There are potential economic benefits in sports

When Bill Clinton stood for election as American president in 1992, one of his campaign slogans was “The economy, stupid”. Not much has changed since then and, increasingly, people are realising that most things in life revolve around the economy.

For some strange reason, I was thinking about this as I watched South African cricketers Lungi Ngidi bowling from the Pavilion end and Kagiso Rabada bowling from the Hennops River end at SuperSport Park in Centurion in the second Test against India this week.

I thought about how in a country with a majority of black people there are still some who insist that certain sports should not be transformed to represent the majority in our country.

Sport has always been like a religion to many in South Africa. In fact, I had a sports editor once who said that rugby was not a religion, it was more than that.

Therefore, it makes sense that some people will be sensitive when it comes to sport and want to hold on to the way things have always been. They tend to forget that since 1994 we have officially moved away from our apartheid past.

I hope these backward-looking people will now realise that one of the main objectives in sport is to win, and you can win with transformed teams.

But transformation does not happen on its own. Those in leadership need to commit themselves to transforming their organisations. Transformation should never be about quotas. It should rather be about giving opportunities to those who were deprived of chances in the past.

Ngidi, on debut for the Proteas, and Rabada, who last week became the number one Test bowler in the world, have shown how racist thinking needs to stop permeating our sporting codes, especially rugby and cricket. Choose the best players, but give black players the chance to prove they can be the best.

But what has all of this got to do with the economy?

In a country such as South Africa, where you have so much unemployment, I am amazed that the government has not seen the potential economic benefits of sports, arts and culture. Apart from the obvious benefits, if managed properly, can potentially help alleviate poverty in many townships.

We have so much natural talent in our townships, whether it is in music or sports, yet not much is being done to nurture it or turn it into something that could productively contribute to the economy.

Most artists and cultural organisations, as well as most sporting organisations, I know are struggling.

It appears to be only at a professional level in some sports where there is a bit of money. In most cases, it does not cost much to play a sport or to engage in cultural activities. In most townships, you will find young people kicking balls, some of them home-made. And it is not unusual to find people playing music on guitars which they made themselves or which they fixed.

For most of the past 20 years, I have been involved in a project which hosted community festivals in various communities on the Cape Flats. After every event, I walked away thinking about how talented people in those communities were.

But most of the young people who performed at these festivals did not go on to have a career in the entertainment industry, because there is not a nurturing and supportive environment to help them along. But we have also hosted many sports tournaments as part of this project and, again, I have been astounded at the talent on display.

Sadly, many youngsters do not continue in sport beyond high school, because of a variety of factors.

For instance, there are not too many sporting scholarships in South Africa, so you must be more than special to be given academic support based on your sporting capabilities. In the same way, you must be mega-talented to be granted a music scholarship. Or you must know someone who knows someone.

But it starts before this. It starts with creating an environment in schools where young children are encouraged to play sport or participate in cultural activities. It starts with parents encouraging their children to participate in sport or culture because it is a way that they could potentially make a living.

Until government and corporates see the potential economic benefits of sports, arts and culture, these two areas of life will always be treated like they are unimportant. A forward-looking and progressive government would see its value. After all, almost everything in life comes back to the economy, stupid.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 20 January 2018)