There’s a new captain on the field

“It’s so easy, you just close your jaw and press your tongue against the side of your mouth and say ‘Xasa!’ ” It’s a surname the sports minister says many have fumbled but it’s one they might want to learn.

The high-profile names of Pravin Gordhan and Nhlanhla Nene unsurprisingly swallowed up the headline space when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced his new Cabinet in February. The appointment of Tokozile Xasa as minister of sport and recreation is no less significant, however.

A teacher by profession, she took over the top spot in sports from Thulas Nxesi — who was appointed to the position only a few months before Xasa got the job.

Rumours abound that another Cabinet reshuffle is likely, one that could potentially affect the sports ministry. But for now, Xasa has a number of tasks vying for her attention.

The Mail & Guardian sat down with Xasa this week to discover where her focus will lie in the coming months as she takes to the metaphorical pitch of administration.


Look to the youngsters

In her opinion, all national successes grow from the grassroots.

“At the moment in this country, people who are showing their great colours are people who have been given an opportunity at a very young age,” she said.

“So if we can concentrate on school sport, it means we can identify talent at a very young age. You can keep up with so many athletes, and challenge them and grow them to where you want them to be. We [can] groom them after having identified the talent.

“If we bring in infrastructure, it will bring together communities, it will provide spaces where communities can freely get in to play or to train in a safe environment. People who would not have been together will come together because there’s a common purpose, something unites them. We are looking at various key initiatives.

“On top of that, we can identify the talent and young people who would not have had access to the infrastructure in their communities or schools can use it.”

The minister went on to explain that a review of school sports had already been conducted and a report produced when she assumed her new position. Xasa has met the basic education department to discuss its content — a meeting she described as productive in the context of her goal to improve departmental co-ordination.

The Safa clean-up

Xasa has also made a concerted effort to meet most of South Africa’s sporting federations, with only a handful of significant ones yet to receive her.

The most noticeable get-together in the context of both front and back pages has to be the one Xasa had with the South African Football Association (Safa).

Many of us have spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to figure out exactly what is happening at the association. Overseers of our biggest sporting code, the body had to postpone its March elections after a backbreaking ride over the rutted road of impropriety. The headache was still throbbing when a charge of rape was laid against its president, Danny Jordaan.

Amid the mess, Xasa demands leadership. This is what she told Safa. Broadly, on any issue, she is happy to refrain from grabbing the wheel as long as those on the board can demonstrate their willingness to navigate towards less volatile seas.

Elections were postponed after a nasty back-and-forth in the media between Safa leaders and former referee Ace Ncobo. The body’s spokesperson, Dominic Chimhavi, told the M&G that everything was in order and ready to go ahead but they decided to take a step back, essentially because of bad press.

The same message was delivered to the minister at their meeting and she’s happy to trust them to tidy up their own shed.

“At the moment we have given the ear to them and they have been briefing us on what they have been doing and where they think the gaps have been towards the elections,” she said. “At the moment I am confident because they have said ‘let’s get back to correct it, so that we can have free and fair elections.’ ”

Would she step in should the board demonstrate themselves as impotent? Without a doubt, Xasa says.

“The role that they play for sport in South Africa is very critical. So only when they cannot [perform adequately] does it mean we have to step in, because we will be failing. It’s one of the biggest sporting codes in the country, so there’s no way, if they fail, we will just leave them to fail. So as and when, but we are happy with the processes that they have outlined, but we will continually be taking interest in them.”

A similar attitude has been adopted towards the furore that surrounds Jordaan. The Safa president was accused of rape last year by Jennifer Ferguson. The singer and former ANC MP said she needed to speak out after “colluding in the conspiracy of silence” for 24 years, and claimed there are other women he abused. She laid charges against him in March.

To remain mum on such serious allegations would be unforgivable in Xasa’s eyes.

“I am content with what they have done because it is about taking leadership,” said the minister, referring to a press briefing held by Safa shortly after her meeting with them, in which it acknowledged the charges but said Jordaan is innocent until proven guilty.

“Whether it is for or against, it is important to know what you, as a leader, think of this. On top of this, I was very upfront to say to them, ‘you know at any stage whether you are for or you are against’ . “Here we have a good justice system, we want justice to work and make sure that the woman’s, or victim’s, interests are taken into consideration. ”

As a gender activist, Xasa said she would not tolerate a nonresponse from Safa but, again, is happy to let the situation play out, provide Safa with the opportunity to demonstrate leadership and not allow a victim’s voice to go unheard.

“Whether you support the president or not, we want to ensure that [the] process is dealt with properly. We [will] continue to support the victim, by all means. We hope and we trust that the system will work favourably for whoever is the victim in this particular case. That was the message that we communicated with them. No matter the extent to which it affects them towards elections, we still expect them to take action. At the moment we are not interfering.”

Transformation

Safa blunders have stolen our attention of late but a few other federation bosses don’t have a wonderful relationship with the concept of efficiency either. Transformation in particular is a sore that is not healing with any great speed. The most prominent offenders? South Africa’s other major sporting codes — cricket and rugby.

Even in the former, where big strides have been made, the composition of the first team squad is not representative of the population. The Test team failed to reach its target for last year of fielding an average of six players of colour.

The South African Rugby Union set itself a target of selecting a Springbok squad comprising at least 50% players of colour in the 2019 World Cup. As things stand, it will fall well short.

Xasa says she expects every federation to set their own targets and adhere to them.

“The change that we are looking for is what I can term the inequality of opportunity — often demonstrated by the rate of participation. That needs to change, and so it continues to be the responsibility of every South African, if you are the national department of sport, or you are a federation that has been given the responsibility to develop a particular code.

“The progress that has been made in the last four years has brought us closer to federations setting targets by themselves and are able to look at whether they are meeting such targets. So that itself is a step in the right direction, where they also make a commitment. Annually now we are assessing whether they have met those commitments of the barometer they have set [themselves].”

The minister didn’t want to delve into the performance of individual federations, because her office will shortly release its annual report.

A new kind of leader

Not insignificant is the fact that Xasa is the first woman to sit in the sports minister’s seat. In her opinion, that might just work in her favour; she jokes that the stubborn attitude of men sometimes gets in the way of doing a good job.

“Whenever you bring a woman into an organisation, my opinion is that you’re bringing in a unique type of leadership,” she said. “A man operates at times with ego — even if you know you are wrong, you won’t agree that you are wrong because you think we will look down upon you. Women have that element of being a unifier, but at the same time that doesn’t mean that you are weak.

“I take much more from leaders like Mama Winnie — to be a woman does not mean you are weak, or you cannot take decisions.”

Asked whether she thinks she will receive any pushback as a woman sports minister, she firmly replied: “No.”

It’s clear that all federations should be aware that there’s a new sheriff in town.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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