Transformation strays into touch

South African rugby is not meeting its transformation targets. If you had any doubts about that — and you really shouldn’t have — it has been all but confirmed with the latest line-up for the Springboks’ European tour.

The targets were set roughly four years ago by a South African Rugby Union (Saru) under pressure to show that they were at least trying to correct systemic racism in the sport. The goal was to have up to 50% black representation in the Currie Cup, Super Rugby and national side by the time the 2019 World Cup rolls around. Chief executive Jurie Roux, however, was eager to stress that no one is using the dirty “q-word” — they’re just targets.

Given its importance to the average citizen, the barometer of success was always going to be the Springboks.

Three players of colour ran on to the field against France last Saturday: Siya Kolisi, Aphiwe Dyantyi and S’busiso Nkosi. Another three would run on as subs: Elton Jantjies, Cheslin Kolbe and, of course, Mbongeni Mbonambi. With Embrose Papier on the bench, we’re meeting that pre-2015 target of seven, but are far from the 50% mark.

Rassie Erasmus has intimated that this squad will form the backbone of the one that ultimately travels to Japan next year, and indeed it is hard to see where he might change it. Bar an arguably waning Tendai Mtawarira, whose leadership credentials will give him preference at No 1, it’s hard to see the current XV being rocked significantly.

Lukhanyo Am will return from injury, but it’s unlikely he’ll nudge Jesse Kriel or Damian de Allende out of the squad. Papier could even lose his spot on the sidelines given that he evidently wasn’t trusted to stick to last weekend’s game plan, no matter how errant a kicking game Faf de Klerk had.

“Everyone in the organisation understands and believes in the process we have undertaken and the commitments we have made,” a spokesperson for Saru said (the organisation refuses to use individuals’ names) when asked by the Mail & Guardian whether they were still confident of reaching the 2019 target. “It’s not strictly a numbers game for SA Rugby and 2019 is not the finishing line. It is an ongoing process that will stretch beyond 2019, whether the targets are reached, surpassed or missed.”

A process it certainly is. The important thing, however, is not to lose sight of that process.

There’s a tendency among many rugby observers to chip away at the cracks as they appear. Too often we’re happy to act carefree when the Boks are exciting us with wins and good performances. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that three out of 15 is not a sustainable ratio in the context of this game’s future in the country.

“We have a process in place and targets in mind,” Saru reiterated. “Snapshots from different times in different games will only go to show that this is not a slavish numbers game but a dynamic, elite-level team sport that is not immune to form, fitness, availability and a whole host of considerations. We’ll only know how close we were to our targets when the season is ended.”

As for whether it would be a concern to see this identical team structure in Japan: “We’re 11 months out from the Rugby World Cup; let’s wait and see.”

You can’t even fault Erasmus too much, about whom Saru president Mark Alexander recently spoke of as a hero for transformation, for picking the team that he has. The side is well balanced at the moment and shoehorning for the sake of it right now would almost certainly be done at the expense of performance. (Unless you want to make the argument that Mbonambi can displace a sloppy Malcolm Marx, or that Jantjies deserves another chance to prove he can offer greater attacking power.)

Still, we can always expect Saru to tout their credentials of change. It’s the same narrative that we’ve seen from them for years now. It’s up to us as citizens to act as watchdogs and ensure they don’t stray into touch.

If there is one cause for celebration from our recent Tests, it’s that those who would criticise transformation by crying quota and criticising individual performances have well and truly been silenced.

“The guys realise that they deserve to be there,” former Springbok loose forward Tim Dlulane said. “That’s the energy I sensed when I was at that match against the All Blacks in Loftus. Being there and seeing the excitement and saying everybody is there because they deserve to be there, and at the same time they are performing.

“And you can see with the guys, they operate as a unit and you can’t single out that there is a black player or a white player.”

Dlulane, once of the Blue Bulls parish, has previously been unafraid to speak out about what he feels are the ill-effects of transformation. He reiterated that this team was never going to be accepted by a demanding nation if only two players of colour pitched up at the World Cup. For the moment at least, he believes that Erasmus is on the right track with the way has rotated his squad.

“Transformation is one of the mandates and he has to meet the criteria, but at the same time we have to win,” Dlulane said. “We have to get a balance. It has been a matter of giving him a chance and letting him experiment, but in the back of his mind knowing he has to meet some numbers.”

The coach, of course, is only a small piece in a very large and convoluted jigsaw puzzle. It is a constant truth that unless we unclog the pipeline and improve our institutions and structures we can never effect true change. The selectors’ options are only as deep as their talent pool and at the moment too many young players are getting stuck in limbo between school and provincial rugby.

In an interview with the M&G earlier this year, Sports Minister Tokozile Xasa said she was happy that many federations are now setting their own targets, describing it as a step forward. She refused suggestions that she should get involved, saying that they should be given an opportunity to fulfil the obligations they have set for themselves.

What use is there for them to plot a destination, however, if they can just throw out arbitrary numbers to prove their “commitment” and go about their routine, knowing full well that they’re dreadfully unrealistic?

Will her office act if the punt falls well short of the posts?

Politicians often find themselves out of place on the sports field; take, for instance, Alexander being overly quizzed in a parliamentary committee a little while back on why Pieter-Steph du Toit had the honour of being South Africa’s 60th captain and not Kolisi. Someone needs to play the role of auditor.

There’s been improvement in recent years, but the maul will collapse if its momentum dies. The 2019 goals are never going to be met, so the time is now for Saru to interrogate its progress and produce a realistic path forward that we’re all encouraged to get behind. If not, why do they not deserve consequences?

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Luke Feltham

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

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