Government’s failure to accomplish basics, like updating the anti-doping code, may be shocking but it’s not surprising
With the self-evident cultural, political and commercial power of sport in our society, it is no surprise that some in the government would want to control this. It is also not surprising that the government has shown itself, again, to be so incompetent as to risk preventing our sporting teams from helping our society overcome its divisions. Another sign of our difficult times is that the government cannot update even the most uncontroversial legislation aimed at stopping drug use in sports.
There can be no doubt of the perceived power of sport in our society. It is one of the few areas where people from our divided communities demonstrate regularly how easy and achievable it is to work together.
This is one of the reasons why so many big brands, desperate to find something that appeals to people across our society, rush to support our sporting teams. The current Springbok Rugby World Cup campaign has seen one big banking group and one supermarket chain spending a fortune to have their names and colours become almost synonymous with the national team’s identity.
The commercial value of this was demonstrated again when a sausage brand tried to associate itself with the name of the team — and the SA Rugby Union went to court to stop them from doing this.
South African politicians have known since forever how useful sport can be.
During apartheid, white (and male) politicians sometimes competed to demonstrate their racism to their white constituencies, by saying they would not allow black people, or Maori people, or in one case, Basil D’Oliveira, who was born in South Africa, to play against the all-white “South African” team.
The polar opposite of this was Nelson Mandela’s use of the Springbok rugby team in 1995 to bring the country together. Still to this day, so many South Africans talk about how important a moment that was. Even Clint Eastwood took notice of a book by John Carlin and directed the movie Invictus with a magisterial performance by Morgan Freeman and a not-so-bad accent by Matt Damon.
Politicians always want to associate themselves with success, no matter where it comes from.
In 2007, the ANC government criticised the make-up of the Springbok squad for being too white (almost all of the members of that squad were white — thankfully, much has changed since then).
But, when they got to the final, the then President, Thabo Mbeki, went to Paris and ended up on the shoulders of the victorious team. He went even further by asking every member of the Cabinet to wear a Springbok jersey to their next meeting.
The idea that a successful South African team is good for the entire country is almost universally held by South Africans. There is only one recent instance of a political party criticising a winning national team — and paying a price for it.
Such is the power of a South African team working together, showing that we can beat the best teams in the world, that it should be easy for the government to help by providing some quiet momentum.
Unfortunately, reality doesn’t always rhyme with reason where the SA government is concerned. The most recent example of this is the failure of the government to timeously update legislation that is compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code. As a result, our teams may not be allowed to play under the SA flag and sing the national anthem before a game.
There does not appear to be any good reason that the government has missed this deadline. (Other than incompetence? — Ed)
The legislation in question is surely uncontroversial. Unless someone is going to argue that drugs should be allowed in sports, it would be simple to just update the legislation and let Parliament vote on it. Would anyone in Parliament vote against it? Hardly.
While the government’s spin doctors may now claim that it has to pass Constitutional muster, etc, that is surely just an excuse. This is not complicated stuff for dedicated, and yes, competent people. And the government has had ample warning.
However, it may also be a consequence of how some politicians have treated the sports portfolio in recent times.
When Mandela became President, it was obvious that Steve Tshwete would be a good sports minister. He understood the power of sport, and was happy to embrace Kepler Wessels (who first played cricket in South Africa, then in Australia, then represented Australia, then represented an Australian rebel team in apartheid South Africa, and then captained the national South African side in the 1992 Cricket World Cup) because it was such an important moment.
Ngconde Balfour was also passionate. During Bafana matches he would appear on SABC TV during halftime to give his view.
Fikile Mbalula too had his moments; after all, sport is often about razzmatazz. His term in that office saw a finding against him that he received an undue benefit from a sporting goods supplier. Despite this finding, this most famous non-traveller to Ukraine was elected ANC secretary-general last year.
The roots of the problem
Of late, however, the sports ministry has been used for more narrow political reasons. And this is where the roots of the latest problem lie.
In 2017, when the then President, Jacob Zuma, reshuffled his Cabinet to remove those whom he perceived as enemies ahead of the Nasrec conference that year, he moved Thulas Nxesi to the position of sports minister.
Nxesi had shown no public interest in sport before then. And it is not clear whether he showed much interest while in the position.
This appeared to be about Zuma looking for a way to show his displeasure with the SACP, of which Nxesi is a very senior member. The SACP was actively campaigning against Zuma.
After Ramaphosa became President in 2018, Nathi Mthethwa ended up adding the Department of Sport to his portfolio, which already included Arts and Culture.
So poor was his performance, that there is no evidence of anyone in those sectors mourning his removal from the Cabinet.
Even now, Zizi Kodwa’s appointment as sports minister by Ramaphosa does not follow any apparent track record of interest in the subject by Kodwa.
All of this begins to explain how such a simple thing as updating uncontroversial legislation ended up not being done. Those who were in a key ministerial position were either there as a political punishment, or were more focused on personal agendas.
This dynamic is not confined to the sports ministry, of course. There is much evidence of various ministers doing little to nothing.
Nxesi, even now, in what should be the crucial position of minister of labour and employment, is virtually silent on what is our biggest long-term problem — youth unemployment.
Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe and Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa appear to be unable to agree on a single candidate for the position of Eskom CEO, long after the departure of André de Ruyter.
This is not confined to the ANC. The Al Jama-ah mayor of Joburg, Kabelo Gwamanda, can’t be bothered to attend meetings about the water crisis his city is suffering through.
Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change in the short term. The example of our government and politicians being unable to resolve something as simple as updating laws to prevent the abuse of drugs in sports will become even more symbolic of our broken politics.
This is how states become dysfunctional on the road to failure: one disinterested/incompetent/corrupt politician at a time. DM