There is perhaps no better example of how South Africa treats its talent than that provided by one of its favourite sports, rugby. To understand this argument, consider for a moment the treatment of two World Cup winning rugby coaches, one from England and one from South Africa.
In 2003, Clive Woodward coached England to World Cup glory in Australia. Returning from the tournament he was hailed as the saviour of English rugby and was duly knighted by the Queen the following year. He now goes by the title Sir Clive Ronald Woodward OBE.
Four years later at the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France, a South African by the name of Jake White coached his team to victory. His reward for returning home with the Webb Ellis trophy was to be forced from his job by the South African Rugby Union.
The difficulties White faced during his tenure are too numerous to mention but it is known that what really soured his relations with his employers was his stubborn refusal to accept the politically inspired selections they tried to force on him. The most bizarre case of this political interference was the absurd bestowal of honorary black status on a white player, Luke Watson, who was selected for the Springbok team on the back of his father’s struggle credentials. White eventually capitulated and selected Watson in a move that was so disruptive to team morale that former Springbok captain John Smit labelled Watson a “cancer” in the team in his autobiography.
It should not be forgotten that White inherited a Springbok rugby set-up just after the turmoil of Kamp Staaldraad, a so-called team-building camp that preceded the disastrous 2003 World Cup tournament in which naked team members were forced at gunpoint to enter a freezing lake in the middle of the night. Other exercises included fist fights, naked singing of the national anthem and allegedly the killing of chickens for their supper. Let’s not forget too that the man who replaced Jake White was Peter de Villiers, whose outlandish post-game comments prompted Australian rugby writer Greg Growden to call him the Billy Connolly of rugby.
But perhaps the most galling thing about the entire episode outlined above is where Jake White finds himself today: Australia. After years in the rugby wilderness, White was appointed as head coach of the Canberra-based Brumbies last year following this team’s worst ever season in Super Rugby, an annual tournament between provincial teams from SA, Australia and New Zealand. In just 18 months, White has transformed the Brumbies into a formidable force that currently tops the Super Rugby standings.
Watching the Brumbies dismantle the Sharks in Durban recently prompted many a South African to wonder out loud why on earth White’s coaching skills were not being put to use in his own country, rather than abroad. Unfortunately the news gets worse.
The University of Canberra has just launched a scholarship in White’s name exclusively for South African students who want the opportunity to live and play rugby in Australia. White already has at least two South Africans in his Brumbies team and more could soon follow. Moreover, White is also being widely touted by Australian media as a future coach of the country’s national team. The prospect of a South African coaching an Australian rugby team, and one potentially laden with his countrymen, to victory over the land of his birth is a scenario too horrible to contemplate.
Sadly, there are all too many Jake Whites scattered across the world. South Africans unable to f ind adequate opportunities at home are now working as nurses, teachers, doctors, engineers and businessmen in virtually every corner of the globe.
While the brain drain is not unique to South Africa, the fact is that our nation’s development needs mean it can ill afford to lose its most talented and skilled individuals. Treating our talent better might go at least some way towards stemming the tide.