Interview With INF’s Regional Development Manager for Africa, Joan Smit

The Digital Marketing Officer for the International Netball Federation (INF) caught up with the INF’s Regional Development Manager for Africa, Joan Smit, in June 2020, to talk about her netball journey, experiences and her current role supporting and developing netball across the African continent.

Read the interview below: 

Q: Joan, tell us a little about yourself, what’s your history? 

A: I was born in the Western Cape into a typical African family with 7 sisters and 3 brothers. When I was 9, we moved to Namibia so my father could pursue more work opportunities as a truck driver. I completed primary and secondary school in Windhoek, Namibia, however, because of apartheid I was not allowed to attend the college where I lived so I moved to South Africa where I completed my teaching qualification in the Eastern Cape.

After I completed college, I moved back home and became a teacher at a primary school where I taught for many years. In 1987 I joined The Academy for Tertiary Education as administrative staff and after independence when the Academy split, I worked in the international relations department for the Polytechnic of Namibia. In 2006, I got a lucrative position with the American Embassy as the Protocol Assistant to the Ambassador. In 2008, after 2 years at the Embassy, I saw my current job position advertised on the INF website and applied. I was interviewed by former INF President, Hon. Molly Rhone, OJ, CD and former INF Global Development Manager Sally Jarvis as they visited Namibia and was extremely blessed to be appointed the position which I started on the 23rd May 2008. 

Q: Tell us 3 facts about yourself?

A: I am an extremely humble person and it keeps me grounded, I am very passionate about what I do and about my job here in Africa and I am a very determined individual. I am to succeed in everything I do and assist young athletes, women and girls to help make their dreams come true. 

Q: How did you get involved with playing netball? 

A: When I was at school you played athletics in the summer and netball in the winter. At school, it was structured, and I played in a school league, however, after school we used to make netball courts in an open space, and we made balls with plastic bags and newspapers. I remember these times so clearly as they were such fun times. 

When I went to college, I started taking netball seriously and played for my college team and then for a club back home during the holidays. For me and my sisters, it was such a big thing for us, and we were extremely lucky that before independence we were able to play in a league which was assisted by a male coach who was also the coach of the police netball team. This was the start of the beginning and the opening of a new world with netball courts, coaches, and ball and skills training. A few years later due to the determination of our coach, we won the 2nd division which moved us into the 1st division. After 2 years, we won this division and I became the first black player who was selected to represent the former South West Africa in an interprovincial event. When Namibia became independent in 1990, it was able to play in the Netball World Cup in Sydney 1991 as a non-world ranked country. This was also the start of international netball for Namibia. I, along with two of my sisters made the national netball team and I was appointed as Captain, which was a huge honour. 

Because of our performance in 1991, New Zealand invited Namibia and the Cook Islands to play in the Milo Tri-Series which was held every year in New Zealand. At that time, New Zealand was ranked first in the world, Cook Islands 6th and Namibia 13th. I was so honoured to play again for the Namibian national team alongside my two sisters.  

After the World Cup, I played for a few more years before I became the Under 21 coach for Namibia. I was lucky to take the team for a Southern African competition with eight countries competing. Namibia finished 2nd after South Africa. Then in 1997, I became the national coach for the All African Games held in South Africa.

Q: What’s your greatest netball achievement? 

A: The Netball World Cup in 1991. It was the first time that we had played an international match in front of such big audiences and it was also the first time we played on an indoor court. The Australian’s were so good to us and it was great to show the world the diversity of netball in Africa.    

Q: You have mentioned some briefly, but what barriers did you face when it came to playing netball? 

A: The apartheid system was the biggest barrier, but I learnt so much through that period. Another barrier was that up until a few years ago there were little opportunities for women and girls to play netball in Africa. Sports such as Cricket, Rugby and Football were very male-dominated which is why I’ve always wanted to promote netball as a female sport to my peers. Finally, we never had proper facilities or equipment when I was playing netball growing up, however, it did not stop us from playing and the growth of my love for the sport.  

Q: How has Netball in Africa developed over the years? 

A: When I started with INF, there were only three countries who were on the INF World Rankings and were affiliated with the INF. These were South Africa, Malawi and Botswana. After my appointment, it was INF’s mission and objective to get netball in Africa reorganised and restructured and in 2010, the inauguration of Africa Netball took place.

INF, in partnership with UK Sport and the Commonwealth Games Federation, started Netball Safaris, which are structured grassroots programmes. UK Sport focused on the empowerment of women and girls and the Commonwealth Games Federation on the enhancement of the elite game in Africa. With financial and technical support, we managed to bring the number of African Countries recognised by Africa Netball and INF from 3 to 21. These countries include both Anglophone and Francophone nations in Africa.

Netball has also developed over the years as many women and girls have been empowered as players, officials, coaches, umpires and administrators. INF and its development work have helped to change the perceptions of the role of women in sport in all our countries.  

Q: Tell us about your current job. What does it entail?

A: On the development side it is to ensure that netball does not stand back against other sports and one of my main opportunities (I don’t want to call it a challenge) is to show countries in Africa that netball remains the biggest female participation sport. The development part is very close to my heart as it is to empower women and girls, ensure we get mass participation and show what can be achieved through netball. However, INF doesn’t just empower women and girls, it contributes to their characters. 

I am so proud of where we are right now. If we look at the INF Netball World Rankings to see that Africa has three countries in the top ten is just amazing and that the Netball World Cup has become an extremely high-profile event in Africa. 

Q: How would you like to see netball developing?

A: I so want netball to become an Olympic Sport. If you look at the Netball in the Commonwealth Games, it is probably the most-watched sport and I can only imagine what would happen if the eyes of the world saw a female sport in the Olympic Games. 

I also think if we could get more television rights from broadcasters, we will be able to take the world by storm. 

Q: What INF event are you most looking forward to?

A: Of course, when it comes to netball it has to be the Netball World Cup 2023 which will take place in Cape Town, South Africa. I get goosebumps when I talk about it because it will be the biggest netball event for INF in South Africa, and I know that the event will open more eyes to the world as to the worth of netball.   

Q: How important is sport for Women and Girls?

A: Very. When you look at and talk to women and girls in Africa about sport it gives them a sense of worth. If you look at Peace Proscovia, her dad told her netball would not be the thing for her and look at where she is today. It shows them that they can be whoever they want to be, and it has created positions within the Commonwealth Games Associations and Olympic Committees which in turn, has created many role models. 

Through netball, girls believe in themselves and that itself breaks many barriers in Africa. It even breaks through national customs and laws where girls cannot go to school and a girl must stay home and do house chores. Women and girls playing sport breaks through gender barriers. Today some of those sportswomen are strong female leaders in Parliaments and Cabinets and are in eminent positions in international organisations. 

Q: What advice would you give to women and girls?

A: There are so many female role models born through netball and sport, and you should look up to these role models. Because women in the past have been regarded as inferior to men, we have turned out to be stronger, taking on challenges, turning those challenges to opportunities and using these opportunities to overcome barriers. Remember, never look backwards, only forwards. 

I would just like to thank INF for giving me the opportunity as it has opened so many doors and I have grown so much both personally and professionally through my job. I cannot put into monetary value because it is too big. It has made me an inspiration to so many others and I am so glad INF allowed me the opportunity to motivate so many women and girls not just in my country but in so many African countries. I also work with such a lovely team based in Manchester, UK.  

To find out more about Netball Africa visit the INF website here