In the poverty-stricken Alexandra township, a new script is being written not only by those participating in the Football for Hope Festival, but by youngsters from the township seeking to overcome their circumstances.
While Soweto continue to steal the international spotlight, not much is known about 'Alex', as the township is fondly known by locals, despite its rich and long history. Indeed, it is here that some of the country’s most celebrated footballers, including former Bafana Bafana stars Alfred Phiri and Brian Baloyi, were born.
Both Phiri and Baloyi were part of that historic group of players who participated in the country’s debut appearance at the 1998 FIFA World Cup. Each is acutely aware of the obstacles facing young people in Alex, having spent the better part of their childhood in the area.
In Alex, poverty is still one of the main challenges confronting not only the young people but many parents and families looking for a better life. Youngsters are constantly searching for source of inspiration, and the arrival of the Festival has brought a glimmer of hope.
For a while at least, the harsh realities of life have been forgotten and football has taken centre stage. But this FIFA World Cup has sought not only to entertain, but also to address social challenges, and Alex is therefore key to FIFA's aims.
As Phiri said: “The people of Alex are really appreciative because this is an opportunity for them to tell their stories and market this township because you find out that people often focus on Soweto whenever they talk about South Africa. Now, after this Festival, people will now be talking about our township.
“Growing up, life was very tough in Alex. As you can see, a lot of people are still poor, but what we need to do is to help the younger generation to start dreaming about a better tomorrow, we need to make them realise that they can uplift their families and their communities. The opportunity to interact with people from other countries will enable them to do just that, it will expand their horizons. I have been fortunate to have played in Europe and the [United] States, and that gave me an opportunity to see the other side of life."
For many youngsters here, football is dear to their hearts. They idolise football stars, and while economic factors make a trip to the stadium unrealistic for most, they have been touched by the spirit of the FIFA World Cup nonetheless. The Football for Hope Festival has given them a window of opportunity to be part of the festivities, with Neo Chauke among those Alex youngsters thrilled to come along. “We see so many people around our area, it’s great. I’m excited to be here because I have had an opportunity to see some famous players who sometimes visit the festival,” he said, while queuing to get an autograph from Bafana Bafana stars Tsepo Masilela and Bernard Parker – both players who had decided to make an impromptu visit to the festival to mix with the locals.
Masilela said: “Of course it’s great to be here because we come from similar communities, we know that to most of these kids we are role models. It is easy to relate to their stories because we know what it’s like to come from less privileged communities.”