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Far From Par: How do we break the pattern of exploitative working conditions of caddies in SA?

Ian Jooste is pictured at the weekly Caddy tournament that was played at Milnerton Golf Club this week. Milnerton GC played a groundbreaking role in the recognition of black golfers and especially caddies in South Africa, when they hosted the first Non-European Amateur Tournament there in 1960. Image supplied.

Ian Jooste is pictured at the weekly Caddy tournament that was played at Milnerton Golf Club this week. Milnerton GC played a groundbreaking role in the recognition of black golfers and especially caddies in South Africa, when they hosted the first Non-European Amateur Tournament there in 1960. Image supplied.

Published Jan 18, 2022

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Part 4

After a much-needed break over the silly season, I am happy to be back!

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Having been down with Covid over this period, I was unable to play as much golf as I intended to. But as soon as I was healthy again, I made a solid effort to make up for lost time and even managed to score my best round, gross 85, net 70 (2-under par!) playing off a 15.6 handicap at the time. Needless to say, I was, and still am very chuffed about this.

When I started writing this series, I meticulously planned the various themes I’d cover in it, well before the first one was published.

This was necessary so that I don’t miss writing about all the important layers contributing to the lack of meaningful and impactful transformation in South African golf.

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But today’s story wasn’t part of that initial list of themes. Well, it was, but not to the extent that I allocated two stories to it. But a conversation I had with a former caddy over the holidays, and a scene about 15 minutes into episode 6, Season 4 of Cobra Kai, compelled me to pick up right where we left off last year – the status of caddies in South African golf and the need to “break the pattern.”

Ian, the former caddy I speak of above, is 60 and is the starter at Rondebosch Golf Club.

He started as a caddy when he was a kid in the 1980’s. When probed about how he became a caddy, he responded in a tone of assurance, but laced with embarrassment “To be frank, I had a habit that needed to be fed. I needed to find money to feed my habit.”

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For Ian, a young and physically strong man back then, caddying was a more appealing option compared to other forms of manual labour, like in the construction industry. And for a young, single man in the 80’s, it paid comparatively well too.

From Ian’s experience, this is generally why most caddies took up the job. Fortunately, Ian had the determination and commitment to improve his circumstances by following a more positive trajectory without any place for substance abuse in his life.

The problem though is that the current feeder system for new caddies is largely the same as back then. And it’s hard for this self-created system to change without any meaningful intervention. When we look to the US caddy industry, most of them are young girls and boys who sometimes are students at local golf colleges. As soon as they graduate, get a job, or turn pro, they move on – making way for the next crop of youngsters to take over for a few years.

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In South Africa, becoming a caddy is ultimately a career choice by default. Not a particularly bright one as it is, but you end up doing it for life. To support my view on this, I challenge my dear readers to visit any golf course in your province or community (sorry Mitchells Plain and the likes), pop in at the area where the caddies are stationed and approximate their average age. I’m confident that 7-8 out of 10 caddies will be older that 50.

Once you are working as one, you have zero job security. Zero employee rights. Never mind employee rights, you don’t have employee status, because most, if not all golf clubs view caddies and independent contractors – thus they are not entitled to any employee benefits or the protection of South African labour laws.

The question I put to all golf courses in South Africa, how is it possible for a caddy to be deemed an independent contractor? Let me rephrase, morally, how can this be the case? This when a caddy comes to work every day only hoping to get work while he is there. Because for those who don’t know, caddies only get paid a wage IF they are hired on the day. And if they don’t, after paying for public transport, they go home with less money than they left home with.

The question I pose to myself is, how do we change the status quo? How do we break the pattern? How do we dignify the role and presence of caddies in such a way that it not only cloaks existing caddies with dignity but also triggers the interest of young boys and girls to become caddies during holidays and over weekends?

While Ian shared that he is very encouraged with some of the organisational shifts at Rondebosch Golf Club to the benefit of caddies and other staff, and I know at some other courses caddies are mandatory, I fear this is the exception to the norm.

I might be disillusioned, but I see caddying as a vital spoke in golf’s transformation wheel as well as small additional effort to address the issue of youth unemployment. If we introduce golf to more and more youth who have never seen, heard of or thought of trying golf before, we might just find a new feeder system for caddies who see the job not as a career choice, but as a stepping-stone to greater opportunities through this amazing sport.

Because if I can strike a business deal or strengthen my professional network on a golf course, why today, can’t a young black kid not become discovered just as Papwa was? Or why can’t a young ambitious mind connect with a player who is able to further his/her academic or career aspirations? These are not “pie in the sky” probabilities, this can happen. To access opportunities, one needs to be present at places and spaces where those opportunities present themselves. And many a man can tell tales of the opportunities he was privy to because of being present at a golf course.

Far From Par is a 10-part series by about the grassroots development of golf in South Africa. For decades golf was a sport reserved for white men for both leisure and professional expression.

Sadly, after nearly 30 years of democracy, apart from it now being open to all, not much has changed to foster meaningful transformation.

This series explores his experience on the importance of, challenges faced and status quo of grassroots golf development and transformation in South Africa.

If you’d like to find out more about Mitchells Plain Golf Club, here’s how to: visit www.mitchellsplaingolfclub.org.za or @mitchellsplain_golfclub on Instagram, or contact Jehad at 072 365 4037 or [email protected]

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