Mind games: Can a transformation charter address rugby’s racial bias?

2015-02-22 15:00

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The intentions of SA Rugby Union (Saru) CEO Jurie Roux are doubtless sincere, but one wonders whether he is going to wish he let sleeping dogs lie.

Roux has invited members of the rugby media to attend “transformation strategy briefings” in Cape Town and Johannesburg this week with the theme “delivering rugby’s future”.

Notices of the meetings came against the backdrop of the start of the Super Rugby competition (round two was played on Friday and yesterday) and the elephant in the dressing room has been the demographic make-up of the five South African teams.

All fall well short of “targets” ostensibly set by Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula in a belligerent message in April last year.

The minister, who tends to be better at the grandstanding parts of sport than the playing of it, said the 50-50 quota system for sport (even though most sporting bodies deny there is a racial component to selection) would be increased to 60% representation, following a meeting with MECs for sport.

According to media reports at the time, Mbalula said the group had decided on the increase after noting a “lack of willingness in implementing transformation, especially the enforcement of quotas”.

It was threatened that failure to implement the new quotas would result in the withdrawal of funding and support to federations and sports bodies.

Even a target of 50% black representation is realistically unattainable for various reasons – perhaps racial, perhaps prejudicial on the part of some officials, but mostly because sufficiently capable black players in those numbers are just not available. So most turned a deaf ear to the minister’s blustering.

It was business as usual and, when the Bulls, Cheetahs, Lions, Sharks and Stormers teams were announced, comment focused on rugby imperatives – injuries, new caps, different combinations and the like.

All five teams have fallen well short of the kind of representation Mbalula has envisaged.

It grieves me to even write in these terms, but such is the unavoidable South African narrative.

Only the Stormers were able to field as many as eight black (including coloured) players. They comprised 35% of the 23-man squad. The Bulls, Lions and Cheetahs, in the first two weeks of the tournament, have fielded as few as four.

As far back as 2003 Silas Nkanunu, then president of Saru, introduced what he called “vision 2003” for local rugby and, at the end of that year, shortly before he was ousted by Brian van Rooyen, lamented in his annual report that at Springbok level “we were found wanting”.

Nkanunu pointed out that at schools, age group and Sevens levels South African rugby passed muster on the issue for which it has often had to answer before the parliamentary portfolio committee on sport, but at top senior level the numbers changed dramatically.

This is still the case.

Subsequently, Saru has worked with Willie Basson. His recommendations tend to be based on persuasive race group numbers rather than taking into account social, financial and aspirational factors to assist in developing a “transformation charter”.

Current Saru president Oregan Hoskins has made the complete normalisation of rugby a goal of his, but he can still not hold up his hand and say “I have succeeded”.

Now chief executive Roux clearly has a new plan, but the upshot may well be that he causes Minister Mbalula to forget for a while about Julius Malema and aim his double-barrelled verbal shotgun back in the direction of rugby.

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