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Douglas Booth probes the current state of play in South African policy-making - that of sports policy - that are also proving to be mine-fields, albeit of a more figurative and immediately political kind. As Booth says: "Sadly, one finds little evidence of structural reform in South African sport. While some former anti-apartheid activists use sport to empower local communities, the majority view it as a convenient route to self-enrichment or, at best, as a symbol of racial reconciliation. Few care about developing sport in disadvantaged communities.

vol 11 no 1

South Africa: Elite sport is winning
Douglas Booth

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 1, November 1995
Page 27
"South Africa"



Douglas Booth teaches history in the School of Physical Education at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He returned earlier this year from a research trip to South Africa.

"The scenes were surely unmatched by anything we have seen in our history," wrote columnist Mondi Makhanya describing the aftermath of South Africa's victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup: "[President] Nelson Mandela hugged [team captain] François Pienaar at Ellis Park [stadium], and black and white South Africans rejoiced together in city streets around the country." "While the emotion and joy that accompanied the inauguration of President Mandela ostensibly marked the end of white domination and the beginning of black rule," Makhanya added, "the past week's [rugby] celebrations are supposed to have represented the unified nation's triumph over a foreign foe. It was therefore an occasion for all to celebrate."

Indeed, there is much to celebrate in the new South Africa, including reforms in sport. But any analysis and evaluation of the sports situation must look beyond smiling throngs and a gleeful President in a Springbok jersey and cap. A useful starting point in this task is John Saul's distinction between structural reform and social reform.

Structural reform means community empowerment. In a sports context this involves the provision of sports facilities, the development of sporting skills and the enhancement of sporting opportunities among the disadvantaged. It also requires a critical political context which links sport to other social practices. Through this process the structural reform of sport extends into empowerment in areas such as health, education, employment, transport and community representation. By contrast, the social reform of sport means redressing isolated grievances. In South Africa this refers mostly to the deracialization of elite privileges in sport.

Sadly, one finds little evidence of structural reform in South African sport. While some former anti-apartheid activists use sport to empower local communities, the majority view it as a convenient route to self-enrichment or, at best, as a symbol of racial reconciliation. Few care about developing sport in disadvantaged communities.

The so-called unity talks sowed the seeds of the current problems in South African sport. The unity talks, which took place between 1990 and 1994, consisted of negotiations between officials of the non-racial movement and establishment sport. The objectives were to unite the two blocs and put in place sports development programs in the townships. Negotiations achieved neither.

South African sport was a battleground in the 1980s. The non-racial movement's boycott strategies left the country's sportspeople isolated, with rebel tours the sole source of international competition. Rebel sport ground to a halt in 1990. The year before, a small group of non-racial sportspeople formed the National Sports Congress (NSC) which organized mass demonstrations against the rebel English cricket tour led by Mike Gatting. That tour collapsed after three weeks and the NSC used its victory to force establishment sport to enter negotiations.

Unity talks were prerequisites for South Africa's readmission to international sport. International federations, such as the International Olympic Committee, would only readmit sports governed by one national controlling association. The collapse of the Gatting tour appeared to hand the reins of sport to the NSC: this was not so. The NSC lacked the resources to negotiate with, or even monitor, every establishment sport. Of the more than 120 sports in South Africa, only some two dozen entered serious negotiations. And in every case tension and conflict racked those negotiations.

NSC and establishment officials arrived at the negotiating table with completely different agendas. The NSC wanted to deracialize and democratize sport; it wanted to create united non- racial administrative structures that would empower disadvantaged communities. Preservation of the status quo preoccupied establishment sport; it feared loss of authority and dilution of privileges. One rugby official reflected the suspicions and sentiments of the entire establishment when he said, "we will not be bullied into surrendering all we have built up through the years."

The NSC confronted numerous internal problems. Lack of resources forced it to recruit the incompetent and the opportunistic. Many NSC officials lacked the skills necessary for tough negotiation. Few had training in sports management or administration. Most lacked the energy, ruthlessness, and moral resolve to tackle equity and justice issues. For many recruits, the NSC was a fortuitous avenue to self-enrichment in an uncertain, rapidly changing environment.

Unity was mostly a sham. Typically it consisted of a black ceremonial head and a sprinkling of black personalities among a core of white administrators who refused to change even their uniforms and banners. Not surprisingly, many of South Africa's new sports associations, supposedly united in tough negotiations, were exceedingly fragile. Rugby officials convened a Crisis Committee in October 1992 to prevent unity from collapsing. In March 1993, the NSC appointed a retired supreme court judge to investigate political turmoil in athletics. This was 13 months after athletics had supposedly united. In August 1993 the International Amateur Athletics Federation cited disunity as the reason for refusing Athletics South Africa full membership.

Interference from the African National Congress (ANC) and international sports federations compounded the NSC's problems. The ANC and international sport disenfranchised the NSC and pushed it into compromise. The ANC identified international sport as a way to reassure whites about their future lifestyles under a black government. Nelson Mandela played a decisive role cricket's return to international competition. He telephoned Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley and asked the West Indies to support South Africa's application to rejoin the International Cricket Council.

With the repeal of apartheid legislation in mid-1991, international sports administrators claimed that the boycott had worked: sport had triumphed over racism. But they paid scant attention to the details of unity talks; many readmitted South African affiliates simply because they had deracialized their constitutions.

Tensions between the NSC and establishment sport erupted into open conflict in 1992. Several incidents, including the playing of Die Stem, the apartheid anthem, before a rugby test between New Zealand and South Africa, and concerns about the lack of development, forced NSC officials to concede the obvious. Founder member Arnold Stofile admitted that the NSC had lifted the boycott too soon. "We made the fundamental mistake of believing that whites are ready for change" he said. Mluleki George, the president of the NSC declared, "we have been taken for a ride. Certain people were never interested in unity. They were more interested in international competition."

The NSC and the ANC considered reimposing the boycott. But they quickly learned that you cannot turn an international boycott on and off like a tap. Sponsors, local and international sports administrators, and foreign governments rejected a new boycott and the ANC backtracked. It realised that a boycott would drain resources and undermine its strategy of social reform through reconciliation.

Notwithstanding the failure of unity talks, a "consensus" between the non-racial sports movement and establishment sport began to emerge in 1993. South Africa's bid for the 2004 Olympic Games marks the turning point. The bid engendered a new understanding among antiapartheid and establishment officials about the social benefits of sport.

Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg all investigated hosting an Olympic Games shortly after political negotiations began. By 1992 they were preparing bids for consideration by the newly united National Olympic Committee of South Africa (NOCSA). The process drew together interests within the NSC and establishment sport and together they spun a fabric of hegemonic consent around the benefits deriving from the Games.

As is their want, consultants employed by the respective cities produced favourable economic scenarios for the potential host cities. Transnational consultancy Ove Arup calculated that the economic impact of an Olympic Games in Cape Town would be R44 billion and 70,000 jobs. Supporters touted the Games as a social panacea. Harry Naidu, an executive member of the NSC and chairman of the Durban bid committee, promoted the Olympics as a solution to high crime, to the lack of housing, to unemployment, and to diminishing living standards. But more important, the bidding process introduced a new generation of sports officials to a new, and very comfortable, lifestyle. NOCSA, for example, sent a 100 strong delegation to assess the three cities vying for its nomination for the 2004 bid. The delegation received red carpet treatment in each city. Durban chauffeured delegates in Rolls Royces, entertained them on harbour cruises, and wined and dined them at the luxurious Point Yacht Club. A single weekend presentation cost Durban's sponsors R750,000. Let us put this figure in perspective. The annual pension for old aged Africans in 1992 was R2,750. Such pensions typically support the recipients, their children and their children's children: R750,000, thrown away on one weekend, would have clothed and fed over 1,500 people for a year!

The 10 May 1994 ushered in a new political order in South Africa with the ANC inaugurated as the senior partner in the government of national unity. A black-led government changed the dynamics of relationships in sport in two important ways. First, some former establishment figures joined the NSC to secure jobs in the new order. Even committed apartheid ideologues now had to speak the language of non-racialism, development and reconciliation. While it is highly unlikely that they believe their own utterances, the crucial point is that public audiences no longer hear reactionary invectives.

Second, the new political order killed off all left-opposition in sport. The non-racial South African Council on Sport (SACOS), formed in 1973 as the sports wing of the liberation movement, split in 1989 after heated debates over strategy. Activists in favour of negotiations with establishment sport and political alignment with the ANC quit SACOS and launched an alternative non-racial association - the NSC. SACOS initially entered negotiations with establishment sport and the NSC in 1990, but withdrew after international associations prematurely readmitted South Africa. SACOS underwent a revitalization in 1992. Former defectors, discontented and disillusioned with united sport, rejoined SACOS, forming new affiliates in cricket, rugby, squash, table tennis and tennis. Unfortunately, SACOS did not nurture the regeneration. Ordinary members either began to subscribe to the NSC as a revolutionary force that would structurally reform sport, or they acknowledged the reality of the new order. Significant numbers also abandoned sport completely, taking with them their critical faculties and administrative skills. Ultimately, however, the 1994 election was SACOS's death knell. For most black sportspeople the election ushered in the democracy for which they had fought.

SACOS is now disbanding. Its leaders want remaining members to join united sport and influence the channelling of funds into true development in disadvantaged communities. But the potential to use sport to empower disadvantaged communities appears minimal. South Africa's limited resource base means that the government faces difficult choices. Over five million South Africans live in shanty settlements; ten million live in dwellings without electricity; a phenomenal 40 per cent of working-age South Africans are unemployed. One doubts whether playing sport is a high priority.

Given the sad history of South Africa, the deracialization of sport and its partial democratization are remarkable achievements. Yet one finds precious little evidence of structural reform. In particular, the critical political context has evaporated. In its place we have a new hegemony.

Two aspects of this hegemony require elaboration. First, crisis plagues South African sport. United sport is riven by competing agendas between elite performance and grassroots development, and by rivalry between the Department of Sport, the NSC, and NOCSA. For example, personal antipathies, ambitions, and a gravy train mentality kept Cape Town's Olympic bid in turmoil for more than a year after the city received NOCSA's nomination in early 1994. There is wide dissatisfaction about selection on merit, lily-white representative teams, and the slow pace of development. But, and this is the second point, united sport coheres as one when challenged. It has proved exceedingly adept at silencing alternative viewpoints. United sport swiftly trounces all criticism, whether from inside or out. Ngconde Balfour, a former SACOS official, a founding member of the NSC, and co-chairman of the Cape Town Olympic bid committee, laments that "people who question the new order are quickly isolated." "Some of the things that are happening," he says, "make you sick but there is nothing you can do. The top guys will shoot you down and take you to task if you challenge anyone or anything."

Paradoxically, the real winner here is the traditional establishment - the very group that reaped the facilities and resources in the old order. Its only serious concession has been to share its privileges with a new, deracialized, elite. Of course, concessions are the essence of social reform which explains why so much of South Africa's past remains firmly in place.

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