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Culture of denial masks racism in South African sport

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Culture of denial masks racism in South African sport

Cricketer Lungi Ngidi shows his shirt in solidarity with the global Black Lives Matter movement.

Despite cosmetic changes, a deeply ingrained culture based on racism continues to distort South African sport. It is bolstered by the stony-faced strategy of denial often proffered by the privileged minority. Mushtak Parker reports.

As if the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to sports transformation in democratic South Africa is not enough, racism in sport is alive and well, although many loudly claim it now belongs on the scrapheap of history.

The reality is an underlying current of entrenched racism in sport – not only in post-Apartheid South Africa but elsewhere, as the allegations during the cricket Tests in Australia and New Zealand in January, by the Indian and Pakistani teams, have shown.

In South Africa, still defined by the politics of race, inequality and kleptocracy, a culture of denial has got a second wind. Not that it ever went away. In recent times it has been emboldened by a visceral reaction to the BLM and African Lives Matter movements and the rise of populism, with its white supremacist support in the Americas, the UK and EU.

In sports-mad South Africa, the issue of racism in sport and its denial by a growing number of a formerly privileged minority, is never far from the surface.

Take the story of Gary Player, the legendary grand slam golfer who became the pin-up boy of the Apartheid era. A staunch defender of Hendrik Verwoerd, the apostle of Apartheid, he has suddenly reinvented himself as an ambassador of ‘The Rainbow Nation’.

This is the same Gary Player who in his autobiography Grand Slam Golf professed: “I am of the South Africa of Verwoerd and Apartheid. My country is the product of its instinct and ability to maintain civilised standards amongst the alien barbarians. I have no evidence that I live in a police state, a ‘Hitler’ state.”

According to the historian, non-racial sports activist and ex-first-class cricketer, Prof André Odendaal, Player never acknowledged or apologised for his open support for Apartheid. The racism and the culture of denial in South African sport, he maintains, “remains strong”.

Odendaal has just co-authored, with Lord Peter Hain – the anti-Apartheid activist and a UK ex-Labour Government cabinet minister – Pitch Battles, which documents the history of racism in sport in South Africa.

Consider the response to the exciting new Proteas fast bowler, Lungi Ngidi’s support for BLM in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in the US. He was beset by a barrage of abuse on social media by some White ex-Proteas and racist fans, dismissing the movement as ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’.

However, ex-Proteas captain Faf de Klerk admitted on Instagram his past mistakes in dealing with racism and came out with fellow players Rassie van der Dussen and Anrich Nortje in support of Ngidi and the BLM campaign.

Turning a blind eye to racism

This culture of denial is often entrenched in sports bodies by their failure to come up with a robust counter-strategy in dealing with racism.

The muted response by World Rugby and SA Rugby to the violently racist historical tweets by Argentinian rugby captain Pablo Matera and two of his colleagues on a visit to South Africa prompted the ex-England international winger, Ugo Monye, of Nigerian descent, to lash out in December that “rugby doesn’t know how to deal with racism”.

Matera was 20 years old at the time. The tweets, exposed in December, were offensive and violently racist against Black South Africans and “Negroes” in Latin American countries, and persisted between 2011-13.

What was scandalous is the silence of the governing body of the game, World Rugby and its affiliated members including SA Rugby, not in denial but seemingly cynically waiting for the matter to blow over so that rugby could return to its ‘old’ normal.

This includes marginalising the issue of racism in rugby and whitewashing the challenge of diversity by feigning superficial changes and failing to deal with the historical legacy of institutionalised racism. SA Rugby said that it does not “comment on opinions – it is not something we do.”

However and belatedly, it did launch, with the South African Human Rights Commission, and underpinned by its sports transformation strategy, the Rugby Against Discrimination and Racism (RADAR) campaign in July 2019, complete with severe penalties for guilty offenders.

In September 2020, SA Rugby re-committed to the RADAR campaign, acknowledging “the painful inequalities of our country’s past – and its present – and that they must be eradicated.”

The Argentina Rugby Union’s response on the tweets merely reinforced the inaction by other bodies, reducing them to “a reckless act of immaturity”. It imposed on Matera and his colleagues the need to undertake a six-hour training course on anti-discrimination as a “restorative measure”.

Sports transformation in South Africa, says Odendaal, is “sometimes two steps forward and one step back. Other times, one step forward and two back. But the change movement is slowly proceeding, although the focus on overt commercialisation in the era of 21st-century sports globalisation makes focusing on fundamental social issues more difficult.”

Sports transformation goes in tandem with economic and societal transformation, particularly  technical codes like rugby, cricket, football and athletics, where gym work, nutrition, access to transport, kits and equipment are vital. Sportspersons bereft of jobs and facilities in the townships will be deprived of opportunities which are restricted to those few lucky to get scholarships to former White schools.

Gauging the extent that Covid-19 disruption has affected the progress of the ANC government’s National Sport Plan & Transformation Charter is difficult. Sport & Recreation South Africa’s (SRSA’s) advisory panel, the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on Transformation in Sport, is supposed to publish a progress scorecard annually. The last report, for 2018, was only submitted to the sport, arts & culture minister Nathi Mthethwa in June 2020.

The SRSA’s Annual Performance Plan 2020/21 reads like a hybrid party political manifesto/management consultancy report – marked by the rhetoric of aspiration and two years out of date. Mthethwa rued that “circumstances imposed by the Covid-19 outbreak force us to further tighten our belts.” He got a mere R112.7m ($7.55m) worth of relief funding for the loss of revenue for various sports federations.

Steeped in history

Racism in sport and the culture of denial is steeped in history. In the past the governance of rugby and cricket was dominated by the Anglo-Saxon White Dominions of the British Empire, which effectively steered the sports trajectory for well over a century.

In his book Cricket & Conquest, Odendaal explains that “the inherent violence that underpinned cricket’s growth in southern Africa also shaped its character. The mindsets behind British and settler militarism directly shaped attitudes that became entrenched in the game in southern Africa. Its ‘culture’ became infused with notions of racism, narrow masculinity, social Darwinism and imperial superiority.”

Throughout the region’s history, attitudes to racism in sport, according to Odendaal, have mutated generation after generation under the supposedly neutral ‘keep politics out of sport’ mantra – projecting sport as innocence. In fact, it was the racial exclusions and attitudes from the start, under colonialism and Apartheid, that introduced politics into sport, and which remain the problem.

Odendaal observes that “the systemic nature of discrimination that occurred in all the countries of Empire – it was inherent to the process of dispossession. South Africa is ahead of the rest because the majority of its population understood this and made it part of the mainstream discourse after democracy. But trying to redress and undo entrenched exclusions, still often seen as ‘natural’, is a problem everywhere, as we see in current contestations in a sick Trump-era-like US.” 

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