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Fikile Mbalula is completely disconnected from the transformation discourse


Antoinette thinks of the world and the people who live in it as a bear with a sore paw. She has a stick covered in thorns and shes poking the bear. When shes not doing that, shes watching cricket and longing for the days of the boring, boring Arsenal.

While Sport and Recreation Minister, Fikile Mbalula, did make some vaguely decent points during his address regarding transformation in South African rugby, he continues to gloss over the issues at grassroots, and does not offer any tangible plan for how to achieve the targets the department has set for South Africa’s national sports teams.

No Fikile Mbalula press conference goes by without choking on your own saliva, and nearly knocking yourself out with so much eye-rolling. Last week’s “briefing” on transformation in rugby was no different. While the minister made some valid points (yes, really), overall, Mbalula showed once again just how completely disconnected he is from the transformation discourse, and that his bark is far worse than his bite.

Most of the briefing saw the minister pussyfooting around various issues. While saying that rugby is not transformed enough, he failed to directly address a number of issues relating to the playing time of black and coloured players. There was no mention of Rudy Paige’s insulting 180 seconds on the field in the bronze-place play off, or the fact that Siya Kolisi did not even make the bench. Although Mbalula did allude to “players who went to the World Cup, and did not play” he failed to mention anyone by name, and soon reverted back to a comical approach with half-wit lines about he “does not need a scientific person to come from the Americas, or from heaven to tell me that people do not like transformation.”

Mbalula also acknowledged that players who are selected “should be there on merit” – a confusing point for somebody so keen to harp on about quotas. But failing to directly address the issue of the national team, is not what is most concerning about the Department’s approach to transformation.

It took until the question and answer session, a good 20 minutes in, for Mbalula to even begin to address the challenges faced at grassroots level. But, even here, he passed the buck like it was a Sonny Bill Williams offload.

The majority of schools play soccer, not rugby – that needs to be addressed. If we want to address the demographics simply by selecting players to meet a target we will not change anything. We need to work organically on the most talented players.

Sport must be played at every corner in this country, in every school. The majority of black rugby players have not gone through the organic, grassroots level of rugby at disadvantaged schools. They come from the top 40 rugby schools in the country,” Mbalula said.

That is a fair point, and the reasons are mostly obvious. Echoes of apartheid mean that the facilities in underprivileged schools are severely lacking. Almost 20% of schools in South Africa lack any sporting facilities. This has been acknowledged by the department before and last year, the Transformation Status Report 2013, from the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on Transformation in Sport  was released.

The report said that rugby had over 1,300 “primary schools in jurisdiction participating”, while cricket had just over 1,500. Playing facilities available to those schools are badly lacking. Rugby had just 813 while cricket has 905.

That means the average number of facilities per school for rugby, football, and cricket, is less than one, restricting the number of teams and league competitions that can be accommodated, and is counterproductive to any footprint and participation increase exercises.

Football is played by almost double the amount of schools, compared to rugby, in high schools, but the lack of funding to develop this infrastructure is alarming.

In Parliament, last Wednesday, the Economic Freedom Fighters said the department has only set aside 0.8% of its budget for sports infrastructure development. The actual figure is a touch over 1%, but that hardly makes it any better. Mbalula cannot continue to pay lip service to schools needing to transform, if his very own department is not providing the infrastructure for schools to do so.

He also completely ignores the issues of nutrition – a key point in growing rugby players – and a great concern for young black players who come from under-privileged areas. Many of South Africa’s rugby coaches, rightly or wrongly, believe bigger is better, which immediately puts some players on the back foot. A study performed at the national Under/18 week (Craven Week) in 2002, showed that the body mass of players of colour was, on average, 8kg less than the white players.

That study also showed that most white players had access to training facilities that enabled them to improve their strength, in contrast to many players of colour who did not have access to weight training equipment. In response, SARU introduced “high-performance” workshops at Craven Week, to educate players on the importance of strength and conditioning, but that does not solve the nutrition dilemma. Many rugby players from disadvantaged backgrounds simply cannot afford the food needed to bulk up. The Union also stepped in to provide Mobile Team Training System (MTTS) to offer strength training equipment, and in 2012 was awarded the “IRB Development Award” for its approach to player development.

These are the issues Mbalula’s department continuously glosses over when the issue of transformation is addressed, but there is another issue which is often ignored. For years now, the department has acknowledged the importance of getting kids active, especially after school. In order to implement this, the department uses a “mass participation programme (MOD)” which includes indigenous games such Morabaraba, Ncuva, Dibeke, Kgati, Jukskei, Khokho, Diketo and Iintonga

There is no professional career in indigenous games, and other than the annual National Indigenous Games Festival, these games seem to largely exist to tick boxes. It also creates the additional problem of siphoning resources (coaches), and distracting players who might prefer to take on rugby or other sports, from which they can eventually earn a living.

There are also reports of several indigenous games coaches who deliberately move practice of these games to interfere with practice times of players who have found a rugby club elsewhere, if the sport is not offered at their school.

The cost of running these programmes is another concern. It uses valuable budget that could be put towards developing infrastructure and coaching sports that the department continuously insist they want transformed .The indigenous games festival alone costs R10 million. Shockingly, that budget isn’t even used for provinces to cover their transport to the festival. The teams competing have to pay to get there themselves. The bulk of this budget is spent on pompous opening and closing ceremonies.

The Democratic Alliance’s Shadow Minister of Sport, Solly Malatsi, has raised a Parliamentary query about a budget breakdown for these indigenous games, but has not yet received a reply. He was simply told “the department is small, and needs more time.”

This is something that is rarely, if ever, mentioned when transformation is discussed. It is easy to harp on about the need to transform from grassroots up, but until Mbalula sets out a clear plan on how the department plans to do that, and what is going to be done to address the puny budget given to infrastructure and schools development, the disconnect form the discourse will continue. DM


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