South Africa’s sporting success stories as a Republic are well-documented, each etched in the memory with an image of Nelson Mandela attached to the day of glory. Though they have not been as regular as a demanding public would like, they have been frequent enough for South Africa to be regarded as a world leader in cricket and rugby, certainly, and a consistent force in swimming and individual sports like golf and tennis.
The likes of Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, Bryan Habana and Francois Pienaar have all earned international acclaim, but South African national teams have also made headlines for reasons that the rest of the sporting world find peculiar.
The stand-off between Percy Sonn and the Proteas in Sydney, when he insisted that Justin Ontong had to play ahead of Jacques Rudolph remains a low-point for our national team. In the full glare of the world’s media, the thorny issue of quotas in cricket came to light.
No one emerged from that spat with any joy, and the careers of Rudolph and Ontong took a long time to recover. That is the power of politics, when utilised for reasons that have little to do with sporting pursuits.
Cricket remains one of those sports that gets hauled over the coals for a lack of representation. Since re-admission, there have only been a handful of black African representatives at the highest level, with only Makhaya Ntini commanding a regular spot.
“In the past 20 years, very little has changed,” former South African captain and CSA chief executive Ali Bacher sighed this week.
“There have to be more Makhayas out there, surely. But until the sporting facility imbalances are addressed, it is almost impossible for us to expect black Africans to come through and compete on the same playing field,” Bacher explained.
“A kid who is in Kagiso or Alexandra doesn’t enjoy the cricketing culture of a kid at King Edward or St John’s. It’s impossible, and by the time they are in matric, the kid from Kagiso has missed out on years of competitive cricket, because of his circumstances.”
Conversely, the recent Under-19 World Cup win by Ray Jennings’ team was won by a cosmopolitan squad, with every player there on merit. That side represents what the future of South African cricket can be, when everyone is on the same page.
“That team was made up of players who all went to cricketing schools. I understand that Kagiso Rabada went to St Stithians, a really strong cricket school. That’s what we need to do for all our players with talent.
“Development coaches should have a simple objective, which is to identify talent, and send it along to a school where that talent will be nurtured.
“Makhaya Ntini was spotted by Raymond Booi, who immediately told Greg Hayes.
“The same happened to Graeme Pollock and Jacques Kallis.
“People spot talent, and tell others to come and have a look.”
Bacher said that there were over 27 000 schools in South Africa, and that the vast majority of these did not have facilities to cultivate a sports star.
“We went around the country in 2003, with then-education minister Kader Asmal. You could see that there were no facilities for these kids, of any kind. That’s not just a sporting problem, because it manifests into other social issues, like drug abuse, gangsterism, teenage pregnancy and so on.
“Obviously there would be a huge financial burden to try and facilitate all those schools now. But I think if we have one school in an area, where people know there is a cricket culture, with proper nets and coaches, then we can start to see change. The same can be done for rugby. It can’t happen overnight, but it needs to start somewhere. Things have to change.”
Cricket and rugby may hog the headlines, but the concern for minority sports has almost become a matter of swim or sink. Whenever the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games are on the horizon, minority sports that are deemed “not black enough” are often left to fend for themselves, even if they are genuine medal hopefuls.
The men’s hockey side, as well as rowing and swimming, continue to punch above their weight, but often end up pulling out of international events due to a lack of funding.
Recently, the men’s hockey side had to camp inside a sports gym, while the Argentine side they were hosting stayed in hotels for a Test series.
Transformation is often used as a stick to chastise white sports and administrators, but in some quarters, the perceived racist boot is on the other foot. By prioritising marquee sports, the government has allowed other, minor but still popular, codes to erode into near-amateur status.
Within our borders, the burning issue of transformation, particularly in our headline sports, rages on. Last week, Sport Minister Fikile Mbalula’s declaration of a push for 60% quotas – which has since been revisited by the ministry – was met by howls of discontent and disbelief.
Twenty years after freedom for all, some things have changed preciously little. In cricket and rugby, the matter has become so serious that Cricket South Africa (CSA) is now offering financial incentives – not too dissimilar to BEE ratings in business – while rugby has cast-iron quota targets in the Vodacom Cup.
But the problem with transformation is not at these upper echelons. By the time an African sportsman or woman is 21 or older, it is too late to be trying to address the imbalances of youth.
The problem, as Bacher suggested, needs to be sorted out at the root, when children are still young enough to be taught the right way, and given the necessary tools to be whatever they want to be.
Canoeing have shown that, given the tools and the financial support, black Africans have the physical attributes and the enthusiasm to thrive in any field – even water. It’s about opportunity.
But these changes need to be led by people who have a passion for what they are doing. The days of the late Steve Tshwete, who genuinely cared for every sportsman or woman who represented the country, seem like a distant daydream.
Bacher told a story about a former High Court judge from the Free State, who has retired and now eagerly runs net practices in Hillbrow, twice a week. He got so excited about two young prospects that he phoned Bacher, and between them, they have organised funds for the two hopefuls to get more specialised coaching.
That’s what is needed to correct the imbalances of the past. Passion for the game, untainted by a yearning for power, money or influence. If the transformation objective for the next 20 years can be towards unearthing talent – from all corners – instead of politicking, there won’t be a need for quotas.
As Makhaya Ntini, Sifiso Nhlapho, Habana, Amla, Greg Minnaar, Jordy Smith, Natalie du Toit, Amanda Coetzer and countless others have shown, the cream will always rise to the top. - Sunday Independent