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OPINION: Fikile Mbalula had to do it

2016-04-28 16:00
Fikile Mbalula (File)

Last week, popular satirical cartoonist Zapiro made headlines for his rather offensive cartoon published in a national title, stating that new Springbok coach Allister Coetzee had to choose either to transform the national rugby team, or to be a winner.

What was he thinking? Of course, there were those who would be offended by it. Was he suggesting the two were mutually exclusive? Was he saying that a transforming side would not win because players of colour were not good enough? Zapiro’s response a few days later was even more offensive and patronising.

What the cartoon did, along with the appointment of Coetzee, was bring the transformation debate back to the fore; although, come to think of it, it’s never really gone away.

During his announcement of Coetzee’s appointment, Saru president Oregan Hoskins added he was not impressed with the progress of transformation within the Super Rugby franchises, but praised the Stormers for meeting set targets. This was followed by the report that the Bulls were also meeting those goals, and other franchises were performing poorly.

Then, Monday happened. Fikile Mbalula, giving a damning report on transformation targets that had not been met by a number of sporting bodies, decided that enough was enough. It was time to get tough. Rightly so.

After a report showed that Cricket South Africa and the South African Rugby Union, among others, had done very little to meet targets, he did the right thing by dishing out a punishment that will force action.

CSA, SA Rugby, and Athletics SA have been told they’re not allowed to bid for any major tournaments until they start meeting targets. Mbalula’s hand was forced, but I feel he was correct to make such a decision.

We, as a country, have been talking transformation for close to what, 20 years? And very little has been done. Sure, you have black sportspeople who have excelled. The names of Bryan Habana and Makhaya Ntini stand out. But what has happened since?

The usual argument against transformation is that you can’t force it at national level, and should be starting at grass-roots level, and it will improve as black players grow, having started playing rugby at a young age.

Sure, that would be a completely legitimate argument if that wasn’t happening already.

The various youth weeks that are held every year feature a number of talented black players, who go on to make the SA Schools and SA U20 teams. Another example is Dale College who are steamrolling teams with a squad that is made up of 95% of black players.

Grass-roots rugby is transformed, and it’s time we stopped saying otherwise.

The problem for black players comes when they hit the ceiling that is called senior rugby. They find opportunities hard to come by and are sometimes not given the necessary push to make the step up, despite being talented enough.

A lot was expected of players such as Sangoni Mxoli and former SA Schools captain Kaunda Ntunja, but a lack of opportunities at senior level meant they were lost to the game at a young age.

It’s for such reasons that transformation is pushed up to Super Rugby level, and why it is needed so that all rugby players are given an equal opportunity.

Had there never been any pressure on Heyneke Meyer, would he have played Siya Kolisi, who was putting in the hard yards and impressing for Western Province? Even former Bok coach Nick Mallett was baffled as to why Meyer wasn’t picking Kolisi, who clearly deserved his place in the team.

Meyer’s treatment of Elton Jantjies, who had done well for the Lions back in 2010 and 2011, also irked some. The game at the FNB Stadium when Meyer kept a visibly injured and uncomfortable Johan Goosen on the park instead of giving Jantjies an opportunity is another that springs to mind.

Obviously, it’s not an issue that is unique to rugby. Cricket, too, has its own problems.

If sportspeople in every code were all treated equally, then there wouldn’t be a need for transformation. It’s as simple as that. And, embracing transformation doesn’t mean that one is choosing not to be successful.

The Stormers are currently doing okay with a young side, featuring names like Scarra Ntubeni, Bongi Mbonambi, Nizaam Car, Siya Kolisi, S’khumbuzo Notshe, Damian de Allende and Leolin Zas, among others. They might not be a top side yet, but they are all deserving of their places. And in two years, they will be deserving to wear the green and gold.

Mbalula’s decision to ban bids from non-compliant bodies should be welcomed as it will effect change. And, the sooner the change happens, the better.

• Lunga Biyela is the sports editor at The Witness.

• E-mail lunga.biyela@witness.co.za

• Twitter @KingBiyela

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