Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 22 May 2014

When transformation meets truth

Anyone who listened to Haroon Lorgat's obfuscations following Cricket SA's failure to re-employ Ray Jennings (days after he had brought South Africa's its first ever international cricket trophy) will have had the feeling that he'd battle to make a living as a used car salesman. In fact, any job where a straight-up-and-down approach to communication is considered a useful attribute should – in theory – be well beyond his grasp.

I used to think that he was the victim in the prolonged fight with the Indian Cricket board (a fight which has left South Africa marginalised in the international cricket scene) and the decision by the Indian judiciary to unseat Board of Cricket Control of India chief Narayanaswami Srinivasan appeared to confirm this impression. Now I’m not so sure: maybe cricket administrators generally (Gerald Majola being another who comes to mind) are the kind of people who don’t believe that the shortest distance between two points is necessarily a straight line.

When you are as inept as Mr Lorgat at concealing things, your responses to an interviewer like John Robbie emerge with a dense coating of algae and grease, and all the polishing in the world simply increases the distribution of the smear. Or as the father of Bernadette Devlin (once the UK’s youngest MP) said, “if you put your foot into shit, it spreads.”

The trouble is that there is almost no one left in public life in this country who sees anything wrong with being caught lying. When our Dear Leader exercises his teflon-coated charms and escapes unscathed from more scandals than Silvio Berlusconi, why should anyone else care about what’s on the mind of the thinking public. Since the real information that Lorgat the Eel was at pains to withhold related to quotas in cricket, he can count the interview a triumph: at no stage was the dreaded Q word mentioned.

We all know that the teams are not chosen on solely merit; we guessed when Gary Kirsten was succeeded by Domingo as the national coach talent that track record wasn’t the primary criterion in the selection process. (It would not, for example, be unusual for the world’s number one cricketing side to seek beyond a not-particularly-successful provincial franchise to fill the slot of the test side coach.)

We have observed some of the decisions around the various national sides (Test, ODI and T20) with incredulity deadened by years of attrition. As long as things were going well, race-based decision-making seemed a small price to pay. However, like all of the creaking infrastructure which was managed for the first decade of rule by ANC-deployed cadres but has since started to fall apart spectacularly, it has suddenly become clear that the talent has checked out. Twenty years of democracy has not produced a generation of genuinely skilled and talented sportsmen representative of all race groups.

Despite Fikile Mbalula’s rantings at the national soccer side, it has not become a force in world football. How could it: tantrum-prone sports’ ministers are not miraculously going to change the pool of talent in a sport where skills not learnt by the age of ten can never be retro-fitted. So the more important question to ask is, “What has been done to groom youngsters for the possibility of real international football?” When, as you might expect, the answer is “very little” the next question is “why not?” (rather than the more tempting “what happened to all the FIFA money that was supposed to go into development programmes?”)

I fear that the answer is that our politicians/sports administrators and their spin-doctors are so used to the idea that they can create any version of reality that suits them that they’ve forgotten that international sport functions with a less negotiable version of the truth (notwithstanding the match-fixing scandal which has emerged in the aftermath of South Africa’s 2010 qualifying performance.) The outcome of matches between countries – whether cricket, soccer, rugby or hockey – is not dependent on whoever has best tugged at the heartstrings of a gullible electorate. The players actually have to get it right.

What further compounds things is the Stalinist view of the ANC in power, an approach which believes that merely instructing an outcome will make it come to pass. Some incompetent official, who has never had to earn a living in the real world, simply says that the composition of a company’s senior management must reflect the racial profile of South Africa and, abracadabra, (so it is believed) the objective will be achieved without any loss in efficiency, aptitude or productivity. If no one has actually delivered an education system that makes the application of these quotas possible, failure will be inevitable, and the responsibility will lie with the nameless bureaucrat, and the party whose views he is implementing, not the organisation which has been bankrupted by government fiat.

The common factor in all these failures is the doctrinaire application of quotas without a commensurate investment in developing the skills which would effectively render them irrelevant. We all know that race-based criteria have compromised a civil service already hamstrung by cadre deployment. No one talks about how the system has deprived us of the potential talents of a generation of players who come from what used to be called “previously disadvantaged groups” but are clearly still currently disadvantaged. In the same conspiracy of silence no mention is made of the frustrated (white) cricketers who retire early or simply leave the country.

I would be the first to acknowledge that this kind of transformation is not easy. From 1994 and over several years, I set up and managed a number of bursary funds aimed at creating a pool of competent black participants in the production side of the wine industry. Our efforts were hampered by poor levels of secondary schooling, and undermined by the relatively unattractive salary scales in the industry: if your maths was good enough to get you into the Stellenbosch BSc Oenology and Viticulture degree, chances were you would rather be studying for a more lucrative profession. Still, after about 10 years, we had some graduates – a few of whom discovered that wineries weren’t queuing up to employ them (Stellekaya was a notable exception).

In fact, the industry was remarkably unforthcoming. I talked to graduates from these programmes and found that some had given up on the idea of getting a winemaking job. One worked for Wines of South Africa – in other words, she found work in the industry, but was hardly using the skills she had acquired and developed at university. I also discovered that one of the more successful graduates (not from one of my bursary programmes) had never intended making wine. “Do these look like the hands of a winemaker?” she asked me disarmingly when I questioned why she hadn’t managed to find an appropriate job. She had been happy to have her studies paid for and was sure that simply being a BSc graduate would enhance her employment prospects. Given that this was at a time when someone “of colour” with an MSc in plant science and an international wine business MBA could not get a job in a largely untransformed wine industry, it is easy to see how a programme which had focused on change from the grass roots up was foundering without buy-in from the industry as a whole.

The Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Protege Programme has gone some of the way to bridge this gap. Its beneficiaries get to work in several of the Guild members’ wineries and are able to prove themselves in an environment which is altogether more transformational than the industry into which the first round of Stellenbosch graduates were thrust some ten or twelve years ago.

All this has taken the better part of the first twenty years of our young democracy. It has been achieved because people and organisations have invested funds,  transformed their own consciousness, dedicated themselves to mentoring, and approached the need for change in a target-oriented way. It has been done despite government (which remains strangely invisible when it comes to the wine industry, except in matters of taxation). It has certainly not been driven by arbitrary quotas, tokenism, dirigisme – the rantings and ravings of politicians in pursuit of profile. Without the basic programmes and the funding (of which there would be no shortage if the administrators never rewarded themselves so generously) there is a limit to what committed individuals wishing to transform cricket, (or rugby or soccer) are able to achieve. Presented with the evidence of their abject failure to improve the prospects of young, impoverished sportsmen, the government simply increases its already counter-productive demands, providing the perfect smokescreen behind which the likes of Haroon Lorgat can pursue their own dubious agendas safe from the light of public scrutiny. It is not a recipe for success. DM


"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine