Max du Preez

Shaka's children in the scrum

2007-06-06 10:03

Max du Preez

Public debate in South Africa can be very frustrating. Too often people only hear what they want to hear. Too often people simply withdraw into their laager, be it racial or ideological, and attack and defend from there.

Take the continuing brouhaha in national rugby circles as an example. The (mostly white) rugby establishment insists vehemently that it is committed to transformation and non-racialism.

The ANC's rugby wing (the parliamentary portfolio committee on sport, the Stofile clan and an assortment of Youth League demagogues) wants us to believe the sport is still dominated by white supremacists.

Every few months we go round and round with the same arguments and end up at the same place of suspicion and mistrust. The rugby men draw their strength from the fact that they were put there by the sport's different structures and provinces and that most of the paying spectators agree with them.

The ANC rugby wing draws their strength from the fact that they represent the vast majority of citizens and from their claim to a monopoly on the moral high ground.

Blame the British

I blame the British for this impasse. It was the British colonialists' fault that Zulus never really played rugby. Ever since Dingane's little altercation with Piet Retief and the two sides' tête-à-tête at Blood River, the Zulus and the Boere had this affinity for each other.

If black rugby was dominated by Zulus instead of Xhosas, we need only appoint braai-buddies Steve Hofmeyr and Jacob Zuma as joint presidents of the SA Rugby Union and all problems would be solved.

They could even sing a duet at rugby Tests, something like "Pass me my machine gun, you bull who doesn't eat off the floor". Mangosuthu Buthelezi can become the coach - not only is he the master of fancy footwork, he's also dropped many a political ball in his day. (Jake White can be the Chief's assistant, but only after he changed his name to Jake Swartbooi.) And then we call the national team the Springbok Impis. Instant national unity.

No easy solution

Alas, there won't be any such easy solutions. When the favourite rugby player of the racist, beer-swilling rugby masses is a black player (Bryan Habana), when a lily-white player is declared black because of his father's politics (Luke Watson), and when a 1,8m tall, 100kg flyhalf is called "Liefling" (Derrick Hougaard), you know things are not always what they seem.

I think the rugby hierarchy and the ANC's rugby wing should be forced to undergo political re-education, starting with Jake White and the Stofile brothers Makhenkesi (Minister of Sport) and Mike (deputy president of the SA Rugby Union). They all behave like bantam cocks on steroids.

Jake White's decision to ice out Luke Watson and his imperial declaration season after season that Watson wasn't "part of his plans" for the future clearly had nothing to do with Watson's rugby abilities. Watson was already playing Super 12 rugby when he couldn't even make it into the national under 21 squad.

Even former Springbok Brendan Venter, one of the more astute analysts of the game, recently stated that Watson's exclusion from the original Springbok training camp was not a rugby decision.

Why Jake, why?

I don't know why White hates Watson. The only explanation at hand is that it is a hangover of the resentment in the old white rugby establishment against Watson's father Cheeky's political activism - and the latter's closeness to the ANC's rugby wing. Whatever the reason, White's behaviour was petty, an abuse of his position and politically very stupid.

But then White and his selectors were forced, at least in part by the ANC rugby wing, to add Watson's name to the group and as I write it is speculated that he will become a proper Bok during the Test against Samoa. It was the correct decision, but made for the wrong reasons. Watson should have been included because he is good enough to be a Bok, not, as was stated at the time, because of his family's history of activism or because he was an "honorary black".

On many occasions since he became the coach, White was faced with the choice of two players with more or less the same abilities, but one was black and the other white. On every one of those occasions he should have gone for the black player - that's what corrective action should be about. Only in most cases he didn't.

The Stofiles and company keep on making veiled threats about an enforced quota system and about government action to counter a lack of transformation in rugby. There are even threats to take the name Springbok away.

Most reasonable rugby enthusiasts agree that it would be good for the game if there were more black Super 14 and Springbok players. But there is no doubt in my mind that a rigid quota system will hurt the game deeply. And Proteas simply cannot be the name of a proud rugby squad.

AA all over the place

The situation is similar to affirmative action and education. Government is pursuing an aggressive policy of affirmative action, but grossly neglecting primary and high school education. Mostly black learners are hurt by that. So where will the affirmative action candidates of tomorrow come from? Will we in the end have to appoint illiterate people to senior management positions just because they're black?

The way to transformation in rugby is through actively stimulating and helping rugby on school, club and provincial level. Build proper sports grounds, deploy trained coaches, start academies for promising youngsters. There's enough money in South African rugby, that's for sure.

When the products of these projects leave school, we won't have to "affirm" any of them - they'll be obvious choices for teams because of their rugby abilities. (Perhaps then we will have to re-introduce a sort of a quota system in ten, fifteen years - for white players.)

More than just rugby is at stake. As important as soccer is to some nations (at least one war was fought about a lost soccer game), so is rugby important to many South Africans. Making rugby transformation a success without weakening our teams, and without constant political interference, will be a major contribution to national cohesion.

And don't forget about popularising the game among the Zulus. We can do with a few of Shaka's children in the scrum.

Send your comments to Max.

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