No need to fear genuine transformation

The transformation of sport, like the rest of society, is not a choice. It is essential if we are to move forward as a country, writes Ryland Fisher.

A few years ago I attended a function where I could count on one hand the number of people who were not white. I ended up listening to a conversation where someone said words to this effect, very strongly, and almost angrily: “They must leave rugby alone. I don’t care what they say, blacks have never played rugby. They can mess up other sports but must leave rugby to us.”

It was one of those awkward moments when I felt obliged to respond but did not want to risk getting involved in a huge argument, which I did not feel like at the time. I have learnt over the years that you should choose your battles wisely in the hope of winning the war eventually. So I kept quiet but could not stop thinking about what had been said.

I found myself thinking about this again this week when I noticed the vitriol with which Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula’s action against untransformed sports bodies, including rugby, was greeted.

The minister decided four major sports federations could no longer bid to host international events until they had met their transformation targets.

I don’t think people were as upset about cricket, athletics or netball. But in many quarters, “rugby is not a religion, it is much more important”, as a former sports editor at the Cape Times used to say.

Of course there are many myths about the support for rugby from a player and spectator point of view. Rugby, while many would like to believe it has always been played mainly by whites, has actually been played by blacks (especially coloureds and Africans) for many years, especially during the apartheid years.

I grew up having to choose between rugby and soccer. You could not choose both because both were winter sports and were normally played on a Saturday.

At some point I played rugby on Saturday and soccer on Sundays, but this could not be sustained.

We played all over, on the Cape Flats, in the townships and even toured the Eastern Cape where we played mainly in the African townships.

There was huge spectator support wherever we played and we were not even professionals. But we were aware that white rugby, if one can call it that, enjoyed huge corporate support and those were the only people featured on television and radio.

One of the arguments that is always raised whenever there is talk about transformation in sports is: what about soccer?

So, what about soccer? Soccer has never had a problem with transformation. It has never sought to actively exclude the majority of the population, like some people in rugby did.

One of the problems with soccer is white South Africans see it as a black sport, even though it is, by far, the biggest and most profitable sport in the world.

They prefer to support foreign soccer teams but turn their backs on local teams. How many former Model C schools offer soccer as an option? Not many.

And this is part of the reason whites have never really thrown their support behind soccer.

If you have to get up early on a Saturday morning to take your little one for soccer games - as many parents do for rugby, cricket or hockey - then it somehow forces you to develop an affinity for the game.

One of the problems with rugby is it is perceived as a white sport and there are people who are trying to retain that skewed status quo.

The transformation of sport, like the rest of society, is not a choice. It is essential if we are to move forward as a country.

We cannot, 22 years after we became a democracy, still have the sports minister having to resort to heavy-handed tactics to get sports federations to transform.

We also cannot have a situation where the report of the Commission on Employment Equity finds most management positions are still occupied by white men. It shows things have not really changed in workplaces throughout the country.

There are genuinely some people who believe if you embrace transformation, you will lessen your chances of success, whether it be in sport, business, academia or any other sector of society.

I believe people who embrace transformation fully and totally, and not because they are forced by legislation, the minister or a commission, will grow as our democracy grows.

It makes sense, after all, to have a wider pool of talent from which to choose, in the case of sport or academia, and to have a potential wider market, in the case of business.

Transformation should be seen as an opportunity and not as a problem.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 30 April 2016)