The digital marketing officer for the International Netball Federation (INF) caught up with the INF’s regional development manager for Africa, Joan Smit of Namibia, on her netball journey, experiences and her current role of supporting and developing netball across the African continent. Smit is also the secretary general of the Namibia National Olympic Committee.
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 seven sisters and three brothers. When I was 9, we moved to Namibia, and I completed primary and secondary school in Windhoek.
After I completed college in South Africa, 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 later in the international relations department for the then Polytechnic of Namibia. In 2006, I joined the American Embassy as the Protocol Assistant to the ambassador. After two years at the embassy, I applied for my current job at the IFN. I was successful and started on the 23rd May 2008.
Q: How did you get involved with playing netball?
A: At school, we played athletics in the summer and netball in winter. 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.
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. Our male coach at the time was also the coach of the police netball team, and this opened a new world with netball courts, coaches, as well as ball and skills training.
A few years later, I became the first black player 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.
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 second 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 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.
Q: How has netball in Africa developed over the years?
A: When I started with INF, only South Africa, Malawi and Botswana from Africa were on the INF World Rankings and affiliated with the INF. 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 three to 21.
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: 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.
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.
Q: To what INF event are you most looking forward?
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 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. 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, laws and gender barriers, where girls cannot go to school and must stay home and do house chores. Today, some of those sportswomen are strong female leaders in parliaments and cabinets; they 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 forward.
- World Netball