About two months ago I was asked if I would be interested to write an article for a sports magazine on a very controversial subject in SA Rugby, racism.
I did not even give it a second thought at the time as I felt it was something I personally covered to a great extent over the years, but as I sat down to tackle the issue, it became very clear very quickly that if I was to be honest in this article, I would have to face some harsh realities. You see the topic wasn’t just to talk about racism in rugby or transformation, but it was more a debate where one writer would write an article saying that racism is rife in SA Rugby, and the other (me) countering that argument.
Now firstly, it would be stupid to deny that racism in rugby or sport does not exist. It exists here, it exists in New Zealand (just ask Pat Lam), it exists in Australia as Greg Ritchie made quite clear not too long ago, and of course it exists in Europe – you just have to follow football to know this. Fact is, racism can be found in many ways, many forms, and many sports all over the world, what we need to guard against is tainting the sport, or a certain group of individuals under the same brush because of some radical idiots and their actions and remarks.
In South African sport the issue of racism working against the transformation goals is often brought up. Just last year Heyneke Meyer was accused of being racist because he did not pick certain individuals for the Springboks, and more recently, Cricket South Africa was in the news again warning the Proteas management to pick more black players ‘or else…’.
I find accusations like these against high profile, professional coaches not only absurd but insulting – but I despise it even more because it is an easy cop-out to the real problems we face to successfully transform the game to represent the demographics of the country.
Here is a fun fact for readers; Did you know that black and coloured players make up over 50% of all rugby players at schools and club levels? In some areas in the south of the country, this figure goes up to 60% and in specific areas (like the Eastern Cape) even exceeds that! So what are the questions we should ask? Should it be if we are producing enough black talent at grass-roots level or rather, why we are losing them as we move to professional structures?
As easy as it is to scream racism as the cause for not seeing black players come through the ranks and become professional rugby players, the reasons are actually quite simple.
As much as the average numbers suggests that enough black players are taking up the game at school and club level the reality is that the majority of players are from the southern parts of South Africa, or the coastal regions and specifically the Eastern Cape. In the North, the numbers drop significantly to as low as 10% in certain areas. The problem we have in the north is due to a number of factors but the most important one is that only about 4% of schools in this region offer rugby as a sport in school. In fact, overall numbers of kids playing the game up north have dropped significantly from 1995 to now.
What is now created is a bottle-neck effect where the majority of black players are centralised to specific regions, and what compounds the problem of converting these numbers to elite levels is that the rugby infrastructures in these regions have also unfortunately been neglected quite badly over the past couple of years.
What transpires is that while some of these talented youngsters are identified, they are forced out of their provinces and homes to go play elsewhere where proper academies and institutes exist (ironically up North). But to fully understand the impact this will have on any young kid you have to understand the socio-economic environment they grow up in or as Dr Willie Basson who studied this said; “The problem in the south is not transformation, it is how one goes about improving the quality of rugby played in that region, particularly in the Eastern Cape, where rugby-playing profiles mimic population demographics at school and club level.”
Dr Basson went on to say that; “The performances of those kids from the Eastern and Western Cape and other previously disadvantaged players are seriously impacted by factors originating from the multidimensional environments in which they function.
They are taken away from their homes to play rugby in another province, in a totally different environment. In addition, there are also sometimes extraordinary social factors from home and family issues that will impact on them,” he said.
These factors affected their game and coaches lost faith in them. From this highly professional environment the player then returned home to various social issues, including family abuse, drugs and unplanned pregnancies.
Furthermore, South Africa’s 40 percent unemployment rate also contributed to the problem of losing talented black players.
“While these players are on the up in their game but don’t yet have contracts, they also have to worry about jobs. The job market is highly competitive and it is difficult for them to pursue a rugby career at the same time as working.
“These players then disappear from the scene and are lost to South African rugby. But two or three years earlier they were part of winning teams, bringing world cups home,” he said.
The one easy solution for these problems would be for SA Rugby to try and establish rugby as a much more prominent sport in schools up north to help even out the spread of black player talent being developed or introduced to the game, but that will require the help of government and that is easier said than done.
The other obvious solution would be to create a sustainable environment in the south and regions like the Eastern Cape through proper academies or institutes where more numbers are converted locally, but that would require the unions in this region to get their house in order and some might even believe we have a better chance to work with government up north than get this done.
SA Rugby will probably highlight the recent inclusion of the Kings in Super Rugby as a turning point in this regard, but how it was done is hardly sustainable. With a 1-year gig only we have already seen the Kings (EP based) not include a single player from neighbouring unions SWD and Border in their squad and with 5 foreigners included and only 9 players of colour the exercise defies the purpose.
We are currently only winning part of the transformation battle in rugby in South Africa, and SA Rugby has some tough decisions to make if we are to get away from the easy cop-out of screaming racism every time a Springbok coach does not select more black or coloured players. But if we can get to a point to move beyond labelling everything racist and deal with the actual problems, it will be a start.