Sport & Politics

Springboks blindsided by ANC politics

Blindsided off the field as well

It might not have been his and his party’s intention, but the Minister of Sport and the ANC have landed South African rugby and a national asset called the Springbok team in a major crisis.

It might have been an unintended consequence of over-simplistic policy solutions for a complicated challenge, but Minister Fikile Mbalula could hardly have done a better job of destroying South African rugby, even if he had tried deliberately.

By constantly hammering on simplistic quotas for black players in the national and other mayor teams, and causing political controversy around the sport, he has now seen a situation develop where major sponsors do not want to be associated with rugby.

ABSA bank has announced that it will no longer be the major sponsor both of the national team and the country’s premier provincial competition, the Currie Cup – reportedly, among other reasons, because of the “slow pace of transformation”.

In the modern era of professional sport corporate sponsorship is sport’s lifeblood. Taking that away destroys the wonderful opportunities it offers promising players – black and white. On the whole, it appears that, in fact, promising black players probably have the most to lose.

The constant complaining about, and even threats regarding arbitrary racial quotas for particularly the Springbok team, has created a situation where a company aiming to capture the full spectrum of the South African marketplace cannot afford to be associated with the team.

As recently as 4 November this year Minister Mbalula said he gives SA Rugby Union five years to “get its house in order”. According to him by that time at least 50% of the players in the national team must be black. If this demand is not met “the ministry would be able to take action against the SA Rugby Union”.

Is this realistic?

In an article last week under the heading “Racial and other myths of the new South Africa” Sara Gon of the Institute of Race relations wrote: “No country in the world is likely to achieve racial, cultural or other representivity unless extreme social engineering is implemented. And extreme social engineering justifiably brings to mind the tyrannies, not the democracies. Such as our own apartheid regime.”

That was a remark in general of the “myth” that “representivity of the South African population is a necessary requirement for the development of South Africa and all its people.”

About the Springbok team in particular she wrote: “The latest furore has been the inevitable outrage over the composition of the Springbok rugby team. There may or may not be a lack of transformation, but there are other factors that render national demographics illogical and harmful if they are not taken into account. Almost all national cricketers and rugby players will only reach a professional level if they played sport from primary school onwards.

“And not just at any schools but at schools that excel in or specialise in those sports. It may not be equitable and changes may need to be made. But even within the realm of past and present ‘white privilege’, white boys who didn’t or don’t go to one of these schools are not likely to get anywhere near playing professional sport.”

South Africa is also not the only country with an economic/class/culture divide as far as rugby is concerned.

In England, the birthplace of rugby, there was a split in the game as far back as 1895, which resulted in two different versions of rugby (union and league). The split was essentially about social class.

And, largely until very recently, rugby union in many parts of England was associated with fee-paying independent schools such as Stonyhurst College or Sedbergh School that have historically provided many of the national players. It is also commonly played at grammar schools, but comprehensive schools in much of the country tended not to play the game, although that has finally started changing.

What should happen?

It is clear that a top-down approach driven by simplistic quotas will not do the trick, as it is not doing the trick for Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment – as former ANC treasurer general Mathews Phosa said last week.

“The simple fact is, whether we are white or black, there is a dire need for broader participation in the wealth of this country in a way different from the current model,” Phosa said.

And the era of professional sport and the sponsorships that go with it, have created a wonderful opportunity to develop such an alternative model. Some of that money and some state resources should go towards developing and further supporting talented budding sportsmen or women, whatever their backgrounds.

I can personally identify with the situation sketched by Gon in her article. I went to university in the mid-1960s from an economically struggling blue-collar family, and worked holidays to add to the small study bursary I had to be able pay for my studies.

It was in the days before sport bursaries and two weeks after I first achieved provincial colours in athletics in my first year of studies, I withdrew from all serious sport. I could just not afford the time away from my books that a ‘sport career’ called for.

I still sometimes regret that I was not born in the era of professional sport and think of what could have been if it had been the case. But then, if I was young today, Minister Mbalula’s policies might have kept me out of some sport teams too because I happen to be white.

The challenge is to use all the available resources to ensure that everyone, irrespective of race, class or socio-economic background gets an equal opportunity to develop to his or her potential in terms of individual life choices

by Piet Coetzer

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