Let's Think

South African sport now played in the theatre of the absurd

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When the Minister of Sport orders Jukskei South Africa to hand him a transformation plan aimed at racial quotas, you know sport in the country has entered the stage of the theatre of the absurd.

If the announcement on sport transformation by high-flying Minister Fikile Mbalula last week had not, among other things, effectively robbed South Africa from a potentially close to R100 billion injection to its GDP, it might have been funny.

His decision to, along with Cricket SA, Athletics SA and Netball SA, punish Rugby SA for not fully meeting racial quotas by prohibiting them from bidding for hosting major international events means that Rugby SA is out of the running for hosting the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Until Mbalula’s bombshell last week, South Africa was regarded as the favourite among the countries that had announced intentions to submit bids for hosting the tournament.

The ban on Rugby SA to bid will be in place for at least 12 months. The 2023 bidding process opens within the next few weeks.

It is estimated that the previous Rugby World Cup of 2015, hosted by Britain, added more than £2.2 billion or R64.2 billion in total output to the British economy and £982 million to its GDP.

To this can be added the job opportunities it creates and an injection for small and informal businesses. Just think of the injection it brings to those setting up stalls around stadiums.

At this stage it is not clear if or when, but the ban might also at some stage impact on South Africa’s ability to host a leg of the World Rugby Seven-a-side series – a format of the game to which Black players have not only adapted excellently but have also excelled on the international scene in recent years.

Apart from the question of whether political interference in sport is appropriate in a democratic society, it would seem that the Minister is totally out of touch with the reality that all major sport codes have become big business – and business not only has a low tolerance level for uncertainties but thrives on merit.

One only has to look at what happened to the now bankrupt Eastern Province Kings franchise. And we emphasise franchise – not a term traditionally associated with sport – because it illustrates to what extent top sport has become a business enterprise, offering a career choice to promising sport stars.

Absurdity

The absurdity of Minister Mbabula’s approach also does not end with his shot at Jukskei, traditionally an Afrikaner sport from the days of the 19th century Great Trek.

Just as absurd is that one of the sports he targeted, athletics, is a sport in which the concept ‘team’ hardly exists. Selection depends purely on the performance of the individual – you either run the 100 meters the fastest in the country to represent it, or not.

To be allowed to go to the Olympic or Common Wealth Games, race counts for nothing – you have to achieve the minimum mark for your item, set at international level.

Soccer came in for some praise from the Minister for achieving their transformation ‘targets’ – although soccer has always been dominated by Blacks, being traditionally their favourite sport.

However, if this transformation praise will inspire young people to aspire for selection to the national team (Bafana Bafana) which he once described as “a bunch of losers”, is doubtful.

His racist and authoritarian slip, however, also showed in respect of the South African Football Association when he criticised it for its “poor drive to penetrate and roll out football in former model C schools and private schools”. The implication is that the minister wants to deny local school communities the freedom to choose which sport should be practised at their school.

Lessons from jukskei

There are some important lessons Minister Mbalula could learn from jukskei, a sport also played only in Namibia and the USA, if he will take the trouble to look at the sport’s history since 1994.

Jukskei SA in 1994, then an exclusive white and totally Afrikaner dominated sport, developed a strategic plan. The focus was on the expansion of jukskei in order to reach all the people in South Africa. 

Currently of the just under 5 000 participants in jukskei, 46% are players from “previously disadvantaged” communities. This was achieved by targeting especially young people and a campaign to get jukskei introduced as a school sport – in short going to grassroots level, which is lesson number one that Minister Mbalula could learn.

The second lesson to be learned is in an analysis of that 46%. Only 8% of them are senior players, illustrating that true and lasting transformation takes time. Still, that the sport has in 22 years moved from zero to 46% (and climbing) black participation is quite remarkable.

But then it would seem that Minister Mbalula is moving the target in terms of the racial definition he used away from ‘previously disadvantaged’ to a much narrower just black.

There is an element of absurdity in the fact that Cricket SA is being punished while 55% of the national squad presently comes from ‘previously disadvantaged’ communities, only 5% short of the required 60%.

The reason for narrow and absolute approach of the minister might be found in the following extract from his statement, containing the punishment announcement: “…the reality that 84% of the country’s under 18-year-old population grouping is Black African and only 16% is white, Coloured and Indian. To ignore this strategic reality from sustainability perspective alone would be suicidal.”

Conclusion

One must not forget that it is an election year and probably the only competition in town that the minister is interested in, is the one that will take place at the ballot box. The ANC might have realised that it has lost the majority of the Coloured vote and the Indian vote is insignificantly small and they are in real danger of losing substantial black support to the populist Economic Freedom Fighters.

by Steve Whiteman

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