Last month saw New Delhi host the 2010 edition of the Commonwealth Games. In the run up to the Games reports of unpreparedness weren’t uncommon especially from the Indian press. But thankfully the Games were ‘well’ hosted and during the closing ceremony officials went as far as declaring that New Delhi 2010 was resounding ‘success’. Team South Africa, with 12 gold medals, 11 silver and 10 bronze, finished fifth overall. A feat that was both celebrated and deplored, respectively. At a briefing to parliament, the chairperson of the Parliament Oversight Committee on Sports and Recreation, Butana Kompela, told the politicians how South Africa’s High Commissioner to India, Harris Mbulelo Majeke, felt that Team South Africa was ‘too white’ and reportedly further said:” To London (2012 Olympic Games) send a South Africa team. The Samoans teamed looked more South African. Ours looked like it’s from the queen (Elizabeth presumably).”
The transformational national project hasn’t swept through the various sporting codes of South Africa in order to make it more reflective of the demographics that make up the country’s sporting expression. It would be naive to dismiss Commissioner Majeke’s concerns as being racist and a sign of political interference in an otherwise apolitical terrain. After all, sports have been known to share deeper ties with politics than we care to admit. Sports, by its nature, easily appeals to nationalistic impulses and patriotism of some sort and it’s this kind of broad reach that politicians are always looking to exploit for political ends. The sports arena always seem to be the one place where everyone is equal and has as much as chance as the next person of triumphing as opposed to, say, the political and economic worlds, where the latter two’s disparity within nations of the world is less than pleasing. When Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympic Games, they became Adolf Hitler’s grandest stage to promulgate what he saw as the ‘superiority’ of his German compatriots but unfortunately for him he had to witness the African American athlete, Jesse Owens, steal the show with his record setting 6 gold medals. During the Cold War years (1946 – 1990), what the Soviets and the Westerns powers couldn’t settle on the battlefields in third world countries they did on the sporting fields. In fact, the communist run countries had more advanced athletic developments for women’s swimming and other sporting codes. An example of that would the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Compared to their capitalist-centric West Germans they may have been relatively poor but than mattered little in sports and perhaps that was the one area where they could embarrass their former compatriots. In Italy, Benito Mussolini wanted A.S Roma, S.S Lazio and two other teams to merge into one team to represent the city of Rome against the more successful teams from Turin (Torino and Juventus) and Milan’s A.C and Inter but Lazio rejected the merger by the fascist leader and that’s how the derby of the Eternal City came about.
Even during the Victorian era, young men took up sports such as football, rugby and cricket as service to the ideals of the British imperial conquest and that’s how football was introduced to Argentines, Brazilians and a bit later to Africans and cricket was introduced to people of the Caribbean Islands and the so called sub continent nations of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka (sub continent to what you one might ask). Rugby matches between England and her former colonies Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have been some of the most bitterly contested. More so the Roses against the Springboks and political history can’t be disregarded when those two old foes square off. When the National Party won Office in 1948 they made the rugby and cricket teams, particularly the former, the emblems of the Afrikaner people’s identity, hope and an indomitable source of pride. The use of rugby as the collective expression of the Afrikaner community probably was the idea of Dr. Hendrik Verwoed, he did do his doctoral studies in the Hitler ruled Germany, after all.
Recently there was an outcry from trade union Solidarity and its civil rights arm, Afriforum, over Absa unhappiness with the lack of black player participating in the Absa sponsored Currie Cup, the oldest rugby cup in the world. Solidarity went as far as saying if Absa continued to ‘interfere’ in rugby then they, Solidarity, would have to severe their ties with the bank. Thankfully Maria Ramos, Absa group chief executive officer, put them in their place in an open letter published in the City Press. The fact is that rugby, if left to its own devices, probably won’t transform into an inclusive sport to be accessed by all talented enough to participate in it because the sport is still viewed by reactionaries as the Afrikaner’s last piece of sporting heritage. And the introduction of black players is, in the minds of the reactionaries at least, an ‘intrusion’ hence the insistence that political pressure be exerted. In the provinces such as Eastern and North Cape there’s a plethora of black youths who play rugby and yet we can only count a handful that play Currie Cup and Super rugby. If they aren’t playing in the aforementioned tournaments then their chances of donning the green and gold Springbok jersey will remain a pie in the sky.
When it comes to other sporting codes such as swimming, golf, gymnastics and so forth, then the government must also take its portion of the blame. We can’t expect to see black athletes going toe to toe with the Michael Phelps of the world when there aren’t swimming pools in township schools let alone townships. Where are they supposed to be recruited from, the nearest lake? It also has to involve parents and them ensuring that their children participate in other sports other than football, boxing and running. It’s only when children are exposed to something that they begin to have an interest it. The quotas system must continue to be effected on those sports that go out of their way to ignore talented players who aren’t white. Where there aren’t black people to pick from then, if they are interested, they must be groomed not spoon fed so that when the time is ripe they too may enjoy the privilege of representing the country in various competitions across the globe. The argument that’s being constantly raised about the football national team, Bafana Bafana, requiring a quotas system for whites is hogwash because as far back as 1970s black and white players were competing in the same league. Sabc soccer analyst, Mike “Sporo” Mangena, was playing for the then Wits University when it was fashionable. The lack of demographical representation is probably because there’s much interest in football from white and Indian youth as was the case in the past.
So in order for us as a nation to construct an inclusive national sporting identity, we must be firm on those who resist necessary changes and take care of the basics so that Commissioner Majeke’s desires of seeing a South African team being sent to London are realised otherwise we will forever be in a race to tally quotas score cards and neglecting what truly matters in sports: performance.