CAPE TOWN – The delay in deciding whether spectators would be allowed back into South African sports stadiums is due to a possible third wave of a high Covid-19 infection rate in the next three months.
That was the word from Sport, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa on Friday.
Mthethwa was speaking during a press conference hosted by Cricket South Africa, after it was announced that he has rescinded his decision to invoke his powers to de-recognise and de-fund the organisation due to governance issues, after CSA accepted a new Memorandum of Incorporation this week.
Rugby, soccer and cricket matches have been played over the last few months without fans in the stadiums. The big money-spinner for the South African Rugby Union is the upcoming British and Irish Lions tour, while the new Rainbow Cup SA competition will start on Saturday.
SA Rugby have been pushing hard for government to open up stadiums to spectators once more, even at limited numbers, in order to generate some much-needed income following a disastrous 2020, where R1.2 billion had to be cut from expenses across the industry due to the effects of the coronavirus on the sport.
But Mthethwa said that it was not his decision to make, as the National Coronavirus Command Council is the authority on such matters. He did, though, state the concerns from the health sector of a possible “third wave” of infections sweeping through Mzansi soon.
“You’d recall that earlier on, after March last year, when the president proclaimed the National Disaster for the Covid-19 pandemic, there was this time where everything came to a standstill, including play itself. The sporting fraternity took it upon themselves to understand the situation, and was able to make a case to government for opening up play, and going back to play,” he said.
“And it was upon that that government, particularly from the health perspective, was able to look at the plan and be able to see, well, the plan is good. And therefore, we can go back to play.
“Similarly, this time around, with everything we do, we are guided by health. Guided by epidemiologists, and so on… Those are the people who are guiding us now. It’s not a matter of a Minister of Sport, who would say ‘No, fans go back’.
“What if that becomes a super-spreader? So, we are guided. And in this guidance, we are informed that between May and July, we are facing a possibility of a third wave. Now that should guide us. We can’t, in the midst of a third wave, just get people and go and kill them. So, we are guided.”
He said that SA Rugby have asked for stadiums to be half-full for the Lions Tests. It has been reported in the UK that the biggest, FNB Stadium, could host two of those matches.
“I must mention the fact that both the creative events sector and sporting sector have come together, they’ve put together a plan. For instance, when it comes to rugby and the Irish and British tours for instance, they are proposing that we get at least 50% of the spectators back to stadia,” said Mthethwa.
“Well, that is being looked at, but it must answer the question: If you take FNB (Stadium), which is 90 000 people, and you say 50% – which is 45 000 people – how are you going to ensure that that opening up is not a super-spreader? So, those questions have to be answered, like they did in the past.
“When it comes to football, for instance, they came with the concept of a bio-bubble and so on, and it was an attractive concept. It has been able to be implemented and it worked.
“But right now, we do not decide as individual Departments of Sport, of Tourism… Within the Command Council, we are guided by the health situation, so the health situation is going to guide us.
“Now, taking all of these things into cognisance, especially the fact that we have these doctors saying that we are going to be facing a storm, the third wave… So, what do we do?
“Do we say then that regardless of that, people must just flock to stadiums? And we will be able to pay when they die? No, we don’t have those resources as government.
“We are guided. No individual minister is going to come up with an answer on this matter. But the weekly meeting of the National Command Council, looking at this matter, will always guide the entire society, not one aspect of society.”
The Lions tour is scheduled to start on July 3 at Cape Town Stadium, with the Tests set for July 24 and 31, and August 7.