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Winning is not everything: Why the Rugby World Cup triumph cannot solve all South Africa’s problems

boys play soccer in an urban environment in South Africa
Author: Development Works / Flickr

Winning is not everything: Why the Rugby World Cup triumph cannot solve all South Africa’s problems

sportanddev senior consultant Ben Sanders on why elite sport holds little long-term value in the world’s most unequal country - and why it is better to invest in grassroots sport for development.

Don’t get me wrong. Like the vast majority of South Africans, I am very happy that we bought home the Rugby World Cup from Japan. I am very happy that our team conquered all and sundry, led by the first black captain in Springbok history – and about time too! And the triumph does show what is possible when South Africans of all colours and creeds come together for a unified purpose.

However (and to be honest I wish there was not a however, but there is), the victory has not significantly changed anything in our troubled land. And here’s why.

South Africa remains just about the most unequal country in the world. We tend to swap places with Brazil every now and then, but one doesn’t need a Gini co-efficient rating to see how grossly unequal our country is. All you need to do is look out the window or head onto the street.

According to the World Bank and the World Inequality Database, income distribution in South Africa is actually getting worse. The top 1% of earners take home almost 20% of all income in the country and the top 10% take home 65%, leaving the remaining 90% of earners with 35% of total income. The figures are even worse if we look at wealth more broadly (which includes assets such as property, investments, pensions etc.). Here, the wealthiest 1% owns 67% of all South Africa’s wealth and the top 10% owns 93%, leaving the remaining 90% of people with 7% of the country’s wealth.

Being top of the inequality charts is an accolade we should be horrified by, 25 years into democracy.

Why does this matter in relation to the wonderful triumph of Siya Kolisa and his band of merry men?

It matters a lot. Following the World Cup triumph, so many words and statements have been made about how this represents a ‘turning point’ for South Africa. This win can bring us together as a nation, provide unity, overcome differences and allow us to be #StrongerTogether. As Siya Kolisi said, and as has been replayed endlessly: "We have so many problems in our country. But to have a team like this, we come from different backgrounds, different races and we came together with one goal…We love you South Africa and we can achieve anything if we work together as one.”

These sentiments echoed loud and clear across Mzansi. The last man to lift the Webb Ellis trophy for South Africa in 2007, John Smit, said of the recent victory: “It will have a significant impact on our country." Similar utterances were made in 2007 and 1995, but did these wins really transform SA?

I wish this were true. I genuinely do. However, despite all the words and proclamations about how the World Cup win would help turn South Africa around, it is just not true. Yes, the win made us feel (temporarily) more cohesive as a nation, it brought happiness and hope to many South Africans - again temporarily, I would argue. But it does not provide much beyond this.

The reality is that we face multiple deep-seated problems in South Africa. Rising inequality, rising unemployment (especially youth unemployment), structural poverty, an incapable state with rampant corruption, huge issues in health and education. The list goes on.

Sport cannot solve these problems alone. Yes, sport can play a role in contributing to development and peace, and this has been recognised in South Africa and globally, but we need to be realistic.

The vast majority of evidence suggests that mega-events (such as the Rugby World Cup) bring very few benefits to countries. In fact, the costs pretty much always outweigh the benefits, and they actually tend to exacerbate inequities in developing countries (Vahid, 2011). Somewhat ironic, when you consider that two nations consistently rated among the most unequal in the world, South Africa and Brazil, spent huge amounts of public funding on hosting the FIFA World Cup and other events.

Similarly, South Africa continues to invest significant public finances in supporting its national sport teams. Yet many millions of South Africans, especially black South Africans living in townships and rural areas, are unable to exercise their ‘right to sport, physical education and physical activity’. Yes, sport is a fundamental human right enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and many other instruments. It seems immoral to invest huge amounts in a tiny proportion of the country (i.e. our national teams) while our children don’t have adequate sporting opportunities.

I am not saying it needs to be one or the other. Ideally, every child in this country would have access to sporting facilities and opportunities, and we can invest in our national teams. Furthermore, if we did ensure every child was able to engage in sport, physical education and physical activity, then it is likely that we would have a much broader and more representative mass participation base from which to select our national teams. We would likely no longer need quotas and would be able to field teams that genuinely represent our diverse country. But the balance as it is remains skewed. The playing field is far from level. This needs to change if we truly care about equality in our country.

Yes, Siya Kolisi’s story is remarkable. And we should salute that. But there are too many other Siyas and Thembis across our country who simply do not have the opportunities to play sport, let alone excel.

Yes, the Springboks are heroes and we should salute all of them. But I would add that there are other heroes out there. Heroes that earn far less money (if any), that receive far less praise (if any) and that keep doing good work in deprived communities day in and day out. Doctors and nurses working in our understaffed and underfunded public sector, teachers providing education in public schools, and seeing as we are talking about sport, community sport coaches who provide invaluable opportunities to young people in disadvantaged schools and communities across our land.

Let’s take Philda Keet as an example. Philda has been working at the Western Cape Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport for over 20 years. She is a centre manager in the Mass Opportunity and Development Programme, which seeks to provide sport and recreation opportunities for learners in the most deprived communities in the Western Cape. Philda works at Oval North High School in Mitchells Plain, one of the most gang-ravaged communities in the country, if not the world. In 2019, a number of learners she works with were caught in crossfire between rival gangs, with several of them badly injured. Some may never be able to play sport again. Despite the dangers and the scant reward, Philda continues to go into work every day and serves her community.

There are many others like Philda, who provide sporting and educational opportunities to young people, often on a voluntary basis and/or for little reward. To me, these are the real heroes of our country. And Philda earns a fraction of what a Springbok player is paid each month. According to certain sources, Tendai Mtawarira earns about R311,000 (USD 21,619) per month. Many community coaches are paid around (and often under) R3,000 (USD 208) per month, meaning the ‘Beast’ is paid 100 times your average coach. So in this instance (and this is just one of many), sport is not solving inequities at all. It is in fact reproducing and exacerbating them, cementing our place as the world’s most unequal nation.

It is time to change the game. We need to ensure that community sport coaches are better recognised, rewarded and supported. We need to recognise that grassroots sport is as, if not more, important than elite sport. It is more likely to promote development, peace and social cohesion in communities and by its nature serves the majority of South Africans rather than an elite few.

Again I am happy that the Springboks won our third Webb Ellis trophy. We should all be proud and celebrate them. But let’s not kid ourselves. 80 minutes of one game has not significantly changed South Africa. The real work is still to come and we need to think more carefully about the role sport can play in this process. Only then can we be serious about using sport to transform South Africa.

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Friday, January 24, 2020 - 09:12