Too much white in Saru’s colour mix

It came as a surprise to many that South African Rugby Union (Saru) chief executive Jurie Roux had the opportunity this week to praise his organisation’s progress in transforming the racial structure of the game. After all, their goal of achieving a 50% player-of-colour World Cup squad seems a distant dream and their board structure can only hanker after such a ratio.

But, on Monday, the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) revealed in the annual Sport Transformation Status report that rugby’s national federation had made some serious dents in their targets, achieving 60% of them. These are goals set by Saru and approved by the department of sport. The latter demands that every federation achieve a universal barometer of at least 50% of their goals. All data was compiled from the 2016-2017 financial year.

The report reveals that the demographics of rugby are still far from representative of our nation. Of those playing the game at a senior men’s level, 58% are white. The Springboks average during that year is even higher at 62%. But progress is the name of the game and Saru seems to have become adept at playing it.

Are they justified in claiming significant progress? After all, to paraphrase Mark Twain, statistics are pliable.

EPG committee secretary Willie Basson said he had never “observed a greater commitment from Saru’s leadership body to address this thing and to resolve it, to remove the barriers and clean up the pipeline”.

Basson has been integral in the production of the annual transformation report in recent years. Having spent more than 30 years in South African sport, he has keenly watched how the nation has grappled with identity issues on the field and the different paths of recourse it has chosen to take.

Although he is content with the progress of the traditional game, it is the sevens format that he is eager to hold up as a paragon to all other codes.

“The sevens team is a jewel of the transformation model,” Basson says. “The sevens are the most transformed entity in South African sport; no other code can compare. I’ll leave football out for the moment.

“The door is open because it’s driven by people with right attitudes, the right orientation, the right value sets. If you can open up the pipeline between school level and provincial teams, then you will open up the whole channel right up until the national team.”

It is a blockage in that pipeline that has seen the 15-a-side game stutter to where it is today, he argues. There is no adequate filter to ensure successful school players end up in provincial teams. In any case, the structure at pre-tertiary level is insufficient in ensuring the talent pool grows in the first place.

Basson argues that, at major events such as Craven Week, “they are dying to bring in black representation”, but for the most part there is a lack of opportunity in the under-18 structures.

“School sport has become the Achilles heel of South African sport,” he continues. “The sustainability of sport in certain codes is going to be severely challenged in the medium to long term.

“If you watch these games on TV on a Saturday afternoon, the bulk of these matches are being played by old Model C schools. Most of them are 80%-plus white. The participating schools, through inter-school competitions, are very white.

“You can only have successful transformation in your national team if your whole pipeline is open.”

According to the report that Basson helped to formulate, transformation has become a necessity that no one can ignore. There may be progress but we are far from labelling it a successful mission.

According to the data, changing population dynamics mean the white under-18 player pool, the primary source for rugby players at the moment, is likely to reduce by 50% in only 15 years. The mathematics is therefore simple: bring rugby to the greater population or sentence it to a slow death.

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

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

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