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South African Sports Slow to Transform Racially


In South Africa, high level participation in sports, apart from soccer, remains largely an activity for whites. In particular, the traditionally white team sports, rugby and cricket, have been slow to transform their player ranks to more closely reflect the country's demographic. In this report from our bureau in Johannesburg, VOA's Delia Robertson takes a closer look at why black South Africans are so few and far between in the country's national rugby and cricket teams.

It was just fourteen months after end of apartheid, when to the thunderous chant of his name, then-President Nelson Mandela stepped on to the field of Johannesburg's Ellis Park Stadium at the 1995 rugby world cup final. When he presented the William Webb Ellis trophy to the captain of the winning team, South African Francois Pienaar, the roar from the white South African supporters in the crowd of 62,000 made the ground vibrate.

It was a deeply symbolic moment, including for black South Africans who filled the country's streets to hail a national team of white players, playing a game from which they had been largely excluded by law. It held the promise of new beginnings, a fresh start, of a moment in the not-too-distant future when the captain wearing the shimmering green and gold, holding up the golden trophy, would be black, proud, and just like Pienaar, would represent all South Africans.

It was a promise that thirteen years on, has not been kept.

In the recent cricket world cup finals in the West Indies, the national side included seven players of color, but most played only one or two games. Only one of them, Makhaya Ntini, has consistently represented his country since 2000. In rugby, the record is even worse. While several black players have represented South Africa, they seem to come and go with remarkable regularity.

Steven Friedman, passionate cricket fan and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University, argues that at the root of the failure to racially transform these sports, is deep-seated white prejudice, in management and among the fans.

"We come from a particular history, and that is a history in which white people have traditionally played the dominant roles in the economy and in most sports, for example in the professions, and I think that there is a very deep seated assumption on the part of many people that whites are competent at a variety of things, unless the contrary is proven; and that blacks are incompetent, unless the contrary is proven," he said.

The opposing view is that it has not been that long since all sports were opened to all, and that it can take decades to build up a pool of exceptional players, capable of sustained high level performances.

Friedman notes that in the case of cricket, excellent development programs were established by the cricketing fraternity in the early nineties and that the programs did produce black players of quality. But he says they only get so far, and then disappear.

"South Africa sent to the under-19 world cup a team which was about half-half black and white, which got to the world cup final," said Friedman. "They didn't win, but in other words this is the second best team in the world in their age group. And black players excelled in that. Since then which was a few years back, with one notable exception those black players disappeared into the wilderness. They are sort of languishing in provincial leagues and so on, they have never made it into the national team."

Former Cricket South Africa CEO Ali Bacher, who was the driving force behind the cricket development programs, is less outspoken than Friedman but he too argues rugby and cricket are slow in bringing and keeping black players in the national teams. He said he warned rugby administrators about this last year

"And I strongly indicated to that gathering I believe unless these sports are proactive ultimately our South African government will lose their patience and possibly introduce legislation," said Bacher.

Both cricket and rugby have operated on a quota system in the regional teams, but these were resisted by both management and fans, who argue that national teams should be selected merely on merit and that anything else is political interference in sport. Friedman, says that in fact, the opposite is true.

"Is that those people who oppose quotas, and those people who oppose intervention on behalf of black players, always say that what they are standing for is merit," he said. "My argument is that they are actually standing in the way of merit. Unfortunately we are in this paradoxical situation, where the only way you can recognize merit is through quotas which force them to select talented black players they otherwise wouldn't select."

In cricket, and more recently in rugby, there are some black players whose personal averages equal or better some of the best all-time white South African performers. Yet, says Friedman, when these players have an off-day or period, they are not shown the same tolerance as their white team mates.

But in each one of these cases they literally had to be pushed into teams by sympathetic administrators and kept in teams by sympathetic administrators, because as soon as they got selected there were comments from cricketing establishment that politics was interfering with sport, that this was an attempt to foist incompetent people on the team for political motives; despite the fact that these players are outperforming many of their white counterparts by substantial margins.

Bacher suggests that in addition to quotas, sporting facilities for schools should be improved, and development and nursery programs should target the Eastern Cape where black South Africans have played cricket and rugby since the 1820s. But, he adds that available young black players are not been groomed and nurtured as they should be. He notes that spin bowler Robin Petersen was thrown in at the deep end in an important match in the cricket world cup after being kept on the bench in the opening rounds.

"There was no vision in handling this particular spin bowler carefully, with sensitivity, to make sure that ultimately when he played in a world cup he would play with confidence, be successful and make a contribution to the success of the team," added Bacher.

The rugby world cup will be played in September in France and rugby administrators were recently grilled by parliament about the slow pace of racial transformation in the sport. This time criticism was not confined to the ruling party and administrators were warned they could be fined, or that parliament would consider legislating quotas, if the situation was not improved in time for the next world cup, in 2011.

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