from Africa in Transition

Rugby, Race, and South Africa

June 3, 2016

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South Africa’s sporting record is outstanding. The country regularly produces world-class performances in golf, tennis, cricket, rugby, and soccer (‘football’). As with much else, sports in South Africa are shaped by race. Under apartheid, like everything else, sports were strictly segregated by race. White South Africans, especially, were ‘sports mad,’ and felt keenly the imposition of sporting sanctions as part of the world wide anti-apartheid campaign. Of the two mass spectator sports, rugby was ‘white’ while soccer was ‘black.’ Other sports, such as tennis and golf, were almost exclusively play by white South Africans.

Twenty-one years after the ‘transition to non-racial democracy,’ the pattern remains largely the same. Whites, about 9 percent of the population, dominate golf, tennis, cricket, and rugby. Soccer is almost entirely black, with the national squad having a sole white player. The Springboks, the national rugby team, has thirty-six players, of whom twelve are “of color,” with the ‘majority’ being black Africans. (The others ‘of color’ are likely to be coloured, who often regard themselves as a separate race, or ‘Asians’.)

The policy of the governing African National Congress (ANC) is the ‘transformation’ of sports to ensure the end of apartheid injustices. To that end, the Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula, has announced he will ban certain South African sports bodies from hosting international events “because of their failure to reach their transformation target.” The sports targeted are cricket, netball, and rugby. Despite ANC policy, a recent South African Institute of Race Relations poll indicates that over 70 percent of black South Africans believe sports teams should be chosen based purely on merit, and not the transformation goals.

As with affirmative action in the United States, mathematical percentages loom large in the South African debate. For example, one South African tweeted, “White people make up 8.9 percent of South Africa’s population. One white player in #Bafana is 9.1 percent of team, which is more than enough #Transformation #Mbalula” (Bafana Bafana is the male national soccer team’s nickname.)

Black South Africans have been slow to make a mark in certain sports where the costs of participation can be high. Hence, in part, the paucity of black South African tennis or cricket players. Their impact, however, is growing in prominence in rugby.

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