South Africans in Israel: 'No Hint of Apartheid'
JERUSALEM, Israel -- When South African tennis coach Moses Nthuping brought four of his young players to Israel, it was something he had waited for all his life.
"This is a dream come true for me," Nthuping told CBN News.
As a teenager, Nthuping developed into a star tennis player, but he could never travel or play on national teams.
"Unfortunately, during those apartheid years, we were not given an opportunity to experience what I'm experiencing now, at this age -- at my age," Nthuping said.
World leaders and media often accuse Israel of being an apartheid state allegedly because of its policies toward Palestinians.
Now the Jewish state hopes to change that image by reaching out to South Africans, who lived through racial segregation for nearly 50 years.
Welcome to the 'Real Israel'
Ronen Moralli, with the Israel Tennis Center (ITC), invited the group to visit. He said the idea came from the Israeli ambassador who wanted to introduce South Africans to the real Israel.
"Sport, you know it's a bridge over cultures, you know to bring people together -- to see that Israelis are normal people, without horns in their head, and I think it did the job," Moralli told CBN News.
Nthuping said he saw nothing that resembled the racial segregation of apartheid.
"So far I haven't seen anything that I can criticize about Israel," Nthuping said. "All I could see people, jolly people, friendly people, all the way -- willing to help wherever possible."
It touched the youngsters from South Africa as well.
"I heard about Israel fighting a war, but I thought where I'm going it will be peace place and no war there," said John Smith Moeng, 14, who has been playing tennis for 10 years.
"They're so kind to us. I see they're treating us like families," said 12-year-old Amukellali Mokole, who has been playing tennis since she was 7.
"I think it's an incredible country that has incredible people -- kind people that must appreciate people from Africa or northern America or southern America -- the whole world. It's a great country," Mbali Langa told CBN News. She's almost 13 and has been playing tennis since she was 8.
The Israel Tennis Centers started nearly 40 years ago. Today there are 14 centers around the country like the one in Jerusalem. They serve some 20,000 children a week from all different backgrounds.
"The Israel Tennis Center is a blend of everything -- you have Arab kids, you have Ethiopian kids, you have everything, a blend of everything. You know you have Christians; you know you have Arab Christians; it's like a blend of everything. It's why this project is so beautiful," Moralli said.
That blend is exemplified in the friendship between 12-year-old Mohammed Okhman and his Jewish friend, 11-year-old Omer Mann. Both want to turn professional eventually and say their friendship is the best part of the tennis center.
That positive atmosphere helps when new players -- like the team from South Africa -- visit.
"It's the first time I play with kids from South Africa and I like to play with them," said Okhman, who has been playing tennis at the center for six years.
"It's so fun [Notes:to play with the South African team] . I didn't realize that I would play with them. It's just so unreal," said Mann, who has been playing tennis at the center for seven years.
This first exchange proved successful and those at the Israel Tennis Center hope for many more opportunities in the future.