By Tswelopele Makoe
AFTER securing a prolific win against Morocco in the 2022 Women’s African Cup of Nations Championship (WAFCON), Banyana-Banyana has made history as they rallied their way to the esteemed FIFA World Cup games.
The continental champions have been markedly advancing in the recent years, and their participation in the World Cup has left the nation excitedly waiting in anticipation. This is their second appearance at a World Cup, and they have solidified themselves as notable adversaries against their international counterparts.
After leading their games thus far, the team has officially drawn against the acclaimed Swedish team and most recently, the Argentinian team. The upcoming final group game against Italy on Wednesday, August 2, is being eagerly anticipated.
The national team has certainly invigorated the spirit and camaraderie of their nation. Players such as Thembi Kgatlana, Linda Motlhalo, Lebohang Ramalepe and Refiloe Jane have shown remarkable skill and true mastery of their sport, rivalling their international counterparts.
The national team is showing their striking ability and adeptness in competing in the international arena, and as such, are making waves throughout our society. Banyana-Banyana is absolutely transcending the game of soccer, which has been a traditionally male-dominated sport, and historically ostracised women’s teams.
Of great importance, Banyana-Banyana has consistently and overtly condemned the undermining of women in sport, from issues of gross underpayment to substandard venues, to failure to abide by contractual agreements. Recently, they had boycotted the friendly games in the lead-up to the World Cup, citing contraventions by SAFA in their contractual and financial agreements, in addition to a highly unacceptable venue and opposition team. The team has been steadfast in their fight for equal and acceptable working conditions and working relations, which adversely affect women, more than men in sports. SAFA has oftentimes been at the centre of mistreatment of athletes and teams such as Banyana-Banyana, particularly where the players’ compensation and remuneration is concerned. Athletes such as Caster Semenya, and also Andile Dlamini have been forthright about their harrowing experiences as female athletes, particularly in comparison to their male counterparts.
Although our national laws and constitution denounces unfairness and inequality, the reality is that many female athletes are treated as inferior in the sports arena. In fact, the income disparities of professional male and female athletes are so wide; it is as if they are playing completely different sports.
Although Bafana-Bafana players earn R60 000 per win and R30 000 per draw, Banyana-Banyana players earn a meagre R5 700 for a win, and R4000 per each game drawn. In addition to this, Bafana players earn a substantial salary from their clubs, whereas Banyana depend on an allocated stipend. Even in other sports, such as rugby, one Springbok player earns more than entire women’s seven squad combined.
Systematic oppression of women on gender basis, their undermining and side-lining is the heart-breaking reality for women in sports, and that is an abhorrent fact of our modern, so-called progressive society.
The impeding of women’s progress in sports is a consistent theme across the global sports arena, but is particularly egregious in South Africa, an exceedingly unequal society where women in particular are socially, economically, and structurally repressed.
Countless women players have to undertake additional jobs and educational advancements, in order to make an adequate living. The fact that professional athletes are so undervalued, when their work represents the nation at a continental or international level, should be utterly unsupportable.
The CEO of SAFA, Dennis Mumble, has previously argued that the issue stems from the history of football as being androcentric, or male-centred, particularly where sponsors are concerned. Additionally, that the structural gap needs to be addressed, for example, ensuring that Banyana-Banyana matches are aired on SABC 1 instead of SABC 3, the public broadcaster channels that hold a substantially lower viewership.
We need to remember that we have emerged gloriously as the rainbow nation - as the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu would say - from an excruciatingly dark and contentious past. Thirty years ago, Banyana-Banyana was playing its first match as a team in a newly democratic and ethical nation. In 1993, Banyana secured a historic14-0 victory over Swaziland in front of a scanty crowd at a community soccer pitch. Today, they stand strong with a continental title and compete as greater threats against international opponents. Their participation in the current World Cup is no small feat and should be celebrated as the massive milestone that it is.
The inspirational Rugby World Cup of 1995 saw the efficacy of sport in unifying the nation. My hope is that we do not wait to realise that Banyana-Banyana deserves the same boisterous support that any other male team would receive, principally at an international level. This team has the profound opportunity to reinvigorate the nation suffering from persistent negativity, to uplift our collective spirits - and more importantly, to create social consolidation in our deeply stratified society.
Irrespective of the outcome of their future games, Banyana-Banyana will go down in history for this immense triumph characterised by the spirit and ethos of always fighting a good fight. Despite their plethora of challenges, setbacks, and subversions, Banyana have achieved a marvellous feat. It would be utterly deplorable to continue to cite lack of viewership, lack of sponsors, and poor broadcasting as any excuse to mitigate our athletes. We have a moral and national obligation to rally behind our team, to assure them of their potency, and to recognise the extraordinary achievement that they have attained through their mere participation at the World Cup games. They are setting the bar higher for women across the continent, and indeed across the globe - that anything is achievable, no matter the arena, and no matter the deeply ingrained limitations. They are trailblazers in their own right; from the inspirational coach Desiree Ellis – herself a former Banyana player – and now the first coach to lead the national women’s team to a FIFA World Cup. A deserved praise to the team members, who every day prove that they are a cut above the rest. Above all, we need to remember that when our national team is able to compete at such a strenuous international level, we are truly winning as a nation. We are a shining example for the scores of countries that do not make it this far. We are proof that hard work indeed does pay. And, in my unwavering standpoint, it must be rewarded concomitantly.
Tswelopele Makoe is a Gender Activist and an MA Ethics student at UWC, affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion & Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.