By: Sarah Boomgaard
Transformation has always been a contentious issue in South African Rugby. It was once again the centre of conversation in April when the Minister Mbalula suspended SARU and other national sports bodies’ right to host or bid for international events. This was followed by an immediate outcry from the public. The usual debates regarding quotas, transformation and racism ensued. This is the nature of the rugby watching public of South Africa. It’s a never ending cycle of “players of colour need to be better represented at national level”, “players should be picked on merit”, “quotas are racist.” The debate has stagnated. Everyone has grown tired of it, yet nobody wants to provide a solution – better still, nobody wants to discuss the underlying causes.
People are very quick to say that politics should not be involved in sports. Yet the very reason we are in this positon today is because politics had corrupted our sports for decades. It is well known that South Africans of colour were not legally allowed to represent the Springboks. However, people are quick to forget that inability to represent one’s country was not the only manner in which sports were affected by the Apartheid regime. Due to legislation like the Group Areas Act, coloured and black people interested in furthering their skills in rugby and other sports, were unable to access top level facilities and training grounds that would enable them to become truly competitive in their sport. The laws have been repealed but twenty years of “democracy” does not undo centuries of exclusion and negation.
The aftermath of Apartheid continues to be felt. Players of colour are still severely underrepresented at Springbok level. The majority of people of colour still live in impoverished regions of South Africa, subsequently still do not have the infrastructure to compete with predominantly white areas. South African Rugby still has strong ties to the Afrikaaner identity, alienating the majority of the population.
There are so many hurdles, it’s difficult to know where to begin. The anti-quota group love to throw around the word “grassroots”: we need transformation to take place at a grassroots level, we need to tackle problems at a grassroots level. Nobody is particularly clear on what that entails. To some it means building better training facilities in underprivileged areas. To others it means strengthening rugby teams in traditionally black and coloured communities. I propose that it needs to go beyond that.
Rugby is an elitist sport and in South Africa and because of our history, the vast majority of the elites are white. To deny that is to deny simple facts of our history. Apartheid created vacuums for poverty, trapping millions of people of colour in a position that is next to impossible to escape from. Yet, there are too many who treat poverty as an accusation, not as a deep, horrendous and systemic condition. They are “poor because they are lazy”, and not the victims of a system designed to debase them. How is a child from the township supposed to compete with another from Grey College or Paarl Boys? How is someone who does not have untethered access to food supposed to compete with someone who not only is well nourished but has been on supplements for years? It’s an impossible ask. There are a few children who earn scholarships to the well-known rugby schools and are looked after, but they are the exceptions. Individuals and companies need to step up. It is of no use to build better sports fields for children who do not have the energy to use them. I propose that we work towards providing every school child breakfast and lunch not only on weekdays, but weekends as well. Companies and civil society could work with government to sponsor this. More children will attend school and participate in various sports. Subsequently, children would perform better academically and on the sports ground. Additionally, this will provide great publicity for companies who are willing to participate.
We also need to strengthen the rugby culture in our poorer communities. To increase interest in rugby, it needs to be made more available to the general public. To be able to watch a rugby match on TV, one must have DSTV. Moreover, rugby is only available on a channel that requires DSTV Premium – the most expensive DSTV package at R759 p/m. SuperSport’s efforts to include Xhosa commentary for rugby should be commended. However their efforts fall flat as the majority of Xhosa speakers cannot afford the package the channel comes on.
One could argue, attending a rugby match may prove more cost effective. However, the price of the ticket alone is a deterrent. A Currie Cup ticket at DHL Newlands costs R70-R100, Super Rugby R110-R150. However, a ticket for an Ajax Football match has a flat rate of R80. The price for a season ticket to Newlands ranges from R1500 to R2510, while an Ajax season ticket only costs R500. A Rugby Championship ticket can cost up to R650, but to see Bafana Bafana it only costs R100. One could argue that the Springboks generally remain among the top five countries in the world and Bafana tends to languish in the bottom half of the top one hundred. That’s a fair argument. But I ask you, could the next Springbok to hold the record for the most tries, or the most caps be sitting in a classroom in Lukhanyo Primary School in Zwelihle right now? If we continue to ostracise him, we will never know.