Sibongile Mafu

Counting the blacks in the team

2012-09-12 08:30

Sibongile Mafu

We all do it. We all instinctively count the number of black people in our rugby team, the number of black people in our cricket team and the number of black people who win Olympic medals.

I usually don't get past my thumb and index finger when I do. The words "transformation" and "representation" are probably the two most abused words in South Africa's young democracy, next to "development" and those Julius Malema nuggets against that BBC reporter.

These two words are mumbled quietly by South Africans as they watch a Bok team announcement or as the nation celebrates a now expected Proteas test series victory against England. The country is proud of the success but there is always a "But..."

Sing when we're winning, but...

Things are great when we're winning. We all happily greet our athletes at OR Tambo Airport for yet another flag-waving homecoming, but there's that voice at the back of my mind that can't help but think: "that's it?"

Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula has been quite vocal about the government's stance on transformation, often using the word "vigorously" to emphasise his continued commitment to resolving transformation issues in this country. When he says "vigorously", I know he's serious. The recently-formed transformation commission has been a conscious, visible step towards making transformation not only a conversation but an action. The commission's main responsibilities will be to analyse ways to bridge the divide and implement a quota system that will place accountability at the forefront.

Change ultimately begins with a shift in mind-set, and anyone standing in the way of progression, even in government, would be named and shamed by the commission.

No surprise or gift

I'm from the Eastern Cape, which is probably the province where the issue of transformation or the lack thereof, hits you on the forehead a little harder than an Eben Etzebeth headbutt. The home of South Africa's most loved sport, rugby, the Eastern Cape can be used as a case study for the shortcoming of this transformation process. Young, promising rugby players grow old in bankrupt club sides in the townships, their talent never seeing the bright lights of a stadium other than Dan Qeqe in Zwide, Port Elizabeth.

My Dad runs a rugby club in PE. He played rugby during apartheid, back when it was, and many would say still is, the white man's game. He loves the game and during the many conversations I have had with him, his sense of frustration with how stagnant true sports development in this country is, is heartbreaking. He tells me there is no quick fix, but the fact that much of South Africa rejoices when that odd black person makes it in elite sport, like it is a surprise or a gift, is problematic.

We have the numbers. There should be surprise when we don't. Being both a teacher and coach, and also an ex-player, he says he has seen all the facets of this struggle. Nothing is more frustrating than unfulfilled potential, other than perhaps potential that doesn't even get a look-in. This is where we are. We can preach development from the highest of towers, but if it is never given the opportunity to not only reach, but also compete at the highest level, then it is in vain.

The Eastern Cape has been under the spotlight lately, with the Southern Kings soon to make their Super Rugby debut as well as IRB 7s Rugby going into its second year of being hosted in the Friendly City. There is a sense of pride within the province but also a feeling that the road, just like the real roads in the province, is littered with countless road works.

More than just sport

The big, gaping pot holes caused by segregation, exclusion and discrimination will take a while to repair. Individuals flourish in an environment where they feel they are empowered and perform better when surrounded by strong supportive structures. From player to coach to administrator, being able to feel like a true participant and partner in the transformation process is the only way the boat that was so badly damaged by apartheid, can be reconstructed.

Sport is not just a ball and field in a beautifully built and hopefully fraud-free stadium. It is a search for empowerment, excellence and pride. When I look at a team sheet and see the names of Lwazi Mvovo and Siya Kolisi, my excitement is not just about seeing their names in the team but a sign that the small battles are slowly being won, but the war is much greater.

Some youngsters can make it through, but it shouldn't be this much of a struggle. All you hope for is that they don't fade away and don't eventually end up being disgruntled could-have-beens telling their stories in township taverns to anyone who will listen.

- Sibongile is a videographer, blogger and social media enthusiast who would be nothing without her thumbs. Follow her on Twitter: @SboshMafu.

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