Fikile’s big wind-up: Hold the fury

Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula. (Gallo)

Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula. (Gallo)

If it was Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula’s intention to fire yet another warning shot across the bows of the country’s major associations with his threat this week to impose a 60% black quota on all national teams, it met with limited success.

The civil rights group Afriforum and trade union Solidarity grabbed the bait with enthusiasm and vowed to fight the imposition of sanctions, and several former national sports people warned of the dangers of ruining promising careers with premature promotion to the highest levels. They were all white.

But professional rugby and cricket have had too much personal interaction and dialogue with Mbalula to believe he was on the warpath. They accepted that he might have been electioneering, although there was a widespread, unofficial acceptance that firm reminders about the need for transformation were good.

"It came as a surprise … as the minister had indicated to us last week that he wants a one-on-one with each federation, before elections, to understand what we are doing around transformation and development," a Cricket South Africa spokesperson said.
Rugby responded similarly. "We look forward to engaging with the minister to learn more detail, after which the matter will be urgently tabled for our executive council," the South African Rugby Union chief executive, Jurie Roux, said.

Proponents of "merit selection" may be well meaning but they are also probably deluded idealists, according to those with a hardened sense of the real economic world. Significantly more black players are needed – and quickly – just to keep the game alive.

"If cricket wants to survive and grow then you have to appeal to the market. The fact is, 90% of youngsters in South Africa are black and unless we have more of them playing at first class and national level then cricket will shrivel and die," the Western Province and Cobras chief executive, Andre Odendaal, said.

Shrivel and die? Or just become a minor sport?

"Shrivel and die. We’ll no longer be able to knock on corporate doors and ask for sponsorship. The privileged position cricket enjoys with big business will get smaller and smaller. Corporate business needs to sell into the markets where they can make profits and get their brands known.

"There is also the political imperative. You can’t be in South Africa cele­brating 20 years of democracy with only one black player in your cricket team. There is an understandable impatience to change amidst an assumption that in business, schools and our society we should be reflecting where South Africa should be. From a sporting, financial and ethical point of view, we need to get many more black players into our sides as soon as possible," Odendaal said.

Talented black cricketers have been emerging from schools for many years now. The composition of national youth teams confirms that. But they have been unable to continue playing the game in a meaningful way after leaving school for two main reasons: either they don’t have the financial and logistical support, or they have benefited from an elite education at one of the country’s leading schools (sometimes but not always because of a scholarship) and are keen, or encouraged by their family, to get a "real job".

A case in point is Cobras batsman Omphile Ramela, who holds an honours degree in economics from the University of Stellenbosch. On a semiprofessional contract, he earned R62 000 a year. The business world didn’t just beckon, it yelled for his attention. The Cobras have more than tripled his salary in an effort to meet the target of two black players in franchise XIs next season.

A target of three black African players in provincial (semi-pro) teams, agreed to before this summer, forced franchises to make a greater effort than ever before to find black players who had slipped through the cracks – or to unearth them.

"Thokozani Peter took 20 wickets in five games and finished top of our Western Province team’s bowling averages. We would probably never have looked at him without the quota or target," Odendaal said. "He had no resources. It was an achievement just for him to get from Langa to Greenpoint for practice. But [Western Province amateur manager Nabeal] Dien saw his talent, encouraged him and gave him something like R1 000 a month just to cover expenses. He responded to the faith shown in him and now, perhaps, he can start aiming for a look-in at franchise level."

Dien said there are many more – if you are prepared to look. "Ntsiki Brian Shushu is also from Langa, and Xolile Baka. They both joined Greenpoint Cricket Club and the change in their outlook and performance has been fantastic. Xolile stays in a shack without running water. It takes him two hours sometimes just to get to practice. These are the players we cannot let go from the system anymore."

The Cobras are working to establish a provincial high-performance academy to help to strengthen the pipeline to franchise cricket, and Odendaal and Dien dream of getting a boarding facility near Newlands where young men can live in pursuit of their dream of playing cricket for a living.

"There used to be a defined path to a playing career. School, national schools, club, provincial, franchise ‘B’ and then franchise. But only the wealthiest and most privileged kids can keep playing cricket for four or five years after they finish school.

"Now they have to be very focused, almost one-dimensional, to make it. Commercialisation and professionalism has changed the game forever. In 1991, around a dozen of the Western Province squad had been to, or were at, university. Today there are only one or two Cobras and less than 10 professional cricketers in the entire country.

"We need to look at support and mentorship in a whole new way. We will be using Charl Langeveldt to run fast-bowling courses and we are establishing, hopefully, a three-month academy process to help youngsters [to] make the transition from school to first-class level.

"It is expensive, it requires a huge commitment and there will be some people who take advantage [of it], but there is no choice. We have to get it right and change the landscape," Odendaal said.

Survive and grow. Or shrivel and die. Economic reality, not emotion.

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