Phumelela (Phumi) Mbande has been a member of the South African women’s national team since 2012 and she feels as proud of her place in the team today as she did 10 years ago.
South Africa’s struggle to maintain its place in the top tier of international hockey is well-known. In recent years, the team has slid out of the top 12 in the FIH World Rankings to 16th.
Phumi says: ‘If you ask anyone in our team, we all share the same sentiment. It is always a huge privilege and honour to represent South Africa at hockey, especially because we don’t always have the opportunity to play international hockey. We are not like some of the Europeans nations who can just travel across borders for a test match.
‘The World Cup will not only give us a chance to play other nations, but it will give us ranking points that we desperately need, so I think this up coming World Cup is one of the most important for South African hockey that I have been part of.’
The last time South Africa played at a major international event was the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, where they finished in 12th place. Phumi says that she didn’t feel the team played well and for a while after the Games, she ‘grieved my Olympic experience because there were harsh lessons.
‘Whatever we did in the lead up to the Olympics, we learned we need to double that for the World Cup.’
The South Africa team are not funded, so all the athletes have jobs or are students. This does not stop the athletes believing that they can climb back up the World Rankings. For Phumi and her team mates, it is essential for the next generation of hockey players that this current team does well.
‘In the context of our history as a nation, coming together in international sport is really good for the young kids to see. I think about myself as a young hockey player and I looked up to the likes of Marsha Cox and they left a legacy. That is what I hope we can do for the next generation.
‘More than the sentimental value, we have a responsibility to overcome challenges and move up the rankings. It is not for us to sit back and make excuses, we must keep striving to get back to where we once were. That doesn’t come easy but we are all willing to work hard to fulfil that.’
South Africa is the sole representative of Africa at the FIH Hockey Women’s World Cup, and Phumi says that she is also very conscious that the team will be representing the entire continent.
Phumi also spoke about the importance of hosting the Junior Women’s World Cup on African soil for the first time. Potchefstroom in South Africa is the venue for this exciting event, which takes place in April. The visibility of hockey on the continent is something essential for the development of the hockey.
‘We have an exciting group of players and hosting it brings hockey closer to the general public. Cricket, football and rugby are the most supported sports in South Africa but by bringing hockey to the doorstep, you show young players that this is something to work towards. This isn’t Argentina versus Netherlands, it is South Africa taking on teams on home soil. That will inspire the young kids.’
Being an elite hockey player is something that has had a big impact on the other parts of Phumi’s life. She works as an external auditor and, she says, the success and recognition she has achieved through sport stand her in good stead.
‘I walk into boardrooms with a lot more confidence than many of my peers. I have managed to be both an international athlete and complete my studies and exams and carve out a career. Knowing this, brings about a feeling that I can achieve. Hockey has been instrumental in that.
‘This is why I am so passionate about helping young people to play sport. I come from very humble beginnings but hockey has been pivotal to me being a success in sport and business.’