Rugby referee, Tshepi Moropa, is an advocate for gender equality, empowering women and is passionate about correcting certain ills that continue to plague the world of women in sport. Pay disparities and equal rights being just two of many.

Having made some strides, it remains unfortunate that to this day women still have to negotiate for their seat at the table while producing the same, if not better results.

As a mother to a young girl, Moropa is dedicated to fighting for the respect of women’s roles in sport and in the world in general. Hoping this will pave a smoother journey for her daughter and other little girls.

Another unfortunate circumstance that women often find themselves in is the lack of opportunities. Moropa is, however, adamant that while we fight to break certain barriers we need to stand up and create opportunities for ourselves.

Apart from her position as referee and champion of women in sport, Moropa has a 9 to 5 job in Project Management and Coordination. She also runs her own community initiative through her project – Thee Black Sheep SA.

But, where did it all begin for Moropa? Enjoy in the chat below.

Tshepi, welcome to gsport! Please tell us about your path to becoming a rugby referee.

So, that is not what I started off as. I started off playing for a rugby club in Johannesburg – Wanderers Rugby Club. It started off with such few numbers, I mean, there were like four of us coming to practice with so many guys! Eventually we had a team and we started organising friendlies with teams around Joburg and even in Potchefstroom because women’s rugby is so underdeveloped that there are very few teams to play against. So, this was back in 2014.

Thereafter, I went for provincial trials and made the training squad at the Blue Bulls around 2016/17 – I was there for about a season. I played a game; it was a women’s final and I suffered an injury. I tore the ligaments in my knee, my ACL, PCL, meniscus; all of it! After the recovery I signed out, but I still wanted to be involved in the game of rugby.

“It was a completely different scene/setting to find myself in being a referee because even though one has been involved as a player and knowing the game but when you become a ref, you need to view the game from a different perspective.” – Tshepi Moropa speaks on transitioning from being a rugby player to refereeing.

I decided to try refereeing because a lot of guys had suggested it to me, saying it was something that would suit me. It was a completely different scene/setting to find myself in being a referee because even though one has been involved as a player and knowing the game but when you become a ref, you need to view the game from a different perspective. But, at the same time, it serves well to have the playing background and experience and then going into refereeing. I kind of have a better perspective of where to stand, what to do but I got to learn so much more in terms of laws that I thought I knew because I played the game for six years.

In 2018 when I started, I refereed school games just to get some learning experience and start at the foundation phase of it all. Then I moved onto some club games – U19s and U20s/21s, and then I started with the big boys (laughs). I was chosen to be part of the SA Rugby Academy squad which is exciting. The programme started this year in January, and it is an incredible programme where one gets the opportunity to prove themselves and you also have the chance to learn more about the game at a higher level. So, that is where I am currently at in my career and then Covid-19 happened, ha, ha! We just can’t wait for things to go back to the new normal if we may call it that.

What was your childhood like and were you always into sport?

My childhood…It was not an exciting childhood. I went to a boarding school at the age of 5 and I had been in and out of various boarding schools but, all my life I’ve been in boarding schools. And, I wasn’t always into sport but when I got to one boarding school – it was a Hoerskool in the Free State – that is where I started getting more knowledge about sports and its positive influence it has in your life, so I started getting involved and got exposed to rugby. We had little resources at the time. In summer, we had swimming and in winter we had soccer and rugby – that was it!

Also, I was an indoor kind of child. So, I would always be with my brother or my uncle and they would always be watching sport and it became a situation of if you can’t beat them, join them. So, I just got the hang of it and started taking a liking to after matric and not just rugby but all sporting codes from tennis, soccer, but in the beginning my childhood was not sports orientated.

Did your family support this very “different” career choice?

So…ah, career choice (laughs). Now with rugby I can’t really identify it as a career choice. I’m very blessed to be at the SA Rugby Academy squad right now and hoping to further my career as a rugby referee, but by day I have a different profession. I have a 9-5 job in Project Management and Coordination in terms of career wise.

My family are not really sports…Let me say, when it comes to females and wanting to be in sports, I wouldn’t necessarily say that they frown upon it but it’s more like it’s not a norm and it’s something that they would wonder where am I headed with this things. You know, what I am hoping to achieve getting into sports? It’s only at a later stage like now for example, I would say in the last year, that they can see the growth within the sport. Although it was an awfully slow progressing one and still is. My brother is very, very supportive because he is into sport and is a retired referee now, my sister as well as she is willing to look after my child when I have to work but in essence the family as a whole are only realising now what I have been trying to achieve.

In a male-dominated set-up like Rugby, what have been your challenges?

As a player to begin with, I pushed hard and ended up with a bad injury where I had to go for an operation and the rehab took about 8 to 9 months. So that meant being out of action, being out of play and that was difficult for me because it not only affected me but also other areas of my life. It was difficult in a sense that I had to fund my own recovery, so basically with us, I’m not sure about other sporting codes, but the injury became a medical expense for me. So, that was a difficult period.

Secondly, it’s climbing up the ladder in terms of our sport is a very tough one. You must prove yourself twice as much to be taken seriously.

Share some of the tools you use to overcome these challenges?

I am a very persistent person so when I put my mind into something, I try my best to achieve and be successful at it. And, if I can’t achieve it in one way then I try other ways before I eventually give up. So, when the injury happened, I didn’t choose to drop the sport entirely because I wanted to still be involved in the game. I couldn’t be in full contact anymore as rugby is a contact sport, so I found another way. It is important to be persistent, especially being a female in sport. The day I decide to hang up my boots it must be in the sense that I have done my all for the game and played my role.

Women in sport are still fighting for equality and for their voices to be heard. What are your views on this?

(Sighs), the equality issue has been discussed over the years and it is such an important topic for us. I had an interview it was probably in 2018 on SuperSport on Women’s Sports Talk and we were talking about this, you know, it is such a slow progress. The progress is there but for us it’s such a tough progress to assess or to scale because you have to be in the sport and be actively involved for you to see that there is progress in women’s sport development, But, again, we are still fighting, we are singing the same tune, we are trying to tackle it in different ways but you can tell that our voices are being heard but they are being heard at a very, very low volume.

“Females are giving in 100 percent and over into the sport as males do. I have seen women put their bodies on the line in every sport, we train, we put in the extra time and all we want is to be treated equally.” – Moropa stands up for equality for women in sport.

We want to be taken seriously because we are giving into the sport. Females are giving in 100 percent and over into the sport as males do. I have seen women put their bodies on the line in every sport, we train, we put in the extra time and all we want is to be treated equally. The payment issue is obviously one of the biggest talking points where men get paid more than females or if the females get paid anything at all, but it’s not just about that, it’s also being recognised for our efforts. I feel so strongly about this topic and I am always trying to be involved whether it is in committees or meetings, trying to get our voices out there and for example, to get our games televised. It would be such an honour and a privilege for us to be taken seriously for our contribution to sports in the country.

Have you faced situations where you felt undermined because of your gender?

It is by no doubt that every female in my view and in my opinion has faced a situation no matter how small it can be. There is no doubt that I have been in a situation where I have felt undermined. Rugby is a male-dominated sport, but it feels so great to be surrounded by most men who show utmost respect to the women, support us at our games and it’s absolutely fantastic to see some men doing this. But there are bad days as well where I go to a game and as a female ref I walk on to the field and there are spectators who are looking to see the wrong that I am going to do. It’s often a human psychology thing that people are always looking for the wrong and they will most likely find it. I could’ve made a mistake that any other referee could have made but because I am a female it’s something that will be picked up and I will be undermined because of it. I’m grateful to have some of those male colleagues who stand up for me at games and are there to protect me.

What advice do you have for young girls who want to be in sport?

I cannot stress this enough to our young girls that they can make their dreams a reality! It’s all up to you and it is important to know that when you are a female and you want to go into sport, you can’t wait for opportunities to come to you. You have to prepare yourself whether the opportunity presents itself or you have to go and get it, you have to take one of the two ways and most of cases you have to take matters into your own hands to find your path and make a success out of your dreams.

In my position, I would say that it is important to step up. Step up to the challenge, you don’t have to wait for your name to be called, put up your hand and say that you can do it. Young girls need to know that the earlier they start, the better it is for the opportunities to start presenting themselves to you. For example, if I had started much earlier to play rugby, I believe that I could have grabbed so many opportunities along the way. I am 28-years-old and only now I am in SA Rugby Academy, it’s not a bad thing but what I am saying is that young girls need to start now as there is no better time or waiting for the right time. You start now, prepare yourself, put up your hand, step up to the game and to the challenges.

Please tell us about your initiative – Thee Black Sheep SA.

(Chuckling) first the name comes from me! I was told that I wouldn’t mount to anything, that I would be the black sheep, blah, blah, blah…So, I took that and I started an initiative and basically what I do with a group of phenomenal friends of mine is do soup kitchens, we do charity drives, which is fantastic, especially during the lockdown where we helped out the people in my community of Alexandre and for Mandela week we have been in Orlando, Soweto. So, basically, it’s me saying to other people that even if the odds are stacked up against you, you can make something out of yourself. No matter where you grew up, no matter what your home situation was, I mean I have seen players for example, turn their tragedies into triumph and for me that’s a very important aspect for Thee Black Sheep is to show that your circumstances must not determine who you are or who you could be.

As a sporting pioneer and most importantly, as a mother, what legacy are you hoping to leave behind for your daughter?

Being a mother is my favourite position that I have occupied. The legacy I want to leave behind for my daughter is one where she knows that we broke boundaries, one where she knows she can be whatever she wants to be and there is no such thing as the right time because the right time. I want to leave a legacy where I have shown that I didn’t wait for someone to give me anything, but I went ahead and did it myself and that it is possible if you get up do it yourself. Also, that delayed does not mean denied because in the world of female sports I learnt very well that a lot of times our opportunities are mostly delayed because of our gender and like I said earlier, the progress is very slow, so for me if I am delayed I am not denied and I will keep knocking on that door until it opens and that’s what I want to instil in her.

What is your desire for women’s sport in South Africa?

For us to be exactly what we are and that is being dominant! Females are amazing and my desire for us females is to reign like the queens that we are in sport and for us to be recognised in every sporting code!