Sport Watch Opinion

Minister Fikile Mbalula – time to do his real job

Wrecking ball champion: Fikile Mbalula

Playing simple paint by numbers, Sport Minister Fikile Mbalula is missing the complexities of sport and fast becoming the wrecking ball champion of the world.

The obsession with racial quotas in especially national sport teams, once again demonstrated by punitive measures against high-profile sport federations announced in parliament by Minister Mbalula, is turning his department into a destructive force in sport. It is also likely to do some substantial economic and social damage.

The minister and his department’s real job, that of promoting sport development for the population as a whole, seems have been forgotten.

The oversimplified numbers game is seriously out of touch with the complexities of sport, which has become much more than just a recreational and social activity. Sport is steeped in tradition, has both developmental and cultural elements to it and at both national and international level has become an important economic sector and career provider – in short it has become big business with all the disciplines and challenges that come with that.

Supply line

For one, any big business with international success ambitions, is doomed to failure if its supply lines are lacking. For sport the implication is that it would fail at international level if its own supply line, which starts at school level does not function properly.

If government wants to enforce representative quotas based on racial demographics in the country, it should set joint quotas for itself and sport federations for sport participation at school level.

The first responsibility, however, rests on the shoulders of government – ensuring that the basic sport facilities are available to schools. To make it affordable over the shorter term, it could possibly include shared facilities between various schools on a sub-district basis.

When discussing the racial composition of, for instance, the national rugby or cricket team, it is an oversimplified, misguided and misleading yardstick to compare it with the total population demographics of the country. The yardstick should be the demographics of all rugby and cricket players in the country – if not, you might be inflicting a gross injustice on the majority of actual players.

Exact figures are not easy to come by, but a quote from a report in September last year in The Economist, hints at the reality on the ground:


"Not many black children play rugby in South Africa. Even in the pockets where it is popular, precious few black children get anything like the facilities and coaching available at white schools. Oregan Hoskins, the president of the South African Rugby Union, reckons that in the country’s second most populous province, KwaZulu-Natal, only 3% of African schoolboys play the game. Nationally, Mr Hoskins points out, “Only about 10% of schoolboys ever see a rugby ball at primary school … it is from that tiny subset of potential players that Springboks emerge.”

Tradition and history

In this situation described in the report quoted above, history and tradition also play an important role, impacting on the selection of national teams.

And that history tells us that race per se is not necessarily the determining factor, as is clear from what has happened in cricket in colonial and apartheid South Africa pre-1994.

South Africa played its first international cricket test match in 1888. In the following 106 years up to 1994 some 256 players represented the country in test matches. Of them a measly nine were Afrikaans speaking.

Kepler Wessels, who during the days of sport isolation plied his trade in Australia, in 1993 at re-admittance into world cricket, became the first Afrikaans speaking test captain.

Does this mean that there was discrimination against Afrikaners in cricket during the days of colonialism and apartheid? Methinks not.

The answer lies elsewhere and part of it is to take notice of the fact that Wessels himself came from one of the few prestigious private schools open to Afrikaans kids, Grey College in Bloemfontein.

The Afrikaans primary school I attended in the 1950s did not even have a cricket pitch. The closest we got to the sport was by listening to commentary on the radio, for which pioneer Afrikaans cricket commentators like Dana Niehaus were still creating Afrikaans cricket terms.

The fact is that, to a large extent even to this day, there is – unlike at most English schools – not a strong cricket-playing tradition at most Afrikaans schools. Additionally, a much higher percentage of English kids attend private schools with their superior facilities and quality coaching.

It is then also interesting to note that, almost without fail, the present crop of black players in national cricket and rugby teams are products of either private schools or former Model C schools – including the present international sensation and national hero on the seven-a side-rugby circuit, Seabelo Mohanoe Senatla, who attended Riebeeckstad High School in Welkom, Free State.

Impact of economics

Minister Mbalula’s announcement in parliament that at least for the next 12 months rugby and cricket will not be allowed to bid for the hosting of international events, means that South Africa having been the favourite, can kiss its chances to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup goodbye.

Quite apart from the fact that the country as a whole, having all the infrastructure in place, could have make a nice profit out of the event, and besides the knock-on effects on small and informal businesses trading around stadiums and lost job opportunities, it comes at a bad time for rugby as a business.

While it has just lost major sponsors – mainly due to economic reasons but with the constant racial controversy created around team selection – Rugby SA is in dire need of an injection. For one, through gate takings at the games to be played throughout the country.

Such an injection could go a long way towards boosting and financing development at grassroots level. It is also sure to deliver more Senatlas as role models to inspire black kids to take up rugby as a sport.

The extent to which the economy and the internationalisation of sport as a career option have already impacted on South African rugby, had former national coach Nick Mallet on national TV pose the question of whether the country can still afford six teams in the Super Rugby competition. The main problem he identified was the number of top South African players playing abroad.

Hardly any country’s national team nowadays takes the field without at least one ex-South African player in the squad.

But it is not just in national teams across the world that South African players shine. In the recent European Challenge Final between Montpellier and Harlequins, no fewer than seven South African players took to the field when the game started.


Transforming South African sport at national level and turning the country’s sporting teams into truly internationally competitive units all South Africans can and will be proud of, call for a much more sophisticated strategy than mere quotas at national level.

About the one sporting code he found worthy of praise in parliament, the national football team (Bafana Bafana) Minister Mbalula not to long ago even said they were a “bunch of losers”, not worthy of a handshake from him.

By, instead of doing his primary job, constantly pulling sport into a free-for-all political mud-wrestling contest, our Minister of Sport is fast becoming a champion wrecking ball.


by Steve Whiteman

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