Willemse vs Mallett is but a symptom – we must open rugby to millions

By Max Benson and Murray Ingram 22 May 2018

South African winger Ashwin Willemse (C) tries to run through the tackles of New Zealands prop, Greg Somerville (R) and lock, Ali Williams in the Tri-Nations rugby test match at the Securicor Loftus Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 19 July 2003. EPA PHOTO/EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

Beyond the walkout that played out on live TV over the weekend, it’s time for some introspection about South African rugby’s institutional framework that’s largely set up for athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds to fail.

Full disclosure: the authors are a pair of privileged white men. Our work over the last four years developing young rugby players from disadvantaged communities has taken us to the heart of our athletes’ lived experiences.

The Ashwin Willemse furore is an extension of the circumstances and perceptions that people of colour are forced to contend with daily in South African rugby. His live TV walk-off on Saturday night triggered a debate that focuses on the personality and lines long-since drawn, rather than one which confronts the uncomfortable truths of the game in this country in 2018.

These words aren’t an addition to the back-and-forth over the validity of his argument, the way in which he chose to make it, or his merits as a player or pundit. Willemse’s actions and the noise afterwards serve as a window into a fundamental point that affects the Connect Sports Academy athletes – and many more besides – every single day.

Context and background are critical if we are to examine why the rugby system and the discourse around it is not remotely open to most of South African society.

The domination of old schools and old boys is inescapable. It’s a narrow cultural band and, if you’re not part of it, fitting in can be an uncomfortable and unwanted experience. For our young athletes to come up against an ownership of South African rugby, real or perceived, is tough on them, not to mention downright confusing. Ongoing spatial apartheid in Cape Town and the challenges it causes in terms of access to resources and opportunities, however, leaves little short-term alternative with scant resources.

It’s not “if you can’t beat them, join them”, more “if you don’t join them, you’ll never have a realistic pathway towards competing at the highest level”. True privilege is to use that platform to effect positive change, to create a ceiling as high for others as for ourselves and to remove as many obstacles to progress as practically possible.

That’s not to say support isn’t forthcoming, in word and deed, from several individuals within established school and rugby circles. But relying on good people is precisely the problem. The institutions and those that govern them must evolve and adapt to the future, not cling to the past in the name of pride or tradition, hoping for individuals to dress their windows.

The fragility of Connect Sports Academy is a case in point – because it is in exactly the same boat. The recent national bus strike left us indebted to the generosity of two (privileged, it’s okay to admit it) men and their families. Without this ad hoc practical assistance with accomodation and transport, several athletes would have missed weeks of school and not made training or provincial trials (to which they are serially not invited, because they haven’t come from “traditional” schools – but that’s another column.)

Ours is an academy working with disadvantaged, vulnerable young people. It is also committed to promoting high performance, hand-in-hand with transformation. But to do this we’ve had to adapt fundamentally to the existing system. What was once a utopian dream of creating an academy in a disadvantaged community became a reality of extracting young people from that environment in the hope of giving them the best possible chance of success. Is this the perfect solution? The petrol bills, working hours and multiple mistakes along the way would scream a resounding “no”, for a start.

But would the athletes have had the successes, new experiences and life chances with the first method? Besides, how arrogant as to wade in to somewhere like the Cape Flats, with a bundle of City Bowl-dwelling blind spots, believing it possible or even appropriate to “fix” something so complex, so ingrained. And that’s just the rugby.

Connect Sports Academy is funded through donations and sponsorship which has thrown up an interesting, recurring theme since making the commitment to strive for high performance. This is wholly unscientific as a survey but several independent pieces of feedback have recently questioned the exclusivity of the academy, that the supposedly weak would be excluded.

So, are we really saying that the ultimate goal for poverty-stricken kids should be simply joining in occasionally, staying off the street and not being a gangster? Five national rugby champions from Connect would disagree. Apart from their dedication and willingness to learn, they were given access to (and have taken) an opportunity, free of bias and baggage.

From grassroots up to the Springboks, the common call from traditionalists is for merit-based selection. Rugby as a level playing field for all to shine no matter the background. What, then, constitutes merit? Take Willemse, take Breyton Paulse. They are statistical anomalies. It’s difficult to put forward a credible argument that they and several other players of colour didn’t deserve to succeed, but they couldn’t have done so without opportunity.

To imply the involvement of luck should neither demean nor define these achievements, rather it should highlight the yawning counterfactual hole where hundreds of black and coloured professional rugby players should be.

The system is designed for them to fail, or at least not give them a fighting chance to succeed. It’s not the bloke making derogatory comments from the stands on a weekend that’s the main problem, as grim as those incidents are. It’s the institutional framework – and those content to remain custodians of it – that denies opportunities at every hurdle.

It’s the people who can’t learn the names of our athletes, let alone tell them apart. It’s the club officials who presume injured players, by default, have access to medical aid and parental support. It’s the governing bodies that expect children, who overcome every hurdle to qualify for representative rugby, to then be able to miss several hours of school to attend weeks of trials and training.

What is dressed as a culture of tradition actually smacks of acute conservatism. It’s not even overtly racist in that regard. But it is insular, fundamentally afraid of change and make no mistake: this was a crisis brewing long before any serious efforts at transformation were spoken about, let alone attempted.

When a player of colour makes it through that lot and succeeds on the big stage it must be celebrated, not sneered at. More productive still would be to ask why and how they made it. Try to understand it, learn our own lessons from it.

Want to see a merit-based selection? See an athlete who has grown up malnourished, permanently unsafe and with basic access to a creaking education system. See an athlete who is overcoming not one but two language barriers in an alien environment where unconscious bias and preconceptions are rife. See an athlete who has a personality, a story and no little skill or temerity.

For as long as it takes to truly open the game up to the majority there will be ill-informed rows on social media, ill-advised statements from government ministers and ill-thought-out methods used clumsily from on high to achieve transformation. But don’t be distracted by personalities, it’s about so much more than that. DM


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