Is South African rugby racist?

Last week I asked the question, "Why are the Boks so white?" 

This week I'm cutting to the chase and asking: "Is rugby in South Africa racist?

Predictably, readers had a problem with me pointing out that black rugby players are not being backed to perform in the starting 15 of the Springboks.

I was accused of being racist and, mysteriously, of wanting to be black.

I had agreed with ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, when he recently said black rugby players in the Springbok squad were good enough to be selected in the starting 15, but were not being backed by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer.

Players like Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Lwazi Mvovo, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Elton Jantjies are all good enough to play in the Springbok starting 15, but are being kept on the bench. Or worse, they're not even in the match-22.

These are great rugby players who have excelled at different times for their provincial teams and for the Springboks.

They're not quota players, as some racist supporters will allege. They are fully fledged Springboks who earned their place among the elite of South African rugby. So why won't the coach back them?

While considering this proposition, I was browsing the SuperSport website where I noticed an interview with Springbok winger Francois Hougaard.

Hougaard told writer Gavin Rich that in 2013 he wants to specialise at scrumhalf and would not play wing anymore, even if that meant he didn't get to play for the Bulls and the Springboks.

But what caught my attention was a quote from Hougaard buried at the bottom of the story. "I must say I have felt bad being on this tour and seeing Lwazi Mvovo on the bench because I am playing wing," said Hougaard. "He has had an excellent year and maybe it's time for him to be given an opportunity."

And there it is. Hougaard has justified my argument. Meyer would rather move a white player from scrumhalf to wing, when he clearly didn't want to play in that position, instead of picking a black player who specalises in the wing position and has had a great season full of tries. It was a very honest statement from Hougaard and for that he should be applauded. This should be a breaking news story, but the quote is buried near the end of every news story that carried the interview.

Is South Africa's sports media complicit in burying discussions over race and rugby? That is a big question, and I don't want to point fingers and generalise about all South African rugby writers. But I am left feeling more than ever that South Africa is not facing up to the lack of transformation in rugby.

The fact of the matter is that when white coaches are making decisions about who to select, when white administrators are running the game, and a mostly white media is reporting on it, their white-tinted glasses are going to influence how decisions are made.

This will result in examples like Meyer not backing Mvovo, and media houses like SuperSport burying the quote at the end of a story. It will also result in me being attacked by South African rugby fans – who probably also believe that a white scrumhalf at wing is better than a black wing who specialises in that position – for pointing out the basic facts.

So is South African rugby racist? A better question is, which parts of South African rugby is racist? There are the coaches, the players, the administrators, the fans, and the media. Are all these elements of rugby racist?

Does the simple fact that because rugby is being played in South Africa by South Africans make it inherently racist, or is it realistic to assume that rugby can transcend racism in a country so mired in its shady forms? After all, it's clear for the world to see that, thanks largely to our apartheid legacy, South Africa is obsessed with race. In this country discussions about race are as common as emptying your bowels, and are sometimes just as smelly.  

South Africans are so finely tuned to pointing out racist undertones and overtones in daily debate, that it has almost become a sport in its own right.

To truly assess the levels of racism in South African rugby, we all, the stakeholders in this game we love, need to take a step back and consider it from the view of young black rugby players. Just like Hougaard did, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of Mvovo, and ask ourselves how would we feel if we were in his position, sitting on the bench waiting for the coach to have enough trust and faith in our abilities to give us a go, no matter what the colour of our skin.

Keep the powerful accountable

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Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye is a freelance journalist and one of the founders of The Con.

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