Updated: Apr 1, 2020
We recently reached out to our friends at Afrika Freedom Climbers in South Africa to find out how the COVID-19 pandemic and the knock on impact of the virus is affecting their important work.
By Thale Katlego Letheo of Afrika Freedom Climbers & Tim Harper
Afrika Freedom Climbers (AFC) is a non-profit organisation founded in September 2013 by three South African women with the express mission to break down barriers to the greater outdoors and diversify the South African mountaineering community. They provide women and children, particularly from rural areas in South Africa, with the opportunity to be trained and participate in high altitude mountaineering sport. At the top end of their programmes, AFC have athletes scheduled to make attempts on Mt Elbrus, Mt Kilmanjaro and Mt Everest this year, although these are now subject to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
AFC operate in the Bakgatla Ba Kgafela tribe which is made up of 32 rural villages around the Pilanesberg National Park with an estimated population of 360,000 people. There are no gym facilities in the area so at the grassroots level, the organisation focuses on promoting weekly hikes and longer 8 hour hikes over the weekends to introduce the community to sporting pursuits that have long been reserved for the more affluent in South African society.
The local population has high unemployment rates and the AFC’s expeditions and hikes are one of the few opportunities to pursue any sort of physical activity in the outdoors, not only opening up the prospect of training for and joining one of the bigger AFC expeditions but contributing to the improvement of the community’s physical and mental wellbeing on a weekly basis.
As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak in South Africa and upon news of what was happening in Europe, the AFC made the difficult decision to suspended all scheduled hikes from 9th March with the exception of a local 5km hike whilst adhering to social distancing rules. Since then however, all the National Parks in South Africa were closed to the public by the government, including the usual hiking routes used by the AFC, depriving the local population of the one of the few opportunities to get outside, get active and pursue dreams of making it in mountaineering sport. Cancelling these regular hikes has had a significant financial impact on the organisation - the AFC don’t charge membership fees and instead rely on a modest admin fee to cover the transport and accommodation costs associated with their expeditions and so with the current suspension of activities, the organisation has no real income stream to sustain itself or plan for the future.
For the first time in 7 years, AFC had two women from the Bakgatla Ba Kgafela tribe signed up to make attempts on Mt Kilimanjaro in August 2020 - to the organisation, the local population and to South African mountaineering as a whole, this is a hugely significant moment. This attempt, like so much of the sporting calendar is now under threat from travel restrictions imposed by governments as a result of COVID-19.
Earlier this week, the South African government announced a complete lockdown for 21 days, the impact of which is yet to become completely clear, our contact Thale Katlego Letheo did note that with so many of the local population reliant on social grants for a living, that over the first three days of the lockdown, people were struggling to adhere to the rules whilst securing food, water and everyday essentials for their families. With access to information limited in the villages, the AFC have been proactive in spreading information about the severity of COVID-19 and risk mitigation, but with a dearth of readily available information from government sources, there are real fears that the realities of the outbreak will only hit home once the community starts seeing victims they personally know.
The concerns for the AFC right now go beyond their own sustainability, fragile as it might be, and are instead focussed on the health and wellbeing of the general population in South Africa, of which 7 million live with HIV and a further 2 million with tuberculosis. The AFC are naturally conscious of, and respect that in the midst of a global pandemic, the promotion and diversification of mountaineering sport will take, at least for the time being, a backseat, but they remain steadfast that once this crisis passes, they will continue their fight to realise their mission with ever greater determination.
If you would like to find out more about Afrika Freedom Climbers, please do check out their website right HERE or look them up on social media (links below) and give them a follow - they are a fantastic organisation with lofty and worthy goals for mountaineering sport in South Africa.