Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

‘I want to go a long way to changing lives’: Devon Petersen on national identity, being Africa’s only professional darts player and influencing a country’s future

Posted on 18 September 2018 by Nick Friend

The Fang dialect is spoken throughout Central Africa – it spans one million speakers spread across Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo and the minute islands of Sao Tome and Principe.

Its part in the burgeoning growth of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) could scarcely register on even the most microscopic scale of measurement. Yet, at the same time, its role is – perhaps – symbolic of the circuit’s ever-widening global reach.

‘Tsaminamina zangalewa’ – two words, the extent of the language’s unusual – if both tenuous and unwitting – tiptoe into the darting world. It is a familiar phrase; if the vuvuzela became the unwarranted noise of the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa, this was part of its official chorus, belted out by Shakira in her anthemic Waka Waka – a song that gave a landmark tournament an everlasting identity.

Its meaning is simple but, like so many iconic choruses, its significance verges on the unknown. ‘Where do you come from?’, it asks. That is all. Eight years on, it acts as a fitting accompaniment to South Africa’s Devon Petersen as he takes to the PDC stage.

What Waka Waka represented in 2010 as Bafana Bafana hosted Africa’s first ever World Cup is replicated and mirrored now by Petersen.

The first and – as yet – only African to forge a career for himself on the PDC Pro Tour, it is a hymnal celebration that provides a thrilling reminder of the wider significance of the 32-year-old’s presence on the circuit.

Not only, as he repeatedly asserts throughout our chat, does Petersen compete as a South African, but more broadly, as the sole representation of a continent encompassing 58 nations. If his own identity is portrayed through the medium of song, the identity of the continent’s present and future is told through the career of a single trailblazer.

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It seems almost disingenuous to focus on the importance of a song in the career of a man who, both on and off the oche, has achieved so much in so little time.

Yet, just as Petersen’s darting accomplishments require a dose of perspective, so too does the symbolism of a song that shapes so much of what Africa’s darting pioneer represents.

“I think that if you look to the meaning of the lyrics, it speaks of failure, hope, success, fighting hard, determination,” he explains with the sharp twang of his Cape Town upbringing.

“It has all of these connotations of Africa. If you listen to what those words are saying, they are remarkable. The song speaks of my nature and my personality and my character, both as a South African and as an African.”

That Petersen should seek to highlight his motherland in the moment of his walk-on is far more than a pleasant touch. There is a deep power to the paradox of an arena of beer-fuelled fans, dancing to the lyrics of Shakira – themselves borrowed from a 1986 Cameroonian hit single – and the emotional import of what it signifies to him, to a man whose ultimate objective is do proud the country he left to pursue his career.

The history of a nation that has experienced both racial and societal division is as complex as it is well-documented. However, what Petersen brings with him is a story of hope, not only to those in the gang-ridden Mitchells Plain neighbourhood of his youth, but to those throughout both nation and continent, who have been allowed to dream big by Petersen’s own success.

“My South African identity is something that keeps me grounded and makes me continue to realise what I’m actually doing when I’m competing,” Petersen says, complete with a moving sincerity that stems from the realisation of his own journey.

“I know that, at this time, I’m literally carrying an entire continent on my back and representing an entire group of people.”

It is some burden to carry for a 32-year-old still very much making his own way in the professional game. Petersen sits on the cusp of the world’s top sixty players, yet his candour reveals far more about him than any twelve-dart leg ever could do. For whatever reason, there is an uncomfortable reticence among the mainstream to tell the stories of darts’ new generation – as if there is a genuine belief that there is no tale worth uncovering.

To listen to Petersen speak of his role is to dispel any myth surrounding the image of the darts player. “It is daunting,” he admits. “But, at the same time, you can’t always thinks about it.

“Moving forward, I know that I want and have to try to influence positively on communities and kids who are watching as well, I want to make them realise that all of this is possible because a normal guy like me is on television all the time, competing in glamorous locations and venues.

“I think staying loyal to the country and the continent is a huge part of what I do. When I walk on up on stage, I know that I’m doing that with South Africa and the continent as a whole on my back. It’s always going to be ‘Devon from South Africa’, and I will never lose that. I will always be patriotic to that.”

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In one sense, the fairy-tale of Rob Cross – the part-timer who became world champion – pales into relative inconsequence when real-life perspective is added to mere sporting achievement. Quite simply, if sport was governed by the parameters of logic, Mitchells Plain would not necessarily produce professional darts players.

Just five years ago, a study revealed the Cape Flats district to have seen the highest number of serious crimes in the whole country during a yearlong period, with many of the 1.8 million incidents the result of gang violence. There was even talk earlier this year of the country’s army being deployed to tackle the disorder in the community, though this was ultimately rejected.

There is, though, a point to this portrayal of Petersen’s home. It is, in some ways, victory enough that from a community such as his – the type of which swallows up so many into the abyss of systemic gangsterism, Petersen has not just come out the other side, but has done so as a figure of importance with the opportunity to provide a new generation of South Africans with an alternative.

Two years ago, he set up the Last Man Standing competition, which doubles up as the national tour of South Africa. In the next few months, it will become the African Darts Corporation, in association with the PDC.

The circuit already hosts 20 events, with competitions held in each of the four quarters of South Africa. Talk of a foray into Zimbabwe has even been mooted as Petersen looks for company as the continent’s only professional player. The key, he says, is the sport’s accessibility – a bonus that he believes gives him the chance to take the game into areas that could desperately benefit from a level playing field.

“All we want to do is expand the sport,” he explains. “One brilliant way of doing that would be to take darts into the townships. It will take time but we are looking at reaching out to schools first, because that is where the access and focus groups is at its best.

“We are looking to set up a school league in 2020. That’s our launch time because we are desperate to make sure that our foundations are laid correctly so that what we create can remain sustainable and not just a one-hit wonder.

“It’s such an accessible sport, which makes it easy to play and to get involved. It’s not that expensive – you can buy a cheap set of brass darts or even just borrow a set of them. Even a worn-out board will do the trick because nothing changes.

“If we look at the aspects of professional sports, the facilities and the regulations change as you progress upwards through the various tiers. But with darts, the sport is literally the measurement of seven feet and nine inches from the oche to the board.

“The height is 1.73 metres from the floor to the board. That is for everyone – no matter your quality, your rank, your professionalism. It is open to everyone and there is nothing to stop you from progressing. Everyone can go from amateur to professional in the blink of an eye if you have the talent.”

When Petersen speaks of his homeland, you would be a fool to ignore him. There is a passion buried in the tone of his voice for the development of the region’s young people. Darts – and sport more generally – has the capacity to change lives. He has witnessed first hand the transformation of his own existence, both as a professional sportsman and as an influential role model to those left behind.

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He cites international cricketer JP Duminy and national team goalkeeper Moeneeb Josephs, the two of whom grew up nearby in similarly difficult areas, as examples of what can be achieved away from the violence.

Special mention, though, is reserved for Benni McCarthy, the former West Ham United and Blackburn Rovers striker, now managing Cape Town City. McCarthy too was brought up in the Cape Flats, in the notorious Hanover Park township – infamous for its unemployment rate and stories of gang violence. His role, representing the city’s major football team as its coach – its united face, is the epitome of what Petersen himself seeks to achieve.

To an external audience, the notion of Petersen – the 60th ranked player on the planet – as a household name is a far-fetched concept. At the same time, however, it is a viewpoint that fails to comprehend both the power of Petersen’s message as Africa’s sole representative in an increasingly global sport, as well as underestimating the sheer weight of exposure that the PDC’s rise has given to its players.

“I think that I do have an opportunity to become hugely influential in sport in South Africa,” he says. “I would never have had this profile and this ability to make a difference if I had chosen to stay in South Africa and settle for being the best player in the continent.

“I think the profile that the PDC allows us to have thanks to the extensive television coverage makes for a better story and gives us a lot more responsibility within our communities that we come from to give back.

“I think with what I have achieved so far in creating the African Darts Corporation, it’s not just a case of the money involved but of the pride at the opportunities that we have given people to achieve things that they would not have had.

“You realise that you could literally make a massive impact on the futures of so many young people and children – not just in darts but in society.”

Leading Africa’s darting revolution is merely one aspect of what Petersen aims to achieve in giving back to the country of his birth. He runs the HANDS Project – an acronym for Helping African Nations Develop Through Sports. This December, it will send eight teenagers to Florida to take part in an NBA talent search. The best will be offered scholarships.

Petersen’s mission statement is obvious. “All I hope is that it will go a long way to changing their lives,” he tells me. To begrudge Petersen any of what he has achieved would take a callous cruelty. In darting terms, he admits that he still has much to learn. An appearance in the last-16 of the 2014 World Championship represents one of the South African’s best runs in any PDC event. It is a record that he knows must – and will – improve. His own determination to further better a life already spun on its axis will see to that.

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“A lot of sports have great stories,” he reflects, pleasingly aware of the barriers through which he has barged in a career that remains relatively young.

“Most of sports’ superstars come from a poor background. It is rare that they come from a really affluent background because people from a working-class kind of background are simply forced to work extremely hard. Whether that is the same in the case of people that come from different beginnings, where things are almost given to you, I don’t know. I think that is why so many of these stories are so great and become so influential in creating new generations of players.

“You know that Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, originally came from a very poor background and spent much of his childhood playing football on the gravel.

“Determination, discipline, practice, consistency and hard work – if you put all of that in and combine them together, as well as taking advice from coaches and thinking about your own life skills, anyone can reach the top of their game.”

It is that tangible accessibility of the sport – not simply in its participation, but also in its ability to forge the least likely of careers – that encourages both Petersen’s professional and personal journeys.

By his reckoning, there are 14 nations in Africa with some form of darting structure already in place, with 5,000 registered amateur players in South Africa alone. The end goal, he lets me in, is to see a tournament hosted in each of the countries in which darts is played. He is also aware, however, that Rome was not built in a day.

The ultimate dream for Petersen is exactly the sort that I hope to hear through his ever-impassioned Cape Town accent. Although he now lives in West Yorkshire, there is no hint of any twang of White Rose. Perhaps, that in itself is brilliantly fitting. In his own words: ‘I will always be Devon from South Africa.’

He wants to see himself featuring on an Xbox game as Devon Petersen, the darts player. To cast it as a shallow dream would be to misunderstand Petersen – not only in his own background, but in who he hopes to inspire.

“That would really explode my brain,” he laughs as he paints an image of his computerised self in his mind. “It would be another level of craziness. That was always one of my goals.”

A dream conquered in spite of logic rather than because of it, a controllable animation of Petersen would, perhaps, epitomise his achievements, etching them into a world both simultaneously tangible and unreal.

“If I look at the sport itself, it really is just giving us these opportunities to actually dream,” he reflects as our conversation closes. Only an hour beforehand, he has been sat in church.

“It is fantastic and phenomenal to sit back and realise where you’ve come from. We are very blessed.”


Featured photograph: PDC