The Multi-level Politics of South African Sports Teams

2015-08-13 20:00

Many South Africans love their distinctive and immutable categories. Socialised experts at racial or clan purity, it is not surprising that they then cling to the notion of ‘Sports Purity’ – the impossible idea that sports and politics should not mix. The reality is that whether you go as far back in time to the gladiators of the Roman Empire; the use of sports by the British Empire; the idea of the Country, the rise of Nationalism and the national team; Apartheid; the lobbying and international diplomacy involved in hosting the Olympics, Soccer, Cricket and Rugby World Cups – it is inescapable, sports always implies politics.

Politicians still view it as a useful tool for creating a national identity to control and distract the masses, even if momentarily, from their incompetence.  This partly explains why many parents voluntarily send their children to war to support their beloved country and leader.  In this Age of consumerism, Captains of Capital, spread their ideology through sport because they understand that it is a useful tool for creating brand identities. This partly explains why we love teams from the BPL, NFL, IPL and buy the global brands they endorse, etc. Take a look at what the spin-off of consumerism, professionalism, has meant for rugby and cricket. In test matches these days, fast bowlers seem reluctant to bowl their heart out and fullbacks seem more unwilling to suck up a crunching tackle because they may risk injury (After all, they have to honour their other contract).

Ivy League schools still retain the privilege of producing the future sporting talent because of their so-called rich traditions. School coaches continue to give preference to the child whose parent is either the chair of the school governing body, a generous donor, or more commonly a good ol’ Kissup, or someone who employs a combination strategy. The school team captain continues to bench team members simply because they come from the other side of the town. Bigoted coaches at higher levels continue to give preference to players belonging to their district, province, race or religion, and so we can go on....  The point is, like it or not, team sport in South Africa, like in many other nations, involves multiple levels of politics.

However what really distinguishes us from the great sporting nations is that with all these macro and micro level political challenges, the egocentric bigots who call the shots and the submissive cowards that merely front sports administration, have done very little over the last 20 years to make sports more inclusive by addressing these challenges. They seem to have been too busily involved in elaborate bonus schemes and extravagant sporting gala events, instead of creating both a culture of sporting excellence and more representative national teams. In doing so, they have helped maintain exclusionary fictions, such as, that it is mainly White men who can play world class rugby and cricket. They have also helped materialise new fictions like Black men are generally better suited for playing soccer and sports administration. Not surprisingly then, not even half of the players in the cricket and rugby national teams are Black today, yet Black is apparently fit enough to lead and dominate the administrative ranks.

Perhaps those aspiring to be career athletes are better off choosing an individual sport – for example, golf, tennis, swimming or athletics – where beating the course, an opponent, or the clock are objective measures of excellence. Unfortunately, a career in team sports in South Africa requires that you expose yourself to the subjectivity of macro and micro level politics in a culture that resists equal opportunity and merit.

A talented athlete’s destiny should not have to be stolen by petty politicians – from school captains, national coaches, sport administrators to ministers, from the school level up to national government level – who distort and mangle what merit means.

Anyway, I think we should name our ‘renaissance’ in sports (developed since 1994), like most of our other ‘new’ institutions – a kleptocracy – and a multi-level one at that.  There is a better, more honest system or ideology we could use to mix both sports and politics more effectively at all levels in our society – one from a distant past, one that was never truly been a major part of our norms and values, and one that has in all likelihood even increasingly diminished since apartheid’s aftermath.

It is called a meritocracy: But this idea probably sounds like ancient Greek to the typical South African.

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