Thulas Nxesi, South Africa’s new minister of sport and recreation, only answers a question after a measured pause. His deep voice and easygoing manner exudes a sense of calm, as does his understated but refined dress sense. On the surface, at least, he is the antithesis of his predecessor, Fikile Mbalula.
“I’m not interested in the ‘razzmatazz’ of political life,” Nxesi says, a nod to Mbalula’s self-anointed moniker. “I don’t have a Twitter account and I don’t intend to have one. I am here to do a job.”
These sentiments should be well received by a segment of sports fans who are concerned about the failure to transform grass-roots sports in the country.
Nxesi started his professional career as a teacher at Ikusasa Comprehensive School in Tembisa in 1985 before being a founding member of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union in 1990. Four years later he was appointed secretary general, a post he held for 16 years before entering politics as the deputy minister of rural development and land reform and then minister of public works.
Nxesi counts his lack of a background in sports as an advantage.
“If I was a sportsperson, I would only know one code,” Nxesi says. “We have 74 codes that all require our attention. I’m not here to run sport but to make sure the federations are given the support they need to run properly and to keep them in line with our new vision.”
That vision will have a strong emphasis on school sport. In 2015, the department of basic education removed physical education (PE) as a standalone subject and amalgamated it with life orientation owing to a “lack of trained practitioners and content understanding of PE”.
As a result, the already cavernous sporting gulf between private and former model C schools, on the one hand, and rural or township schools, on the other, has increased. Nxesi will start here in his fight to transform South African sport.
“We cannot hope to achieve real transformation at the elite level if we do not address the failures in the schools which are attended by the majority of the population,” Nxesi says.
“I will work closely with teachers’ unions as well as the [basic education department] to ensure that physical education is reinstated in the curriculum with dedicated teachers qualified for the job. We need to reignite a culture of sport in these schools.”
Nxesi points to the ideological struggle facing sport in the country. The reason a child from an elite school is more likely to excel in sport has as much to do with an entrenched culture that champions athletic endeavours as it does with access to resources, he says.
Here, Nxesi has the SABC in his crosshairs.
“Currently, it is paid TV that only caters to the elite that dominates the airwaves,” he says. “This is an injustice to the majority of South Africans and it is my view that the SABC has been unable to serve the nation as it is supposed to.”
In keeping with his philosophy of unifying departments, Nxesi promises to work with Ayanda Dlodlo, the new communications minister, to confront what he calls “the shenanigans at the SABC” and to establish at least one dedicated sports channel on the network.
In doing so, Nxesi asserts that children from poor backgrounds will gain access to sporting heroes, fostering a passion for sport.
Nxesi admits that his approach to rectifying the imbalances in South African sport is measured and therefore will take time, but is confident that, through good governance, true representation can be achieved.
“We don’t have a lot of money to play with,” Nxesi says. “We have a budget of R1‑billion. Half of that goes to the provinces and 60% of what remains is used for operations, including salaries. We only have 20% for development. We need to account for every cent.”
Certain provincial and national teams, including the Springboks, have struggled to attract sponsors and Nxesi believes this is down to a lack of accountability. “People want to know where their money is going. Is it going to youth development or are federations being run like spaza shops? I am going to be very tough in this regard and hold everyone accountable.”