Rugby, race and who the piper pays

2010-10-09 11:48

Rugby has a way of crystallising both the highs of reconciliation and the lows of transformation in our society.

There was uncontainable euphoria in May this year when the Super 14 Final was played at Orlando Stadium, Soweto, with the Blue Bulls and the Crusaders coming together for a game that ­qualified as nation building.

After a number of false starts on the road to reconciliation and transformation in rugby, perhaps we were finally on the right track?

Fast forward to September and rugby finds itself embroiled in yet another fracas over its poor pace of transformation.

This time, instead of the usual combatants, a sponsor has been caught in the scrum.

Absa is taking flak from ­Solidarity and Afriforum for “interfering” in the game.

Absa was well within its rights, as lead sponsor of the Currie Cup to question, and even reject the fielding of teams that pay lip service to transformation.

No sport is exempt from the core values of its sponsor.

What’s more, given our appalling history of segregation, transformation at all levels of our society is one of our most important goals. This is especially so in rugby.

Last October, at the height of the ASA-Leonard Chuene debacle, Nedbank ­announced its termination of its sponsorship.

Curiously, neither Solidarity nor Afriforum threatened a boycott of ­Nedbank – even though the tone of Nedbank’s language was much tougher than that in the gentle SMS that Absa’s Louis von Zeuner sent Saru’s Oregan Hoskins.

It is to Absa’s credit that both Zeuner and Absa’s Maria Ramos have stuck to their guns, and not adopted the belligerence of Solidarity and Afriforum.

Unless the likes of Solidarity and Afriforum are prepared to sponsor the Currie Cup so they can call the shots, they will have to accept that the values of this great tournament will reflect more than their narrow, quasi-sectarian interests.

Sports bodies expect their sponsors to fiercely protect the values associated with their brands.

Unfortunately for those who are tempted to wish away transformation in their beloved game, rugby’s very survival ­depends on how quickly it gets serious about transformation.

The game cannot thrive while drawing from a small talent pool, and the sooner those who claim custodianship of this game grasp this, the better.

It has become fashionable in some quarters to suggest that there is somehow a fatal tension between merit and transformation.

But those who say so forget too quickly that decades of separate development and segregated sport means that an artificial difference in the rugby talent pools was created.

Instead of the likes of Afriforum and Solidarity harping on about “merit” in rugby, they should realise that their antics against transformation only serve to highlight rugby’s faults, and ­obscure its achievements.

It must be deplored by all who care for rugby that the ecstasy of those two ­historic Super 14 rugby games in Soweto has given way to the now familiar but pointless merit vs transformation ­stalemate.

With the likes of Solidarity and Afriforum hellbent on sustaining the deadlock, you have to wonder if rugby will ever be able to build on the momentum generated by the glorious conclusion of the ­tournament.

It is not as if earlier opportunities have not been wasted – as if the goodwill created during the historic 1995 Rugby World Cup has not been allowed to lapse.

The truth is that reconciliation is not a spectator sport: it can only happen when there is genuine give and take.

Only then will we not have to wait for symbolic rugby games like the ones that took place in Soweto for us to be ­reminded of the power of this game to bring us together.

» Dlamini is a director of Chillibush Advertising and Dlamini Weil Communications

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