THE army has been an integral part of Zimbabwe sport playing a crucial role in exposing talent and providing a livelihood for many sportspersons.
Among the legends to be nurtured by the army are women.
Sport has been used to play a public relations role for the uniformed services. When either civilian or uniformed members partake in sport representing army, prisons and police teams, they demystify myths about those organisations.
They demonstrate that these are organisations that are manned by people from within our midst.
Legendary netball wing attacker, Tatenda Gwenzi then an 18-year-old starlet playing for Highlanders Netball Club in 1995 was poached by Buffaloes and conscripted into the army.
The netball great joined a long list of sportspersons in the uniformed services who were engaged in elite sport. Football had the likes of Japhet Mparutsa, Maronga Nyangela, Jimmy Mbewe, Jack Mutandagayi, Simon Machorani, Simon “AK” Mugabe and Milton Mavenyengwa in their ranks.
Volleyball had Martin Dururu, several athletes of repute ran for either the army or Support Unit with notables being Tapfumaneyi Jonga, Musaope Phiri, Tendai Chimusasa and Godrey Koti.
Boxing had Ambrose Mlilo, Nokuthula Tshabangu, Fredrick Chisoro, Cowden Ncube, Ezwell Ndlovu and Trust Ndlovu.
The respective teams excelled in sport and provided sportspersons for many national teams.
What most of the sportspersons did was to train, train and train to be champions who would in the end be champions in their respective sporting disciplines.
This saw the emergence of Black Rhinos, ZRP Thomlison and Black Mambas in football, Unit Fairbridge and Support Unit in volleyball as crack opposition.
Even in lesser followed disciplines like tug-of-war the Support Unit became a formidable force.
Gwenzi recalls being invited to join Buffaloes with teammate Thenjiwe Mpofu. She acknowledges that there were some players who may have been better like Botswana-based Sithulile Mlotshwa and Franscicah Gumbo.
“The army was recruiting and wanted girls who were between 18-22 years of age in line with their recruitting policy. We were within that group so we got employed by the Zimbabwe National Army,” said Gwenzi from her Montrose home.
Netball in those days was quite competitive with Jairos Jiri and Highlanders among the top clubs in the city. With a boom in mining activity, Hwange, Athens, Alaska, Gaths Mine and Zisco were among the other clubs that played regularly in national tournaments.
St Mary’s of Chitungwiza too were also among the top clubs.
Gwenzi started playing netball in 1989 and when she moved after completing her O-levels at Selinda High School to stay with her parents in Bulawayo, her netball career got a big lift.
“I joined Highlanders who played in the then Super League with ZRP Bulawayo. Competition was very high at the club and nationally,” said the former national team wing attacker.
By 1995 she had done enough to impress national selectors who drafted her into the national team, making a cut into the All-Africa Games squad of 1995.
“At Highlanders we had a great side with players like Sithulile, Margaret Joyce Mudimu, Thenjiwe Mpofu, Oppa Sibanda and Francisca Gumbo. We were always in the top three,” said the 40-year-old seargent in the Zimbabwe National Army.
She said netball then was quite exciting with a lot of travel around the country.
However, she bemoaned lack of sponsorship then that saw them not have tournaments and she was to get her medals in Buffaloes Queens colours in the Zimbabwe Defence Forces tournaments.
“Sadly we did not have tournaments then. I was to get my silverware between 1996-98 while with Buffaloes, whom I joined after the All-Africa Games,” said Gwenzi.
She said Buffaloes patron Brigadier Khatshana had spearheaded the Bulawayo raid which saw the army team’s scouts speak to Highlanders. Having offered the girls employment, Highlanders could not stand in the two’s path and blessed the move to Mutare.
“Look, if not for netball I would not have got the opportunity to be scouted and land a job with the army. I would encourage young girls to take sport seriously as at times the sky is the limit. You never know where netball can take one,” said Gwenzi.
She was in the national teams between 1995 and 1998. Save for the All-Africa Games the team rarely had matches because of sponsorship.
“We could get a national team call up and go into camp. After a while we would then disperse with administrators saying they had failed to secure sponsorship for the internationals.
“It was quite frustrating as we wanted to represent our country. There was nothing we could do as players,” said Gwenzi.
Gwenzi described Mlotshwa as the best player she had played with for the club and country.
It is not a surprise that Mlotshwa was identified by Motswanas to play and coach the sport in that country in the 1990s.
She is now assistant national team coach and helped her adopted country to bronze in an age group tournament in Korea last year.
She said her most difficult opponents as a club were St Mary’s who had in their ranks shooters Perpetua Siyachitema, Dadirayi Gahadzikwa and Chipo Chunga.
“As a unit St Mary’s were handful but Chunga and Gahadzikwa were difficult to contain on the court,” said Gwenzi.
In her closing remarks the netball legend appealed to the corporate sector to pour funds in netball for the sport to grow.
It is one of the most participated sporting disciplines at schools level and Gwenzi believes, Zimbabwe has a chance to be among the best in the world.
The Zimbabwe Under-21s have qualified for the World Championships.
Gwenzi is no longer an active netball player.
One of the last 20 years’ best players gangly Vuyo Sikhosana who starred for PTC Sparrows and Railstars, described Gwenzi as a true legend of the game.
“She was a very good player who gave the game the best and is indeed a true legend,” said Sikhosana.