Rugby was once seen as the ultimate “white sport” in South Africa. Now, after years of concerted effort, it is deracialising, with a target to be transformed by 2019. Mushtak Parker reports on the progress and the challenges.
Rugby might be South Africa’s most iconic sport, but it is certainly its most controversial. During apartheid, the sport was seen as a symbol of White Afrikaner supremacy.
Since the fall of apartheid in 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has worked to transform South Africa’s formerly all-white sports to be more racially representative. South Africa’s first democratic president, Nelson Mandela, saw the previously all-white sports as central to national reconciliation, as well as noting a forgotten history of non-white rugby players stretching back to the 1860s. He resisted suggestions to remove the Springbok emblem from South Africa’s rugby jerseys. Instead, it was moved from the prominent left side to the right side with the national flower, the Protea being added on the left.
In one of the sport’s most famous moments, Mandela donned the famous Springboks jersey when he presented the 1995 Rugby World Cup trophy to the South African captain, François Pienaar. South Africa was hosting the competition just one year after the start of the democratic era and just three years since re-admission into the sport following the release of Mandela and legalisation of the ANC.
The current policy to racially transform the sport, outlined in the South African Rugby Union’s (SARU) Strategic Transformation Plan (STP) last month, is to have 50 per cent non-white players in the national team, known as the Springboks or Amabokoboko in Xhosa, by 2019. Once any team is at least 50 per cent “generic black” – meaning anyone classified as non-white under the old apartheid criteria, whether black African, coloured (mixed race) or Indian – and at least half of that proportion is black African, the Department of Sport and Recreation consider the side “transformed”.
Jurie Roux, SARU’s CEO, explained the policy to New African. He said that the transformation process “had begun to stall and even decline” after initial progress. So, he continued, “We needed to intervene”.
Despite Roux’s fears about backsliding on transformation, rugby in South Africa has already ceased to be a “white man’s game”. The majority of rugby supporters and players at junior level are black. But still more is to be done to de-racialise rugby.
The STP doesn’t just focus on representation on the pitch and at the highest level. The Plan seeks to transform access, coaching and management too. Roux says that SARU regards all areas as equally important but “knows[s] that in the court of public opinion there is only one metric that will be scrutinised and that is black representation among players and coaches – especially at Springbok level.”
Rugby in South Africa is undergoing the same process of hyper-commercialisation seen the world over. Some worry that this process might make it unaffordable to most black South Africans.
Roux disagrees. He maintains “without commercialisation there would be no rugby of any standard in South Africa for anyone to aspire playing in.”
Indeed, Roux sees the commercial aspect as helping to push racial transformation in the sport. “We want to be a good corporate citizen, complying not only with legislation but also with the process of developing our country. We also realise that our sport will be at critical risk if we don’t address the fact. The other side of the coin is that the STP has the potential to unlock untapped talent and the potential to awaken corporate interest in rugby where it may previously not have existed,” explains Roux.
For instance, according to SARU, in four of South Africa’s nine provinces only 1 in 35 schools play rugby – many of them don’t play any organised sport at all. If that profile were changed, acknowledges Roux, “we’d have a very different rugby and sport-playing landscape.”
Rugby, he maintains, is no different to any other sport or entertainment in terms of access. A recent BMI study reported that rugby had 9 million followers in South Africa, but each season there are only 240,000 international match tickets available. “Even if they were free, it would mean less than 3 per cent of our fans would be able to attend a test match. Does that stop them wanting to follow the sport? To me it’s little different to fans of Beyoncé or One Direction,” argues Roux.
While challenges clearly remain and transformation is incomplete, Roux says “in some places we’re almost ‘there’ ”. He points to Western Province, who are the reigning Absa Currie Cup champions. Forty per cent of the team, the coach and the captain are all non-white. Roux says the team is “well on course to achieve our goals for 2019 well ahead of schedule”. The real challenge lies in other parts of the country where the black player base at school level is shallower.
SARU is not coy about its transformation achievements since the end of apartheid. The number of black Springboks has increased from 2 to 55; SARU has had a black president for the past 17 years; its executive committee is 75 per cent black; “the Player of the Year Award” has been won by black players seven times; all the South African national teams have had a black coach; the record Springbok try scorer is black; between a fifth and third of all Springbok teams have become black; half of the Sevens squad, more than a third of Junior Springboks and three-quarters of the Springbok Women’s squad are black.
Roux is not concerned that white players won’t make it into the national side with such a focus on transformation. “The best white players will continue to emerge and be selected for the Springboks. But what was most detrimental to our sport was the perception of the black parent that rugby was not a sport for their child and that he would not be given an opportunity,” he explains.
Roux hopes that the STP will help right this perception and SARU, the first national sports federation to publish such a plan, could serve as a model for other sports. Rugby’s “mindset has changed – the sport has embraced transformation and made it part of its DNA,” he asserts.