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Has SA rugby turned the colour tide?

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Has SA rugby turned the colour tide?

Sport, particularly rugby and cricket, was a pillar of the apartheid regime in South Africa as blacks and coloureds were excluded from participating at the highest level. The appointment of the country’s first black captain of the rugby team was therefore hugely significant. But has the vile system been truly dismantled? Report by Mushtak Parker.

When Nelson Mandela was born on 18 July 1918, the captain of the ‘whites-only’ Springbok rugby team was one Theo Pienaar, who also led the Springboks on their 1921 tour of Australia and New Zealand.

A few years later in 1928, one of the most sordid developments in world sport, let alone colonial history, took place when the mercurial George Nepia, arguably the greatest full-back to have played the game, and two of his fellow Maoris, were excluded from Maurice Brownlie’s New Zealand All Blacks touring team to South Africa, on the grounds that they were not ‘white’. 

South Africa at the time was a British colony and Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid as an institutionalised policy were still in their infancy.  Fast-forward a hundred years and the symbolism of the appointment of the country’s first black rugby captain, Siya Kolisi, in the 127-year history of the Springboks, in the June series against the old colonial masters, England, could not be lost. 

This symbolism was further reinforced by the fact that it happened during the birth centenary of Mandela, Kolisi’s real-life hero. Kolisi’s Springboks triumphed 2-1 in a pulsating three-match test series. This cameo feat alone has advanced sports transformation. Rugby could be the role model for other sectors of South African society, albeit more entrenched and challenging. Mandela must be turning in his grave, perhaps with a mischievous wry smile, thinking aloud, “I told you so.”

For he recognised the potential value of the South African national sport, rugby – erroneously seen by some as a ‘White Man’s game’ – as a weapon of healing, reconciliation, transformation and Rainbow Nation-building. Who can forget the ultimate symbolism when Mandela, resplendent in the famous green and gold jersey, with the number of the team’s captain on it, François Pienaar, a white Afrikaner, embraced Pienaar in a spontaneous gesture of racial reconciliation? Perhaps it is a good omen that Kolisi dons that same No. 6 shirt, but alas, there was no President Cyril Ramaphosa to emulate Madiba’s gesture.

One of the first to congratulate the 26-year-old Kolisi on his historic appointment was Bryan Habana, the world-class wing who became the Springboks’ all-time top try scorer. “Too proud!!! You’ve come a long way, my friend,” tweeted Habana. Kolisi’s ascendancy to the apex of South African rugby is a confirmation of the success of rugby’s transformation, with the caveat it is still ‘work in progress’. 

Despite the fact that Kolisi came from desperately poor beginnings, where his parents could not afford basic school fees, let alone his rugby kit, in the township of Zwide, near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, he was spotted at a youth rugby tournament in which he impressed scouts with his demeanour and prowess. This earned him a scholarship at the Grey Junior School. For Kolisi that was a life-changing experience, precipitating that ultimate dream that one day he would reach the pinnacle because “I had everything I needed”.

He never looked back and with a steely single-mindedness he grabbed every opportunity towards achieving that dream. “I was given the opportunity and I took it with both of my hands.  Every time I step on the pitch, I want to inspire everyone that’s been in my situation. You can always make it, as long as you believe. Your past doesn’t determine your future,” he maintains. The government’s Sports Strategic Transformation Plan, in the context of rugby, aims to increase black participation in the Springbok team and black representation at executive and board level, provincially and nationally, to 50% by 2019.

Is the transformation process working?

The latest report of the Eminent Persons Group on Transformation in Sport (EPG), established by the South African Minister of Sports and Recreation in 2011, confirmed that “rugby was the top performing federation from the five sports that were part of the pilot project in terms of transformation.”

Tokozile Xasa, South Africa’s new Minister of Sport and Recreation in Cyril Ramaphosa’s first cabinet, is no doubt on a sharp learning curve, but she is guided by the sports-related objectives of the National Development Plan (NDP), which “recognises sport’s role in promoting wellness, social cohesion, gender diversity and fostering nation building” through “equal opportunity, inclusion and (historical) redress”.

The report shows that transformation, as measured in terms of the above dimensions, is making meaningful inroads. “Year on year,” stresses the report, “change in the black demographic profile of senior representative teams demonstrates the progress made over a short period. 

“Cricket’s black profile has improved from 45% to 60%, hockey from 20% to 45%, whereas rugby has moved from 34% to 42% and netball from 37% to 56%.

“At a governance and decision making level, some 60% of federations audited have elected black presidents whereas 70% have reported the election of boards that are more than 50% black.”

Women’s representation at board level has also improved in that seven out of the 19 federations have reported female representation at board level greater than that prescribed by the Charter.

Rugby showed a 17% improvement to achieve 60% of the targets agreed. The EPG sets a minimum target of 50% achievement as the measure of successful compliance. 

“We remain on track to deliver on our five-year Strategic Transformation Plan (STP), which we launched in 2015. Rugby in South Africa needs to continue transforming if it is to survive in our nation’s changing demographic landscape,” maintains Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby.

Dire state of school sport

For Minister Xasa and the various sports federations, the future success of transformation will depend on how the dire state of school sport, especially in township and rural schools, is tackled. 

“It has been shown that the existing school sport system has become the Achilles heel of South African sport for a number of complex reasons,” observes the Report.  Only 8% of learners in South Africa’s 25,000 public schools, for instance, have any kind of access to sport. Of that 8%, only a smaller proportion will have access to or play rugby. “Meeting targets and unlocking potential,” agrees Roux, “will remain a challenge as long as that statistic remains unchanged.” 

The watchword of South Africa’s sports transformation policy, “correcting the ‘wrongs committed in the past by doing the right things right’ ” is progressive and inclusive in its ethos and intent. The success of sports transformation policy assumes a greater longer-term importance, for it will show how far South Africans are from exorcising ‘race’ and ‘colour’ from sport and its body politic. NA

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Written by Mushtak Parker

Mushtak Parker is Editor of Islamic Banker Magazine, one of the foremost journals in the industry with a global circulation in the major Islamic Financial institutions.

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