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This article is taken from the September 1999 Phatlalatsa newsletter

 

Sport and the South African nation

Much has been written about the role sport can and sometimes does play in the reconstruction and development of South Africa. Indeed worldwide, much is written of the role sport plays in a divided society or one in transition.

There seems little doubt that South Africa is, on the whole, a sports-mad country. It would also appear, at a first glance, that sport in South Africa can play an important role in nation building. One had only to drive down Jan Smuts Avenue after the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final or be at the First National Bank stadium in 1996 after Bafana Bafana had won the Africa Cup of Nations, to witness the potential that sport has to overcome the racial divides that characterise much of South African society.

And yet the potential for sport in South Africa to further divide our society also exists. The recent furores around the apparent lack of transformation of two of the traditionally white sports, namely cricket and rugby, have prompted politicians, civil servants and sport administrators to engage in a series of attacks and rebuttals.

Allegations of racism and rugby have been frequent bed-partners over the last few years. The recent adoption of the Transformation Charter by the United Cricket Board further highlights the pressure on South African sport to broaden their constituencies.

Other sporting codes will undoubtedly be under pressure to adopt similar strategies and processes. From the debate that has raged on, mainly in the press, what is seemingly important is that sport in South Africa must be seen to be addressing the inequalities and inequities of the past.

What does the average citizen of this country think about sport and its role in society? A national survey of 3000 respondents, undertaken for the Kaiser Family Foundation, sought to address this question. Respondents were asked about their level of agreement with two statements:

  • Sport is important for building unity in South Africa; and
  • All sporting teams should have to reflect the racial make-up of South Africa.

As one would expect, the vast majority of respondents (85%) agree with the first statement. This is true across the different races where the majority were in agreement that sport is important for building unity. While Africans were more likely to strongly agree than their counterparts, at least three quarters of respondents in each race were in general agreement with the statement.

The findings around the second statement reveal differences. Two thirds of all respondents (66%) agreed with the statement. While there is still agreement among approximately three quarters of Africans, coloureds and Indians with the statement, the level of agreement amongst whites drops dramatically to 23%, with only 6% strongly agreeing with the statement.

What is also worth noting is that sport is one of the top three areas where all South Africans think that government should cut its spending in order to focus limited resources elsewhere. Sport mad South Africans may be, but there is, fortunately, enough pragmatism left in this country to see that our resources can be better spent elsewhere.

Where does this leave one in terms of the debate around the role of sport in South Africa? It would appear that sport can and should play an important part in the nation building process in South Africa. This potential for sport to aid in the broader nation building process needs to be harnessed and well directed so that it can be realised.

However, it would also seem that, given the level of agreement among the vast majority of South Africans, that serious attention needs to be paid to the composition of sporting teams and their administrations. Whether this involves legislation, quotas or coherent transformation programmes is yet another matter for debate.

 

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