/ 21 August 2023

Re-thinking women’s sport in South Africa

Sweden V South Africa: Group G Fifa Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023
The challenges that Banyana faced prior to the world cup include the pay gap between them and the male team (Bafana Bafana). It was also revealed that the South African Football Association (Safta) was paying the female team 10% less than the male team. (Photo by Maja Hitij - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

For centuries, women have struggled to advance their careers as a result of patriarchy, outdated stereotypes, and cultural and social practices which continue to widen the gap between men and women.  

The outcome of this male-dominated domain (historically and contemporarily) has been discrimination against women who seek to participate in sports professionally. The current soccer and netball world cup for example have revealed the country’s stereotypical mindset on women’s sport. 

In 2018 Professor Shikha Vyas-Doorgapersad wrote a paper on “Assessing Gender Equality in the South African Sports Sector” which describes gender inequality in South African sports as a crisis. She argues that both femininity and masculinity in and outside the sports domain should be equally celebrated. 

When analysing the situation with Banyana Banyana, it becomes obvious why this has been identified as a crisis. The challenges that Banyana faced prior to the world cup include the pay gap between them and the male team (Bafana Bafana). It was also revealed that the South African Football Association (Safta) was paying the female team 10% less than the male team. 

This goes against the Employment Equity Act in terms of gender, sex discrimination and equal pay. Moreover, this is a clear indication that the football association has been undermining the women’s team.  

This attitude towards women in sports dates back to the Victorian era and colonisation in South Africa. The ideologies behind femininity and masculinity within that era imposed and shaped the gendered sporting culture in the country. 

The intention was to promote British ideologies about social hierarchy through both public education and sport. This included spreading the belief that men are superior and women are inferior and incompetent in their physical/sporting ability. 

The Fifa Women’s World Cup has revealed how South Africa and the rest of the world continue to resort to displaying poor support and recognition for professional women’s sports. This is evident in the mixed responses on social media platforms.  

Although soccer is the most-watched sport in South Africa, followed by cricket and rugby, these are also the most male-dominated sports, globally. 

Despite this, Banyana Banyana have proven these discriminatory ideologies wrong. They have made history as they are the first senior team to reach the knockout stage of a world cup tournament. They may have not won the world cup, but what they have done in this tournament will remain in the magnificent history books of the country.  

Despite the strides that women continue to make in the sporting domain, existing literature, media and public debates continue to promote the achievements of sportsmen, but provide limited attention to the achievements and breakthroughs of sportswomen. Debates often end up being centred around women’s shortcomings.  

Furthermore, the sponsorships towards women’s sports are less than those in the Premier Soccer League (PSL). PSL receives sponsorships through massive media coverage every soccer season while female soccer competitions are minimal on South African TV stations. 

Safa president Danny Jordaan once said that when it comes to promoting women’s football in the country, “the product itself has to be attractive”, implying that the quality of soccer by the women’s team was not worth broadcasting.   

Media coverage of female athletes focuses on ‘traditional’ feminine sports. Women who supersede the norms are questioned in terms of their physical and sexual orientation. According to a study conducted by American scholars Travis Scheadler and Audry Wagstaff on “Exposure to Women’s Sports”, women’s sport is perceived as less exciting  and slower than men’s sports. Less than 10% of sports media covers women’s sport. 

Scheadler and Wagstaff make an example of the US women’s basketball team which won a huge competition for five consecutive years a few years ago but received less than half a minute in prime-time coverage. The men’s team had only won the same competition twice but received 30 minutes of prime-time coverage. This is no different to the victories of Banyana compared to Bafana. 

The poor misrepresentation is partly responsible for lack of interest in investors when it comes to women’s sport. 

Social media outlets have also revealed the general views of male sports supporters on women’s soccer which is centred around shifting the blame on women themselves for the lack of sponsorships and investments in their team sports when in essence we know what the media and broadcasters favours in terms of airtime. 

The Banyana team have proven themselves and are the country’s pride in terms of soccer. Therefore, the argument that the reason why the women’s team lack sponsorships is because they are not competing globally, falls flat. 

It is time that women’s sport, in general, gets treated as professional sport instead of being seen as a charity case. The attitude that the country, including Safta, has on women’s sports contradicts the Women in Sport Policy, South Africa’s National Policy Framework for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality, National Development Plan and the Commission for Gender Equality. 

What the Safta president, existing policy and the general public fail to acknowledge is that what the media chooses to broadcast is what sets the tone for what deserves recognition and support. What the world is constantly exposed to are men’s sport and individual sports. 

The broadcasting of individual sports consists of tennis, swimming, squash, horse racing and athletics (to name a few) which cater for two types of audiences: the middle/top class and the male audience.  

This already shifts away from what the Women in Sport Policy stipulates on sport being an activity which offers individuals with whatever background, race, religion, and sexual orientation the opportunity of multiple benefits for themselves, their communities and country. 

This policy clearly highlights and acknowledges how women make up the greatest world’s population along with their growth in the participation of sport. However, one questions whether the National Development Plan will actually transform sports in South Africa by 2030.  

Although one could recommend gender mainstreaming as a solution to the current crisis in women’s  sports, the country and the rest of the world already have innovative systems of gendered policy and  political practices (as mentioned above). 

Monetary matters along with support in sports remain gender-biassed. We must keep in mind that even though these gendered issues emanate  from the complex history of gender-disaggregated norms, institutionalisation and neoliberal approach to sport continue to drive this agenda. 

It is time that the existing policies get properly implemented to ensure that; 

  1. there are equal funding opportunities towards both male and female sports;
  2. there are more programs that encourage more young girls to participate in sports; 
  3. increase accessibility to women’s sport; 
  4. increase media coverage of women’s sports competitions; and
  5. there is a discontinuation of the gendered feminine and masculine agenda that align with the stereotypical expectations of male and female athletes. 

The first step towards re-thinking women’s sports is for society to change its attitude towards female athletes in order to slowly eradicate the patriarchal and prejudiced agenda towards sports investments.  

Oyisa Sondlo is a Ph.D sociology candidate at the University of the Free State and an Intern at  Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES).