Four South African Sporting Codes Have Wings Clipped

In a surprise move, South Africa’s Minister of Sports and Recreation, Mr. Fikile Mbalula, announced that four South African sporting codes had been banned from applying to host any international sporting events.

These sporting codes are rugby, cricket, netball and athletics. This came about after the Eminent Persons Group on Transformation in Sport presented their barometer report on racial transformation, with these sporting codes not meeting the racial representation targets set out for each sporting code. From a rugby perspective, the Southern Kings, Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers have all met the target of 35% black player representation within their Super Rugby squads. The Toyota Cheetahs are in the red zone at 24%, as are the Cell C Sharks at 27%. The Emirates Lions attract the most attention at only 17% black representation in their Super Rugby squad.

From the outset, I have a full understanding of the need for the transformation agenda, both in the sporting arena as well as social development. I do not seek validation when I point out that I have personally been involved in taking sport to severely under privileged and disadvantaged areas. At times, these sporting clinics took a step back as the food drops and soup kitchens became the priority. Having first-hand knowledge of the real difficulties the general populace faces in accessing the proper facilities, coaching and competition structures, I believe I have sufficient knowledge to comment on the subject.

One thing I can complement Mr. Mbalula on is that he has managed to get many people participating in a very necessary debate. Very many people have responded after viewing comments with either their race goggles on or not having a full understanding of why racial targets are in place and why simple merit selection is still not the answer in the South African context. What I cannot agree with is the lack of foresight in how damaging preventing them from vying for international tournaments and tours is to the sporting codes which falls under his ambit, as well as to the national economy and the very transformation principles he is trying to push. I also believe that not enough consideration as to the challenges the various sporting codes face in applying transformation targets. Many of these are socio-economic challenges, which no sporting code will ever have a direct influence over.

Reading through SARU’s Strategic Transformation Plan, it is evident that very aggressive racial representation targets have been set for both International level and domestic levels. The South African rugby franchises have not met the targets which they have agreed to and that is a fact that cannot be overlooked. What is being overlooked is the incredible amount of time, effort and money is being invested into taking the game to previously ignored areas, 147 in 2014 (no data for 2015 has been provided), specifically schools in rural areas which are generally black and severely under-privileged.

It is my personal belief that the way that racial transformation in South African sport is expected to simply happen from the top down, based on racial demographic targets has fatal flaws in it. To meet the set targets, a strong feeder system needs to be in place, which has not been addressed yet. Taking rugby to schools in the form of clinics on an infrequent basis might introduce the game to many school children, but to make it work there needs to be a set competition structure in place so that the children can play the game on a regular, competitive basis. Outside of the usual metropolitan areas, the Department of Education has not provided this structure. In the metropolitan areas, this responsibility is vested in the various school Districts. These structures remain in place and as the racial profile of the schools that fall under these Districts, they will start to produce more and more quality black rugby players, but not at the pace set out on the Strategic Transformation plan.

If the Department of Education has not bought into growing rugby in schools that are traditionally not rugby playing schools, the idea of growing the game in new areas is a lame duck. It has also been reported that when a new school is built, the sporting requirements are pretty simple. One football field and two netball courts. Rugby, as well as other sporting codes such as cricket, has traditionally been played at schools at age group level. Football has generally been played at  school and club level. Has National Government truly thought out the transformation agenda and recognised that they play a crucial role in making it work for the benefit of all citizens?

The sporting codes that have been informed that they will not be allowed to host international sporting events until they correct their performance against the set race targets have until November to do so and we can only hope that decisions will be made that will be in the best interests of the players.

What I have a real issue with is that the decision made by the Minister Mbalula not only punishes the management of these sporting codes, but also players and fans, who do not have a direct influence over these codes’ operational decision making. Black players and fans are being punished just as much as white players and fans. SARU President Oregan Hoskins committed his organization to meeting the targets he agreed to with the Department of Sports and Recreation. I find it beyond believable that there wasn’t any form of internal audit control process that ensured that the local Super Rugby franchises and Provincial Unions complied with the targets set. I’m sorry Mr Hoskins, if you didn’t put this in place, you are directly responsible and should step down.

Aside from punishing the everyday sports fan, there are economic implications for the country. Sports tours to the country are a major source of foreign exchange for South Africa, feeding not only the sporting codes, but also the local tourism industry. Admittedly, the windfall earnings of a major tour or World Cup fill the coffers of a sporting code, but that same cash is also used to fund further development. As income generating institutions, reduced income also equates to lower Company Tax being paid into Government coffers. It remains my belief that sporting codes that do not comply with the targets they agreed to should be fined and their Chief Executive Officers or Presidents be required to step down. Punishing the fans and players should never be the answer.

Two of the socio-economic considerations that can be added to what I have put forward earlier are access to sport and nutrition (stay with me on this one). Top level rugby and cricket is simply not accessible to the bulk of the population in South Africa as it is generally broadcast by SuperSport, a satellite television service that is not cheap in the South African context. The free-to-air, government financed SABC does not have the funding to purchase the broadcast rights to major sporting events or games and their viewers have to live off the scraps of the occasional semi-final game should the South African team reach that stage of a competition. How are current star players or black role models put before the next generation of super stars?

To develop the physique that is required to play a contact sport such as rugby, nutrition plays a vital role, especially in the early years of childhood. There are some lucky individuals who are blessed either by genetics or by circumstance, but in South Africa, quality of nutrition is not evenly spread out across the population. While speaking to various people researching this piece, I was forwarded this article, which does make a strong point in this regard.

Mr. Mbablula has taken specific aim at South African Rugby, which the national Sevens rugby team falls under. I find it curious that he has not taken aim at them and demanded their exclusion from the Rio Olympic Games. The answer to that is pretty simple though. They stand a more than fair chance of winning an Olympic medal, which would make the Honourable Minister beam from ear to ear, despite withdrawing Government support for bidding for the next round of HSBC World Sevens events. That sounds strangely disingenuous to me.

If the truth be told, sport in South Africa has been on a steady decline, specifically under Minister Mbalula. Some of the country’s sports stars have to self-fund their trips to compete in World events. The South African medal count in international and continental championships has also been on the decline. There seems to have been a one-eyed focus on transformation, with very little attention being paid to excellence. I cannot see why the two have to be mutually exclusive.

I trust that the Minister will one day reconsider the way the transformation agenda is being put forward and settles on a plan that includes the various sporting codes, as well as the Department of Education and business in the country.

We have a wonderfully talented population – we need to properly invest in it. When we can return to merit selection we have succeeded, not when we pick the right amount of players of any particular race.

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