Community sports organisations and individuals across the city were left in shock as news of sports activist and former SA Olympic table tennis player Cheryl Roberts’ death reached their ears.
A regular contributor to Cape Community Newspapers and other publications, including her own media platforms, Roberts, 60, used every opportunity to rally behind sports women, especially up-and-coming girls in various codes. For those who knew her, and even those that didn’t but encountered her along the way, she will be remembered as a fearless fighter for transformation in sport and on a political front, a warrior for social justice who put women first, whether in sport, politics or everyday life.
Diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, Roberts died in hospital after spending her final days at the family home in Durban, where she’s originally from, in the company of her sisters Vanessa and Sharon Roberts.
To some she may have been just another angry, black woman with a feminist agenda, but most will remember her as a caring friend, a very independent, private and soft-spoken individual with an infectious laugh and also one not afraid to raise her voice against injustice.
“Cheryl loved sport… men’s sport and women’s sport,” said her long-time friend, Patric Solomons, the executive director of children’s rights organisation Molo Songololo. Solomons has known Roberts for 30 years, having met Roberts the early 1990s at social political events and while hanging out at a popular eatery in Roodebloom Road, in Woodstock.
“She loved the movies, going to the theatres and enjoying cultural events. She bought her own tickets to support the artists, and for others to expose them to cultural works and experiences.
“She loved the streets. This is where she engaged with people, photographing them, and promoting their wares. She knew the street sellers in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and elsewhere… and she loved public transport. She often travelled in buses, trains and taxis to the townships to watch and photograph women and girls at sports events. And she loved exploring Africa, often travelling to other African countries,” he said.
Safa Cape Town president and newly-elected Safa national vice president, Bennett Bailey said he last spoke to her at this year’s Engen Knockout Challenge in Langa, sharing fond memories and chatting about the Banyana Banyana’s performance under coach Desiree Ellis.
Bailey said they both “grew up in the now-defunct anti-Apartheid sports body, the South African Council On Sport (Sacos) and were both very involved in the early days of negotiations around the transformation of sport in South Africa which led to the establishment of the National Sports Council (NSC) and the eventual disappearance of Sacos from the SA sporting landscape.
“My ire was raised when I read about misfits, individuals who didn’t move an iota to promote, fight and defend non-racialism trying to vilify the legacy of Comrade Cheryl Roberts,” he said.
“Cheryl and I go back many years from when she played table tennis and eventually became national champion. Western Cape was the powerhouse of table tennis with the likes of Lee Walters dominating the scene. Let’s not forget about the Meyer family dictating championship titles. It’s against this background that a little known champion from the then Natal emerged,” he said.
“I received this sad news on my way to Madagascar and had to compose myself because I lost within a space of one week two giants in society (Basil Kivedo) and sport (Cheryl) and must say that we will be poorer without them but the work they’ve done, leaves a legacy for us to carry forward,” Bailey said.
Although a staunch supporter of all sports, Roberts will forever be remembered for her involvement with table tennis as she was a member of the SA Olympic squad for the 1992 Barcelona Games, in Spain.
“Her tracks in sports will live on for years to come, not only as a political activist but as a sports activist too” said internationally accredited table tennis umpire and SA Table Tennis Board (SATTB) vice-president Technical Genevieve Lentz.
“She was a woman who completely believed in gender equality in sports and she fought at every opportunity to ensure that women enjoy the same opportunities and rewards as their male counterparts. A pioneer who advocated for the rights of women in a man’s world. Cheryl remains SA Table Tennis’ first and only female Olympian. In the 90s,” said Lentz
“She started her own club, namely Cape Town Table Tennis, and went on to represent South Africa at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona in table tennis. (She was) a trail blazer in her own right, the first woman of colour to represent South Africa in table tennis (and) being a ‘first’ comes with great responsibility and Cheryl was up for the task. She dedicated her life to sport so much so that she founded her own sports magazine to highlight and celebrate women in sport. A modern day influencer with over 2.7K followers on social media.
“I personally drew inspiration from her, although I never had the opportunity to meet her, being the first female table tennis referee in Africa and the first female to represent Africa at the Tokyo Olympics as a referee.
“It is great to become a first but it’s even greater if you’ve dug trenches for others to follow. Cheryl Roberts will go down in history as having worked in the trenches and leaving a lasting impact by fulfilling her life’s purpose – equality for all,” Lentz said.
Stephanians Table Tennis Club’s Clement Meyer, whose family name is synonymous with the sport in Cape Town, agreed, adding that apart from being remembered for her table tennis prowess, she would also be remembered for “her political activism in general and her specific sports activism in building mass based sports in our country”.
“Her promotion of township working class girls and women in sport was a passion, (as well as) her fearless voice against gender inequalities in sport,” he added.
“Cheryl and I were involved in the sport unification process in 1989, 1990 which led to the establishment of the Western Cape Table Tennis Congress, affiliated to the NSC. During this period she was instrumental in developing new clubs, mostly in the townships of Gugulethu, Manenberg, Mitchell’s Plain. She was an excellent coach and many of her players achieved provincial colours.”
Babalwa Nani, from Khayelitsha also mourned her friend. “We lost a comrade,” she said, “(And) a fighter. Cheryl Roberts attended all our activities. If not, we would receive a message of support. She will share and buy food when we are away. She always respects our space, she never shows arrogance and dominance. To Cheryl it was always about social justice not about her.
Hamba Kakuhle Qabane owakho umzamo uwufezile”
Cheryl Roberts’ funeral service will be held on Saturday October 15, at Bethesda Temple Church, in Durban at 9.30am.
The United Coalition for Sport and Community-based Organisations will hold a virtual memorial service for Cheryl Roberts, on Thursday October 13, at 7pm. Visit the UCSCO Facebook page for more details or call 076 566 7774.