Earlier this week the Minister of the Sport and Recreation, Fikile Mbalula, announced the imposition of sanctions against four of South Africa’s main sporting codes (Athletics South Africa, Cricket South Africa, Netball South Africa and South African Rugby) for not meeting the racial targets that they themselves had earlier accepted. He said that he had resolved “to revoke their privilege … to host and bid for major international tournaments” in South Africa.
By so doing he crossed an important threshold on South Africa’s journey back to officially imposed racialism in sport. For as long as targets remained targets it could be argued that merit and not race was still the main factor in the selection of national teams. However, racial targets enforced by state sanctions are no longer ‘targets’ - they are quotas. Race quotas - together with any form of racial discrimination - are prohibited by the International Olympic Committee and by most international sporting codes. They also prohibit interference by “third parties”, including governments, in the independence of national sporting bodies.
The Minister’s announcement signals South Africa’s reversion to a sport regime that is subservient to the racial ideology of the ruling party. In the old days the ideology was apartheid. Now it is the ANC's National Demographic Revolution with its goal of pervasive demographic representivity. The primary concern is not the success of national teams but the requirement that teams should progressively mirror the racial composition of the South African population.
Ironically, the sporting codes that Mbalula wishes to punish include the very sports in which South Africa has achieved the greatest success in international competition. The Springboks have twice won the Rugby World Cup and the Proteas have in recent years occupied the top position in world Test and One Day cricket.
Achievement in sport is an intensely personal struggle. It requires remarkable dedication and commitment. It involves hours of arduous daily training; it is advanced by rigorous and often heart-breaking competition; and it is crowned by the immense honour of being chosen to represent one's country - to the joy of moms, dads and friends cheering around the family TV screen. Now, once again, sportsmen and women, who should be chosen on merit, will be told that they cannot represent South Africa because they belong to the wrong race. Many will follow other talented South African sportsmen and women to pursue their careers overseas.
However, for the Minister of Sport and Recreation, the primary factor is evidently not the dreams of individual sportsmen and women, or national sporting success. It is race.
This attitude was perhaps best expressed by President Mbeki in a radio interview the day after the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup in 2007. He said that a united South Africa would be “a much larger prize” (presumably than the even the Rugby World Cup). He added that “if the best perpetuates the past (i.e. racially imbalanced teams) - then something must give. If we are going to lose one or two games when we are going to achieve that goal, I think let’s lose one or two games.” His comments echoed his statement in 2002 when he said, “For two or three years let’s not mind losing international competitions because we are bringing our people into these teams.”
The key elements here are the willingness to sacrifice sporting success on the ideological altar of race and the characterisation of black players as “our” people. How could the exclusion of minority players (not “our people”?) from national teams on the basis of their race possibly contribute to President Mbeki’s “much larger prize” of a “united South Africa”?
Unfortunately, these attitudes are manifested not only in sport but in the manner in which transformation is being implemented throughout our society. In the public service, the security forces and the state-owned enterprises many excellent black South Africans have been appointed to key positions, clearly on the basis of merit. However, many others have been appointed on the basis of their race - with little or no concern for merit. Critically needed posts are often left vacant, because filling them with qualified candidates from the non-designated groups would upset the demographic quotas that the government has been working so hard to achieve. It is evidently preferable for local authorities and government departments to be demographically representative than to be successful in delivering essential services. It is more important that farm ownership should reflect South Africa’s demographic profile than that farms should run profitably and provide food for South Africa’s people.
The selection of key players in the private, public and non-governmental sectors on the basis of race rather than merit has been one of the main reasons why South Africa has become a losing nation.
Of course, we must ensure that every child has the opportunity to excel in whatever sport he or she chooses. Sporting codes have an important role to play in creating such opportunities: however, they do not have the sole - or even the primary - responsibility to do so. The popularisation of sporting codes depends just as much on the Department of Sport and Recreation, on our dysfunctional schools, and on our communities.
Even so, some codes will be disproportionally supported by different communities. Participation in sport often has a strong cultural base - not only in South Africa - but throughout the world. The English rugby team is drawn disproportionately from the 5% of the population that attend private schools. Most of the top swimmers in the United States are white, while basketball, boxing and athletics are dominated by the 12% black minority. Can one imagine the outcry if a quota were to be imposed limiting black participation in these sports to 12%?
Perhaps the time has come for us to revive the pre-1994 tradition of non-racial sport in the form of a new SAN-ROC. We could then have one set of teams chosen on a truly non-racial basis - and another chosen according to the ANC's racial criteria. Which teams would attract the most sponsorship, the best players and the most popular support? Against which teams would foreign teams want to play?
The bottom line is that in a free society, government should have no role in dictating to law-abiding sports organisations how they should run their affairs - or in revoking their “privilege” to host international tournaments.
By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation