“Sport has the power to change the world”, Nelson Mandela once said. It’s now a widely quoted phrase. For many, it’s easy to dismiss it as an overstatement of something that to many is simply a hobby or pastime. But in South Africa, where politics and sport have been intrinsically linked since the early days of Apartheid, this is anything but hyperbole.
As Mandela himself showed by donning the Springbok jersey – a powerful symbol of the white Afrikaans community – at a time when the nation was on tenterhooks, a seemingly small gesture has the power to unite a country. And yet, more than 20 years into a new democracy, the country is still grappling with racial issues in national sport.
Black sportsmen not allowed to represent South Africa
To understand just how profound this moment was in South African history, it’s important to rewind to an altogether different.
Sport was one of the key weapons in the Apartheid government’s arsenal. The political system, that believed in total segregation between races, did not have a place for black people in national sporting teams.
More than this, black sporting teams were actively sidelined and depleted. Under Apartheid, white sporting teams received funding, support and endorsement from the government. Black sporting stars were left to languish on unplayable fields and with no financial backing.
For nearly half a century, playing on an adequate field with even the most basic equipment, let alone representing your country, was an unattainable sporting goal for the vast majority of the South African population.
Overcoming the legacy of Apartheid in sport
Sport received significant attention from government as the country transitioned into democracy. This had to do with Mandela’s belief in the power of sport to unite a nation and drive it forward. It was also clear that the government would have to implement drastic measures in order to produce teams that were representative.
Sport for white South Africans came with prestige, honour and privilege, and without direct assistance many talented black sportsmen had little hope of breaking down the barriers that remained.
South Africa’s constitution has been hailed as one of the most progressive in the world, and it sought to right the wrongs of Apartheid. This included the introduction of racial quotas into national sporting teams. But reversing many years of inequality has proven difficult in the sporting world.
According to The Daily Vox, the South African government has made details of the relevant quotas clear. The national cricket team must start with six players of colour, and Netball South Africa has agreed to have a 5/2 makeup of players on the court at all times. Rugby, which has long been the sport attracting the most controversy regarding racial quotas, has a self-assigned target of at least 50% black players in the national team by 2019.
Despite these measures, many national and provincial teams are still predominantly white. In a country where white people make up approximately 20% of the population, it remains bizarre to see sporting teams, primarily those of rugby and cricket, that are still majority white.
Understandably, this is still an emotive issue. Those in favour of racial quotas argue that it’s important to have a team that is representative of the country’s racial breakdown, and that without direct measures it’s an issue unlikely to correct itself.
Others, including trade union Solidarity and civil rights movement Afriforum, believe these to be discriminatory towards white sportsmen. So much so that they have mounted legal challenges against the sports minister.
From profound gesture to difficult reality
As Nelson Mandela pulled on the green and gold Springbok rugby jersey and walked into the inner sanctum of Ellis Park Rugby Stadium in 1995, few could ever question the power of sport to unite a deeply divided nation.
Fifteen years later, though elderly and frail, the country once again witnessed an indescribable magic when he made a brief but profound appearance to thunderous applause and deafening blasts on thousands of vuvuzelas at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Mandela had helped lobby the sporting body to award South Africa the tournament, and upon its conclusion many hailed it as democratic South Africa’s coming-of-age moment.
Yet 24 years into what many dubbed a New South Africa, it’s more obvious than ever that there is no quick fix to reverse many years of sporting oppression. With sporting teams yet to become truly representative, government and sporting bodies need to work harder than ever, from grassroots right through to national levels, to produce competitive teams that are truly representative of the country.