With South Africa set to take the stage at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, its current players illustrate what has been a painfully slow evolution for South African rugby. In 1995, Nelson Mandela donned the green and gold jersey of South Africa’s rugby team and presented the World Cup trophy to his fellow country man, Francois Pienaar. A little under a decade before this monumental date in South Africa’s history, such an event was inconceivable. In 1986, on the occasion of a rare visit by an international rival, the largely black led Soweto Rugby Union publicly declared its support for South Africa’s opponents, the New Zealand team. Given the sport’s complicated history, Nelson Mandela’s gesture as South Africa’s first black president, enabled black South Africans to embrace a sport that had been previously considered a symbol of white oppression. On that day, the South African team fielded just one non-white player in its starting lineup, but the promise of hope for racial integration had already been etched into the nation’s imagination.
Yet, fast forward to France 2007, the scene of South Africa’s next triumph at the Rugby World Cup, only two black players donned the green and gold for the team affectionately known as the Springboks. This is despite the fact that less than 10% of South Africa’s population is white. As recently as December 2014, the Springboks fielded a team that was 80% white, their opposition on that night, the English, fielded a team that was 73% white. Such troubling statistics have not been unique to rugby. Cricket, which is also primarily considered a white sport, has also received its fair share of scrutiny. To date, South Africa’s cricket team has only ever fielded six black South African players since the country attained independence in 1994.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the South African football team is still overwhelmingly made up of only black South Africans. The country’s 2015 AFCON squad consisted of just one white South African, Darren Keet. This is perhaps often overlooked because it does not seem unreasonable to expect a country with a population that is 79% black, to have a national side that is also majority black. However, such reasoning ignores the fact that this pattern transcends the national team and trickles into the fan base, which also hardly consists of any white South Africans, except only when showpiece events like the 2010 FIFA World Cup come around. In terms of statistics, it is only natural for black South Africans to make up the bulk of football fans in South Africa, but why is there such a low turnout from white South Africans? Where the fans are concerned, this same reasoning can be applied to cricket and rugby as well. Why has the general disinterest in cricket and rugby among most black South Africans persisted so strongly into the post-apartheid era? Could this be indicative of unresolved issues and sentiment from the apartheid era? Perhaps.
Though still a long way from done, significant strides have been made towards racial integration in both cricket and rugby. The South African Rugby Union (SARU) has embarked on a “Strategic Transformation Plan” with the goal of reaching 50% non-white representation in the national team by 2019. Already, some noteworthy progress has been made. In 2008 SARU appointed the Springbok’s first non-white coach, Peter De Villiers. And as of 2012, 84% of South Africa’s under 18 Rugby team consisted of black South Africans. But as SARU’s CEO Jurie Roux admits, ultimately progress will only be measured by how many non-white players make it into the Springboks’ senior team. Cricket South Africa (CSA) on the other hand has taken a more direct approach, deciding instead to set a quota of at least one black African player in each franchise team. The fact that such drastic measures are even necessary is evidence of how bad the situation has become.
While the efforts of Cricket South Africa and SARU are certainly commendable, they still fail to address the root cause of the problem. In 2014, South Africa won the ignominious honor of having the most “unequal income distribution in the world.” In fact, according to the Gini index, income inequality in South Africa has remained relatively unchanged since 1990. The latest census data from the country shows that the average income of a white household in South Africa is six times greater than that of a black household. Data from the first quarter of 2015 pegs unemployment in the country at 26.4%, which is higher than the average rate of 25.27% from the last fifteen years. In short, the ANC has failed ordinary black South Africans, leaving its people scarcely better off than they were before 1994. The ensuing poverty has meant that many black Africans have been unable to access the sort of schools and facilities that can help them pursue careers in sports such as rugby and cricket, which are usually only available at more pricey institutions. With such rampant income inequality and poverty among the majority of the black population, it comes as no surprise that South Africa has the ninth highest murder rate in the world, a statistic which is indicative of the overall level of crime in the country. Such numbers serve only to emphasize the need for more sport involvement among South Africa’s youth.
While this will not solve all of South Africa’s problems, integrating more of the country’s youth into sports like rugby and cricket will provide a viable alternative to a life of crime. Precedent for such initiatives has already been established. South Africa can look to the model set up by Futbol por la Paz (Football for Peace) in Colombia, which was established with the goal of countering street violence in that country. Today, Futbol por la Paz has grown into the much loved Street Football World, an organization that has successfully used the incredible appeal of football to keep youth from all over the world off the streets, and engaged in more constructive activities. Using this model, South Africa can incentivize cricket and rugby for black South Africans by intertwining the sports with education and various social issues. Already, the country boasts of sports personalities like Makhaya Ntini, who can be pivoted as an example of the power of sport in breaking the cycle of poverty.
Given the popularity of sports in South Africa, and the country’s unique position on the continent as a genuine international powerhouse in rugby and cricket, the onus of leading Africa’s charge onto the global stage must be bestowed on the Rainbow nation. Much like how England, Spain and Germany have become football mainstays capable of nurturing talent for countries as far as the Americas, South Africa can position itself as a center for African rugby and cricket. This would enable the transformative power of sport to radiate throughout the continent, while also helping other African countries establish stronger institutions in the sports. Eventually, the whole of Africa will finally come of age, and make full use of this multibillion dollar industry.