It’s not just rugby team managers and coaches who need to drive transformation in rugby, says SIPHUMELELE ZONDI. Rugby fans also need to get on board with transformation.
As South Africa counts down the days to the Rugby World Cup, the question of transformation in the sport is back in the limelight.
The squad that has been selected to represent South Africa is not a true representation of the demographics of the country with only eight players of colour being selected in a squad of 31.
Despite the number of brilliant black players that South Africa has, no Springbok team has been truly representative of the country’s demographics.
Looking at the squad representing South Africa at the World Cup, you would think we still don’t have enough black players of world class standard, even after 21 years of democracy in a predominantly black country. But some of the players of colour overlooked for spots in the team this year include Teboho Mohoje, Seabelo Senatla, and Scarra Ntubeni, to name just a few.
This resistance to transformation is not just something we see from the South African Rugby Union (SARU) and the coaches it selects. White, Afrikaans rugby fans also don’t want to see black people being included in the sport that is still widely considered to be reserved for white people.
This resistance can be seen in the way black fans are treated at stadiums in South Africa.
When I went to watch a Springbok match at Loftus Versfeld with two black friends, the people seated behind us started shouting in Afrikaans, saying that football was only going to be played in Pretoria the following day. We turned around and said to them that it’s not football that we wanted to watch. I have never been back to a rugby stadium since that day.
The men in the stands had clearly decided that rugby is a white man’s sport and to them, it was right that the fans would be predominantly white and Afrikaans. To them, black people should stick to football and not dilute rugby and make it a black man’s game as that would be stealing the sport away from the people they see as the rightful owners – white men.
To the white men shouting in the stadium, football is the sport that should be reserved for black people in South Africa. I have heard many similar stories from other black people who have gone to watch rugby in South African stadiums.
Fans that resist transformation in the stands would also resist transformation on the field and in the management and ownership of the sport in the country, as well as the inclusion of more than eight players black in the 31-man squad.
But transformation in rugby would not mean stealing the sport away from anyone.
What the white, Afrikaans men who go to the stadium every weekend fail to understand is that a call for transformation is a call for inclusion. It means that players of all races should be given an equal chance from development level through to professional level. A call for transformation in rugby means that children must grow up playing rugby together, irrespective of race, and that fans of all races and backgrounds should be made welcome at stadiums when rugby is played.
It also means that the kids who grew up playing rugby together in predominantly white private schools and former Model C schools need to continue being given an equal chance at provincial and national level. This equal chance needs to continue when they go for selection trials with the big provincial teams in South Africa.
Rugby teams that play in the Varsity Cup tournament in South Africa are also still generally white and one wonders where black players that represent their teams well at high school level disappear too at university level.
If, 21 years since the end of apartheid, we are still complaining about the lack of good enough black players then there surely must be measures that ensure black kids are introduced to rugby as an option they can select at a young age and this can be done through the creation of relevant structures in townships by those that are invested in South African rugby and care about its future.
In order for all of this to happen though, there needs to be commitment from the very top. The South African Rugby Union needs to guide everyone who has a stake in rugby, including the coach and fans, through the transformation.
Transformation needs to become more than just a word or a project, always in the planning phase, or talented players of colour will continue to be excluded from national and provincial teams and black fans will continue to be subjected to racism in the stadiums.