Team selection

2009-01-30 00:00

GOVERNMENTS have a legitimate interest in the administration of national sport. The belief that sport and politics have no connection is misleading when many people make lucrative careers from matches played against a backdrop of patriotic, flag-waving fervour. But all reasonable South Africans will applaud reports that planned regulations giving the minister of sport effective power over team selection have been shelved.

In the eighties, current Minister of Sport and Recreation, Makhenkesi Stofile, a talented player from the home of black rugby in the Eastern Cape, occupied an important and honourable role in campaigning against apartheid in sport. In those days there was one quota and it was absolute: only whites were selected for South Africa. Stofile visited New Zealand to support the boycott against rugby tours, a brave move at a time when the government of a police state called its opponents sports terrorists.

It is thus hard to understand why Stofile would want to exercise the power to interfere and select on the basis of ethnicity when most South African teams are now effectively transformed. Was it a case of victim turned victimiser? Or part of an Africanist agenda that simmered beneath the surface of Thabo Mbeki’s administration? In the absence of any evidence that transformation was being obstructed, the proposed measure was a betrayal of those who struggled for nonracial sport. And the Olympic Charter expressly forbids government interference and discrimination of any kind.

There are broader lessons in this episode. The idea that professionals should, by and large, be left to get on with running what they know best should apply in all areas of South African life. Catastrophic failure of the health and education systems can be traced to undue political interference in specialised matters.

However, since international readmission in the early nineties, unwarranted complacency has often affected the sports establishment, leading to many controversies and crises. One continuing omission is a lack of respect for the history of black sport under segregation and apartheid. Most sports commentators and writers seldom refer to it. And as long as sport remains a symbol of nationalism, it will remain on the political agenda.

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