South African sport and the vexed issue of race

Sport in South Africa has had the vicious ghost of racism lurking over it for over a century. Today, it faces a toxic mix of race-based quotas at the top level and insufficient infrastructure and support at the grassroot level.


Race was, and in many ways still is, a key factor in South African life, and sport is no different. Before the end of apartheid in the early 1990s South African representative teams were either solely made up of white players, or there were separate teams for the different population groups. And the tentacles of racial discrimination reached far into the past, with players who weren’t white being discriminated against even before South African existed as a country.

The curse of racism

For example, ‘Krom’ Hendricks was widely regarded as one of the best cricketers in what would become South Africa in the 1890s. The Capetonian Hendricks turned in a number of sterling performances for various teams. Players that had played international cricket for England and South Africa described him as one of the fastest bowlers they had ever faced and there were widespread calls for him to be included in the touring party for South Africa’s inaugural tour of England. However, there was one problem – Hendricks was coloured.

Although there was much support for Hendricks’s inclusion in the squad there was as much opposition to it, including from influential figures such as the-then prime minister of the Cape, Cecil John Rhodes.

Hendricks was left out of the side and had drifted out of the game by the late 1890s and not much is known of the rest of his life.

That’s how things remained

And this was to be the norm – it would be another 90 years before a person who was not white played cricket for South Africa (although Buck Llewellyn played for South Africa between the 1890s and 1910s with many believing he was coloured - his family refuted this in later years).

There was a similar pattern with the national rugby side, the Springboks. The first player of colour to play for that team was Errol Tobias who made his debut in the 1980s.

South Africa’s policy of racially separate national teams meant that sporting links were slowly cut – South Africa was banned from the Olympics after 1960, South African cricket had no international contact after 1970, and while the Springboks were never ostracised to the same degree they also saw far fewer international games.

When negotiations began to end apartheid in the early 1990s South Africa was welcomed back into the family of sporting nations, playing in the 1992 Cricket World Cup, participating in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, with fixtures also arranged for the national rugby and football teams.

However, with the exception of certain sports, such as football or boxing, white South Africans dominated the makeup of teams, particularly in rugby and cricket. This led to implicit and explicit quotas being enforced on national teams to ensure that they – at least to some degree – reflected the demographics of South Africa.

However, it is an open question whether quotas are desirable and if they have achieved their purpose.

Quotas and a lack of infrastructure

Should national teams be selected with the race of the various players being the most important consideration, with merit and the balance of the team being secondary? And is it not a case of putting the cart before the horse if national teams are required to have a certain demographic makeup before ensuring that every single person who wants to play a sport can do so?

Research from the Institute of Race Relations shows that only four percent of South African government schools have facilities to play cricket, three percent for rugby, and two percent for hockey.

When it comes to football, by far the most popular team sport in this country, less than a quarter of schools have facilities for children to play that sport.

And the problems with the focus on the makeup of national sides rather than grassroots development is something that is echoed by black and coloured sportsmen who have played for the Proteas and Springboks.

Said Kagiso Rabada, already one of South Africa’s cricketing greats: ‘It doesn’t start at the top, it starts at grass-roots level and introducing children to the game. At the top it can get political, which I don’t like to get involved in. The most important is the grass-roots, because you’re unlocking so much talent that is wasted.’

This was echoed by Ashwell Prince, who played 66 Tests for South Africa. Speaking last year he said: ‘You can only transform with programmes and resources. If you want to make an impact, make sure resources get into the right areas. You don’t just put down a facility somewhere so it can be vandalised. You need to make sure there are programmes offered that can upskill people in the area.’

At the same time the use of racial quotas also harm players. If quotas are used there is a question mark over players of colour – even if the player in question was picked solely on merit. At the same time, white players may feel that they are not being selected for reasons other than sporting ones, which cause tension and can push players out of the game.

Consider this quote by Makhaya Ntini, the first black player to play for the Proteas and one of South Africa’s greatest players, who said in the late 1990s: ‘Nobody would be happy if they thought they were picked because of their colour.’

Or consider Roger Telemachus, a stalwart of the South African one-day side in the early 2000s, who said: ‘I want to be in the side because I am good enough to play.’

And more recently, we have Siya Kolisi, the World Cup-winning captain of the Springboks, who said ‘I wouldn’t want to be picked because of my skin colour because that surely wouldn't be good for the team and the guys around you would know.’

South African sport can flourish

South African national sporting teams should ideally represent the rich tapestry of our country’s people in all their glory but enforcing quotas at the top level is counterproductive. It alienates white players, as well as black and coloured players – those that the policy is ostensibly supposed to help.

For true sporting development, work must be done to ensure that everyone who wants to play a sport can do so. This is what the government’s role must be, helping to fund and develop sporting infrastructure in places where it is lacking, not issuing diktats on what the racial makeup of our national sports team should be.



Cover photo of former SA cricketers, Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy. Image source available here.


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