, we've got a baseball club here for sale! Tedius and Cedric have worked out a detailed proposal with different levels of sponsorship and what kind of advertising that buys you. I can guarantee you that they're open to negotiations for your very own customized package, and I a can also guarantee you that you don't even have to be a billionaire. We are one very affordable baseball club!

Alexandra Baseball Team

Seriously, let me just explain again why we're looking for sponsors. When a kid in a "normal" middle-class place becomes a member of a sports club, his membership comes with a lot of basics that we've all learned to take for granted. His parents buy him whatever equipment is needed, he gets the use of a more or less nice field, a dedicated coach, and unlimited transport. He also shows up at a game well-fed. Oh, and the league he plays in has probably already been set up and running for years. In Alexandra, the whole baseball project hinges on a handful of dedicated guys who work odd jobs to have a bit spare cash which they then funnel back to their kids to keep the team going from week to week. They try to get their hands on used equipment (even with enough money not an easy thing here in South Africa where no sports store carries baseball stuff) so that they can entice new kids into their club. They spend their spare time rounding up kids who will walk many kilometers (you don't see many overweight people in Alexandra!) just to attend practice. What cash they've scraped together by pooling their own funds with what a few parents are able to contribute usually goes into transport for their weekend games. You see, no one owns a car, and the only mode of transport is to pile into a minibus taxi, way over the legal passenger limit, and hope that this particular one won't be one of the many involved in an accident that day. If they had their own field with a backstop, maybe at least some games could be played at home, cutting down on this transport expense, if in fact the other clubs could be enticed to brave a visit to Alexandra. On top of all that, Tedius and Cedric and some others have the vision of growing baseball so that it is played in the local schools, which means an entirely new league has to be created and administered.

Field at Alexandra Sports Grounds without backstop, infield, or pitcher's mound

Nevertheless, Alexandra Baseball has survived and thrived for three years and, as someone here recently put it, will continue to do so "by the grace of God." Thank you to all of you who've donated to our cause.  The shipment of equipment is sailing to Durban as I'm writing this, and we got an unexpected gift of baseball pants, which I'll be writing about next.

And by the way, my friends in Alexandra will probably be offended that I called it a "slum." So let me just say here that there is plenty to love about Alexandra. There is a lot of poverty but also a lot of cheerfulness. There is also a sense of community you won't find in our spread-out suburban estates. The streets are full of life, you have to veer around the occasional goat, and the hustle and bustle on every given day is mind-boggling. I'm very glad I've discovered it.

Previous Alexandra Posts:

Baseball in the Heart of a Vibrant Township
Getting Closer on Alexandra Boys' Dream
An Update on the Alexandra Baseball Project


Mireille said...

Great post Sine! I hope you will get lots of support!

Stephanie said...

Good luck Sine! I admire what you have started and hope you continue to do it. The stark contrast is right in front of us daily but many people choose to ignore that contrast and or don't venture outside of their cos(zy) little suburban lifestyles. I do envy the liveliness and cheerfulness that comes from the "informal settlements" and townships. I joke that in my neighborhood all the domestic workers know each other better than the people who live there because they get out and chat to each other. Keep up the good work!

Conrad said...

Meine Erfahrung ist, dass man gerade von kleineren Unternehmen eher Geld bekommen kann. Den größeren Unternehmen mangelt es zwar nicht an Geld, aber an Entscheidungskraft. In Deutschland ist es zumindest so, dass solche Spenden von höchster Stelle entschieden werden müssen und da kannst Du Dir vorstellen, dass das nicht an oberster Stelle der Tagesordnung steht, wenn der Vorstand zusammentritt. Zur Korruptionsvermeidung entscheiden oft auch speziell eingerichtete Kommittees darüber, denen man sein Anliegen offiziell einreichen muss. Ein mittelständischer Unternehmer jedoch kann das einfach selbst entscheiden, wenn ihm die Sache gefällt.

Sine said...

Stephanie - that is very true. There is something about poverty (and having little space!) that binds people together, but it is also the mentality here. I've heard people say that if someone from Soweto becomes successful and moves away to a big suburban house, he or she invariably shows back up in Soweto on the weekends for the good company, because it gets too lonely in the big house...

Sine said...

Conrad - das ist ein guter Punkt. Ich bin jetzt schon von SAB (Coca-Cola) weiterverwiesen worden an eine untergeordnete Zweigstelle, aber ich befuerchte, dort geht es dann nicht weiter, weil sie von oben keine Weisung bekommen. Aber immerhin noch nicht das Ende vom Weg. Ja, kleinere Firmen sind da sicher flexibler, aber da gerade eine der richtigen Groesse zu finden, ist auch nicht einfach. Und dann eine, wo nicht gerade das einzige Geld, welches fuer sowas zur Verfuegung stuende, nicht schon an jemanden anders versprochen ist. Ich bin nicht so sehr optimistisch.

Jeroen said...

>My purpose was to lend some white-skinned and eloquent respectability to the team.
Sounds familiar - in 1990s Romania I was asked to come along on ad sales visits just to sit in the corner smiling and being foreign. The 'blond monkey' tactic, they called it. I'm pretty sure it doesn't work that way any more.

Sine said...

Love the "blond monkey" tactic! That's exactly how I sometimes feel when I'm brought along, especially if the conversation is in Zulu and I smile and nod and act as if I have a clue.

Neo Rathebe said...

Hi @Sine. I am currently working on a documentary that speaks to the divide due to economic prosperity and link due to physical proximity between Alexadra and Sandton. How can I contact you to speak about your experience with the baseball team? I am aware that this article was a very long time ago but nonetheless the story is still relevant today. Would love to meet some of the teams too.


Sine said...

Hi Neo - were you the one who also contacted me via the contact form? If that was you, you should have gotten an email back. If not, just shoot me an email at sinethieme at gmail dot com. I can definitely arrange for you to meet them and give you more info, sounds like a great project!

W. A. Jeffrey said...

What I find so frustrating is that the poverty problem is so easy to fix but so many countries won't do it. Free up the markets, minimize crime and corruption, minimize govt and bureaucracy, low taxes, protect everybody's property rights equally, and the impartial rule of law. Do those things and SA would rival the USA in per-capita wealth and standard of living in less than 20 years. Chance of this happening? Almost zero!

Sine said...

It would be easy to fix if a country's leaders were more selfless and had a long-term vision. That is sort of what happened in Singapore, which I suppose is the one example where a non-democratic government achieved amazing results that benefited everyone. That it wasn't so selfless in the end - Lee Kuan Yew's family is filthy rich and has their hands in every real estate deal it seems - is an interesting side effect. The reason it doesn't happen in most of Africa (and many other places) is that no one seems to have that sort of long term vision and tenacity. Everyone is just looking for a short-term fix to get rich.