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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 7, No. 15, 3 September 2008

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Running on empty: Apartheid, Capitalism and South African Sport

Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

The hopeless performance of South Africa in the Beijing Olympics, the continuously limping Bafana Bafana and, on the other hand, the crowning of the Springboks as world rugby champions, tell a continuing story of the continued intersection between the apartheid colonial legacy, capitalism and sports performance in our country. It is a situation calling for placing sport at the centre of our national and developmental agendas.

The rallying cry of the liberation movement and the global anti-apartheid movement under apartheid, was that 'there can be no normal sport in an abnormal society'. Much as we have had our 1994 democratic breakthrough and having made many advances on a number of fronts, sports has not been given the necessary attention it requires. In a way one can still say 'there can be no normal sports, in an environment where key features of colonialism of a special type continue to be reproduced post 1994'.

Sport is not a luxury but is central to the promotion of social cohesion in society, improve the health of the nation, and is an important activity to address some of the many problems facing especially our youth in society. Therefore expanding opportunities for participation in sporting activities is a necessary component of our national democratic revolution.

The recently held Central Committee of the SACP expressed concerns about the health of our sport and called for serious reflection and attention to this matter. As in so many other sectors, for the past 14 years we have been running on empty. Without being unduly reductionist, the sports story is, in effect, the story of GEAR (government's ill-advised macro-economic strategic of 1996). It is a story of relying on corporate-driven interests on the one hand, while propping up and de-racialising (and therefore often simply overburdening) the remnants of an erstwhile white welfare state.

One very glaring weakness in our sports is the virtual dearth of sporting facilities in the majority of our schools, urban and rural poor communities, and generally in areas populated by the black majority. This is not unrelated to lack of investment in sports facilities in poorer communities. But even investment is excessively driven by capitalist, corporate interests which generally cherry-pick on where to invest. In addition, there is also excessive pre-occupation with professionalization of sport, thus placing undue responsibility to the professional leagues and clubs, with inadequate attention to development at provincial and local levels, especially amateur sport. In the end it is still those with access to resources, predominantly white and middle class, with a small layer of black sportspersons able to access these.

The awarding of soccer television rights to a private company, Supersport, away from the public broadcaster captures the extent to which our sports is under the firm grip of capitalist commercial interests, and how, in a predatory manner, these interests have turned sports into a profit maximizing activity instead of focusing on access to sports for the overwhelming majority of our people. Such activities only serve to reproduce all the features of colonial of a special type in our sporting activities.

Our Central Committee further noted that in previous decades a white minority of 3 million managed to be internationally competitive in several codes (among them rugby, cricket, golf and to a lesser extent athletics, swimming and hockey). These successes were based essentially on a publicly funded comprehensive school based system of leagues and coaching, and also on excellent municipal facilities. These formerly whites-only local facilities still exist, although some have deteriorated badly. In some of these elite codes we continue to be internationally competitive. Some black learners and their families now have access to these formerly white minority resources, but little has changed in rural areas, in township schools and communities.

The SACP fully agrees that every effort should be made to ensure our national teams are representative. Our sports stars act as role models. But what is the point of having a black long jump role model if, for the great majority of young black children, a track, let alone a coach, let alone any kind of organised sport in school or community, are nowhere to be found?

The negative impact of excessive commercialisation and professionalisation of our sport is also reflected in the biased remuneration, perks and rewards towards administrators thus taking away vital resources into the development of sports at local level.

One of the key challenges facing South African sport is that of focusing on investment into sports infrastructure in the (poor) schools and poor communities. Government in particular has a particular responsibility to act in an interventionist manner, including developing ways and means of redirecting some of the millions of rands going into pockets of administrators and elite sponsorships into promotion of amateur sports.

Too much attention, including from our own comrades in Parliament, has been focused on national team selection, often outside of a plan for a broader developmental agenda for our sports. There is even no clear and concrete agenda on how a major event like the 2010 World Cup will benefit community and amateur soccer in our country. Instead there seems to be more of the interminable palace politics of national sports administration and squabbles over elite sponsorships and slices of the 2010 pie.

An immediate practical focus should be investment into schools sports infrastructure and systematically ensure that each of our more than 28 000 schools is given proper attention, with a particular focus on poor schools. For instance what was once thriving school soccer tournaments have collapsed in many of our schools. The school can act as locus for reviving sports in our country.

The SACP therefore is of the view that we also need an urgent solution to the question of the location, structure and resourcing of schools sports; and in this process for departments of Education and Sports to co-operatively and urgently finalise these matters. All these should be part of an overall intervention into comprehensive development of sport, including adequate funding for 'centres of excellence' and provincial academies in all sports codes. A critical dimension towards the achievement of this is to forge state-led public-private partnerships for sports development.

As in so many other sectors, the lessons of the recent past are that we need a developmental state, including at the local municipal level that devotes serious time, energy and resources to rebuilding the health and well-being of our communities and society at large. Sports development is not a short term matter of only national team selection and palace politics. It is part of a long-haul transformational struggle to build the cohesion and well-being of our society.

It is time now that we mobilise all of our society towards real and thorough transformation and resourcing of sports. This is a matter that must not be left only in the hands of sports administrators.