South Africa has excelled at white males' favourite summer and winter sporting codes – cricket and rugby – at international level since returning from isolation. In a macabre way, the relative success of these national teams has been a hindrance to the development of both sports on the transformation front, as each trophy gave administrators ammunition to keep the transformation wolves from the gold-plated door.
Ahead of the sporting event held in highest regard by our kind, those pesky politicians are nosing around our beloved Springboks, brandishing that transformation word again. It’s got our Facebook knickers all in a twist, so it’s time we had a chat about our reactions. And talked frankly.
Quotas in sport and transformation have been a thorny issue when it comes to our national sports teams. By “our national sports teams” I mean the favourite summer and winter sporting codes of the lesser-spotted white South African male, namely rugby and cricket. And it’s no surprise that these are the two sporting codes in which South Africa has excelled at international level, since returning from isolation. In a macabre way, the relative success of these national teams has been a hindrance to the development of both sports on the transformation front, as each trophy gave administrators ammunition to keep the transformation wolves from the gold-plated door.
So when politicians start raising the spectre of quotas in our national teams, it fuels our Facebook fury, Twitter tantrums and irate calls to talk radio stations after morning tea. Questionable (black) squad members are immediately branded token selections in order to meet politically enforced quotas. Comparisons to the laughing stock that is our national football team are made and the inevitable reverse racism card is played. And this, fellow white sports fan, is where we need to talk frankly.
Let’s start with the argument of political interference of team selections. In isolation, this is an admirable principle to have when selecting teams, but let’s not forget the reason we’re in this mess in the first place is because our early European politicians did just that by passing laws that racially precluded parts of the population from playing alongside each other. Not to mention the small matter of the political interference a certain man ran so that we could continue using the Springbok, an emblem that ranked just behind the old South African flag as symbol of apartheid.
Another reason we shouldn’t be surprised politicians feel the need to get involved, is that the South African Rugby Union (Saru) leadership has covered itself in excrement more than it has in glory. This is an organisation that has had it’s share of financial scandals, welcomed back with open arms Andre Markgraaff (he with the potty mouth) and now counts Rudolph Straeuli (he with the potty Kamp Staaldraad brain) as a CEO of one of its largest franchises. Did we really expect that an organisation with this kind of track record was going to pursue interests for the public good without a little nudging?
Poor Bafana Bafana. They are so embarrassingly bad at the moment, the only chance we have of seeing them in a World Cup final again is if we get to host it again. And yet we still manage to rope them into this debate. The current team is sorely lacking in a certain pale pigment, and we’re quick to edit transformation-theme memes to suit our arguments. But in reality, Bafana Bafana have fielded more white players than the Springboks and Proteas have fielded black African players since readmission. Combined.
And of course our rugby and cricket team outperform their football cousins. In order to breed excellence at the highest level of sport, you need institutions to be readying and priming young talent for entry into the professional circuit. And in cricket and rugby, the schools that were set up and maintained by colonial and apartheid masters ensured they would become institutions subsidised by a corrupt government that enabled us to play on manicured fields while others fought for liberty in dusty townships, with gravel for grass and bare feet for boots.
And were Bafana-Bafana to field 11 white players, it is the opinion of this writer that the fans and administrators wouldn’t complain (or not nearly as much if the Boks suddenly became all black) because the system and league don’t repel or discriminate against anyone of a certain colour. And that is why rugby and cricket need to transform. When white sports fans hear ‘transformation’ or ‘quotas’ we generally believe this to mean adding more black faces to the squad, thereby diluting the depth or quality of the team, and expect them to underperform like the national football side. But transformation is actually about making a previously privileged pastime more accessible to those who have been denied purely because of the colour of their skin.
Oregan Hoskins, in his open letter to the sporting public, attempted to paint a thick red coat of lipstick on a decidedly ugly pig. For all the talk about kids who have never seen a rugby ball before and how Saru has invested in transformation over the years, the fact remains that the sport does very little to accommodate the hordes of black talent that goes begging each year. It’s for this very reason, why some South African sports fans of colour chose to wear the All Black jersey in apartheid days and continue to do so now.
This year the pinnacle of schoolboy rugby in South Africa, the final of Craven Week, was contested by Western Province and Eastern Province, where more than half the players were of colour. And yet if Saru’s record is anything to go by, few if any of those players will don a professional rugby jersey. Something is amiss when so much schoolboy talent is allowed to slip back into anonymity and the opportunity to increase the talent pool tenfold is knocked-on. Everything about the professional set-up of the sport seems to be constructed so that a black player must still fight the odds to succeed. Without role models and enough role models to spur on ambitious youngsters, black players will not feel compelled to pursue their dreams.
We need to cleanse our belief that transformation is a cancer, when in fact it’s the chemotherapy we need to treat the cancer of apartheid and colonial sporting segregation. We have the black talent but the system is still rigged and protected by the old guard. Come Friday, I certainly won’t be pulling the All Black jersey over my head, but man it’s getting harder to wear the green and gold. DM
With a high-school prize for best supporting actor in a one-act play and as captain of the chess team, Charalambous qualified to join the esteemed ranks of the Daily Maverick opinionistas. He now resides in Cape Town, working in media and irritating the old guard of the South African rugby with some liberal thinking.
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