16 May 2017 – “Beyond the River”, a movie about canoeing and how two men from completely different backgrounds team up to chase gold in the world famous Dusi Canoe Marathon, has been making a very positive impression on movie-goers and critics alike. What few realise is that it is strongly linked to an Old Andrean.
Steve Jourdan (class of 1965) was a driving force behind the movie and, even more so, he has been a massive presence in South African canoeing, helping it become arguably the most integrated sport in the country, and helping South Africa become number one in the world in marathon paddling after serving for 14 years as the manager of Team SA.
The question, therefore, had to be asked: “How did a boy from Saint Andrew’s in Bloemfontein become so involved in canoeing?”
How it began
He shared the story: “In one of my many marketing careers, I ended up as the Commercial Director for a large liquor company and a bunch of canoeists came to me about 20 years ago and wanted me to sponsor them to go and compete in the Zambezi Whitewater Festival. They were just the nicest bunch of blokes I have ever met. They wanted R2 500 to cover the cost of their petrol. I said ‘Let’s do this thing properly. Instead of R2 500, I gave them R10 000 and went up with them and got some amazing branding and ambush marketing. It got amazing coverage and I got totally locked into the sport.
“Then we came back and there is a big canoe marathon in Cradock, the Fish River Canoe Marathon, and they had just lost their sponsor and they said ‘Steve, won’t you please sponsor it?’ Once again, it was for nothing. I said ‘We’re in’. Then they said to me there is no way that you are sponsoring this without paddling it. I ended up getting into the boat.”
The bug had bitten and in 2002, Steve was included in the South African Masters team to compete in Spain. “Then I became manager of the Protea team, which I did for 14 years. I paddled in 14 World Marathon Championships and got a couple of medals for myself.
Steve Jourdan (right) proudly wears the green and gold of South Africa at the ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships
“When your sport and what you love and the job that you do are all totally integrated it is something very, very special. It has been an amazing journey,” he commented.
Steve didn’t just manage the South African team, he set the bar for all other national teams worldwide. Over the course of his 14 years in charge, he took the team to the top of the world rankings.
“It was incredible”
“It was incredible. The reason I took the job 14 years ago is that canoeing was a shambles. We pitched up, we were disorganised. We weren’t a brand,” he said, “but we were good, ranked about 10th in the world.
“I sat chatting to a young (now legendary multiple world champion) Hank McGregor, who was hugely talented, and our top blokes. I said ‘We come here. The top canoeing countries all have big money. But we can do this brand. If we can be the best canoeing brand, not only on the water but off the water, we are going to make a mark for ourselves.’ The blokes really took to this. We started at 10th, last year we were ranked number one in the world! It wasn’t going to happen in two years. It took us 13 years to get there.”
With Steve Jourdan managing Team South Africa, Hank McGregor has captured eight World Marathon Championships’ titles (Photo: Balint Vekassy, Gameplan Media)
In 2015 Steve was nominated for a Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Paddle Awards for his contribution to the sport. “In terms of the World Paddle Awards, the rest of the world didn’t like us because we were taking their space – your top canoeing countries were countries like Spain, Norway, Denmark and Great Britain. They were wondering who these okes from the bottom of Africa were. We got to the stage where it was almost simple Saint Andrew’s boarding school stuff that I did. I just got everybody beautifully branded.
“We had an initiation ceremony that everybody had to go through. Afterwards, we had a fines’ meeting, which everybody had to go to. It was just small things. Everybody could see the vibe that we had. There were 54 countries. When we had our fines’ meeting by the end of the fifth or sixth year [of me being in charge of the South African team] they would have a closing ceremony that would take place, but the biggest event of the World Championships was coming to Team South Africa’s fines’ meeting. We would have 2 000 canoeists there as spectators, watching us initiate our team!
“Suddenly the sport realised that if internationally they wanted to be a bigger brand they had to act like a bigger brand. The International Canoeing Federation came to me and said ‘you’ve ambushed our prime event’. I told them I had taken their event and made it amazing for them with no effort from them at all.”
A massive impact on development
While Steve made a massive impact on South Africa’s national team, he has made an impact that was possibly even more meaningful and important on the development of the sport in the country.
It began with what he termed “a funny little brainwave”. Steve was a member of the Dabulamanzi Canoe Club in Johannesburg, which is based at Emmarentia Dam. One of the issues that sports clubs, along with numerous other organisations, have faced in South Africa since democracy came to the country is their BBBEE accreditation, but his solution for Dabulamanzi met those requirements and so much more.
“I asked why don’t we get Dabulamanzi to adopt the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club (Scarc), but not just say ‘we are going to help those little laaities out’, actually adopt them and build it into our constitution that we are going to become the new parents for this club. That means fulfilling your role as a parent in every respect: you nurture, you educate, you train, you discipline and you ensure that they’ve got a future. It worked unbelievably.
“Quite a few of the bigger canoe clubs, like Umzinyathi (which is based at the Shongweni Dam) adopted a group of young black blokes and Natal Canoe Club (in Pietermaritzburg) have now followed suit. It is such a beautiful, natural integration. These young blokes have now done learnerships, they’ve got themselves bursaries.
“The ability to canoe and the success in canoeing has almost become secondary to the actual personal development and the real growth that they have achieved,” he said.
The Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club
Scarc began 14 years ago when Brad Fisher, CEO of ADreach, Steve and a group of young men put their weight behind the initiative. Since then they have been developing and nurturing young boys, giving them opportunities to make it on and off the water. Today, Steve is the Chairman of Scarc.
One of the stories that emerged from the Soweto club was that of Siseko Ntondini and Piers Cruickshanks, one black and a development paddler, the other white and an established top national competitor. Together they teamed up to take on the feared Dusi Canoe Marathon, a challenging combination of canoeing and portaging (running with the boat), in pursuit of a top 10 finish and a gold medal. It was an inspirational journey
Brad Fisher and Steve pitched the story, which included some literary licence, to a couple of movie-makers and Adreach put up some of the financial backing for the project. It was taken up and called “Beyond the River”.
Pictured at a special preview of Beyond the River in Alex are (left to right) Siseko Ntondini, whose story was told in the movie; Brad Fisher, the CEO of Adreach and founder of the Soweto Canoe Club; Kgosi Mongake, who plays the role of Zama (based on Siseko) in the movie; and Steve Jourdan, Old Andrean, founder member of the Soweto Canoe Club, Chairman of the Adreach Foundation and Marketing Manager for Adreach (Photo: Juan Gerber)
“Brad, who is still very involved with canoeing and is a canoeist, was very involved with the actual shooting of the canoe movie, being part of it and orchestrating it to make it reality,” Steve said.
“Since the launch of it, he has been totally involved in marketing of the movie and ensuring that we can get as many South Africans as possible to go and watch it.
However, like most things in life, it hasn’t worked out perfectly, Steve revealed: “You learn something new every day. This movie industry is harsh. The accolades, the response and the warmth have been amazing. Ticket sales into the theatres are okay, but they haven’t shot the lights out. The tickets we have sold probably aren’t going to pay for the cost of producing the movie. It’s tough.”
However, there are plenty of reasons to please “an eternally optimistic marketing man”, as he described himself.
“What I am hoping is that with the hype that we have created we will benefit from the afterglow. I now have lots of corporates phoning, saying they would love to show the movie to their staff. ‘Can we show it at our annual conference, can we show it at our inter-departmental management meeting?’
“I think it is going to gather a lot of momentum through it becoming an iconic piece of South African story-telling than it is being a box office success.”
(Left to right) Piers Cruickshanks, Siseko Ntondini, Lemogang Tsipa, who played the role of Duma (Siseko) and Grant Swanby, who played the role of Steve (Piers)
Back to the successful integration of all society into canoeing, Steve pointed out that there are no quota systems in the sport.
“If I had to say to one of my black paddlers that he could start 100 metres ahead of me because he is previously disadvantaged they would tell me to get lost. They would say ‘you can start 100 metres ahead because I’m going to catch you!’
South African national teams are now packed with paddlers from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, and they are there on merit, not quota selections. On the water and off of it paddlers of all colours socialise as friends.
Dabulamanzi’s plan to adopt Scarc has been behind that success. “That has been the root of it. If you think of every rugby club, every football club, every cricket club in this country. If all of them had to adopt a club, integrate and grow together…I want to become Minister of Adoptions when I retire!
“I think canoeing is a microcosm of what South Africa could be. I really don’t think I would have given so much emotional and physical time to the sport if I didn’t have that viewpoint,” Steve shared.
“I see all the other problems going on, I get in my boat and have a paddle with my mates from Soweto and my larnies. We’re just there, this amazing group, and we do a two-hour session together. I just feel that here on the water is what is really going to happen. This is where the true South Africa is.”
Lessons from canoeing and Saint Andrew’s
Canoeing has a lot to teach people, he opined: “It is an incredible sport, because every time you go on a river, whether you’re doing a Dusi or whatever race it is, you are at risk. You can break your boat at any moment. You could get caught in a water trap. But everybody is looking after each other.
“You’re are racing your b*tt off. You’re competitors, you want to beat the boat next to you, but if he suddenly gets trapped in a rapid the entire front of the field is going to stop, help the bloke out of his boat, everybody is going to wait for him, make sure he is alright, and then they will go on their way again.
“You are in an environment where you can’t not look after each other. You have got to be conscious, you have got to be aware of each other. It’s about small things: you’re going into the top of a huge rapid. If the two of us are going to do argie-bargie we are both going to get wiped out. I have either got to give you space or you have got to give me space. As you approach that area, you agree what you’re going to do. In life, we have to give each other space.
“Even sitting in my Chandler House bunk bed, with all of us guys on top of each other, you respected and gave each other space. Even though you were living cheek by jowl for five years of your lives, you respected that space that each other had. Those who didn’t do that we bliksemed behind the tennis courts. They soon realised you have to respect each other’s space.
“To me, it’s very similar to where we are in our country. We have to respect the space that we are all operating in. If we can do that we can grow together.”