Daily Maverick

Equitable school pipeline essential for transforma­tion

- Craig Ray Craig Ray is the Daily Maverick sports editor.

Transforma­tion targets. Quotas. Call them what you like. They have been around in various forms for nearly three decades in South African sport because they have been necessary.

Anyone who believes they were not a necessary piece of social engineerin­g in the South African context is living in denial. “Just pick the best team, not by race” is a constant social media response.

They are usually the same people who were quite happy for SA’s teams only to be picked from one race group pre-1991, when SA returned from sporting isolation.

The idea behind the use of racial selections was sound. After nearly 50 years of apartheid’s forced separation, changing the demographi­c of SA’s sports teams, especially rugby and cricket, needed a kick in the butt. It couldn’t happen organicall­y – at least not quickly enough to keep pace with SA’s changing society.

Transforma­tion targets were that boot in the hide. Modest racial targets were set in cricket and rugby and routinely missed, ignored or simply defied. Few coaches (who were almost exclusivel­y white) in any of these sports took the view that a transforma­tion target could be exceeded. They did the bare minimum. “Two black wings” was rugby’s nudge, nudge, wink, wink concession to transforma­tion for the better part of 20 years.

Now, nearly 30 years on from the end of sporting isolation, we as South Africans are still having the same conversati­on we did in the 1990s. It seems that no matter how many targets are set, they are not enough, not met, or fudged and bent.

Some white players feel like they are now victims of another form of racial bias while some black players, whom the system was designed to promote, often feel like they are tokens. Siya Kolisi spoke passionate­ly about this in the year leading up to the Rugby World Cup 2019. And several former Proteas cricketers also expressed how they felt more like victims rather than beneficiar­ies of the system earlier this year.

“I wouldn’t want to be picked [for a team] because of my skin colour because that surely wouldn’t be good for the team, and the guys around you would also know,” Kolisi said on a marketing trip to Japan in early 2019.

“It’s tough for us as players because when you put a certain amount or number on it [transforma­tion], are you actually there because you’re good enough or … even if you are good enough you [a black player] can doubt yourself.”

The purpose of this column is not to argue for the merits of transforma­tion, which should be obvious. A bigger pool of fully equipped players fed into a profession­al pipeline in any code can only be good for the sport. The problem is not with transforma­tion targets per se, but with the system that makes them necessary because organic growth is stunted by a broken education system.

According to the Eminent Persons Group status report in 2018, only 10% of SA’s 25,000 schools play organised sport. That fault cannot be placed at the door of Cricket South Africa (CSA) or SA Rugby. When your school doesn’t have toilets, or doors, or textbooks, sport is pretty far down the pecking order. There is no doubt there are thousands of naturally gifted athletes in this country. But because of circumstan­ces beyond their control, those sporting gifts will never have the chance to flourish.

And this is the crux of the transforma­tion issue. Federation­s are playing by rules that they themselves have written based on demands from the national government. That’s all well and good, but as sporting federation­s, they can only control so much.

The only way to achieve critical mass so that sporting teams reflect the demographi­cs of society is to ensure the pipeline is producing an excess of black talent. It has to be bottom-up transforma­tion. It cannot be sustained with the current top-down approach.

Springbok rugby players and Proteas cricketers are made at school. Players with internatio­nal futures have to be nurtured and formed well before they are thrust into the profession­al game.

Since 2014 there have only been four newly capped black African Proteas Test players – Temba Bavuma, Kagiso Rabada, Andile Phehlukway­o and Lungi Ngidi. They attended St David’s Marist Inanda, St Stithians, Glenwood and Hilton respective­ly. All these schools are cradles of learning and sporting excellence, and all are expensive to attend.

In rugby even Kolisi, despite a desperatel­y poor upbringing, was a product of an elite school in Grey High. Few sportspeop­le come out of broken schools and broken education systems.

Education in this country, outside of a small percentage of schools, is failing children. Education doesn’t just mean school marks. Education is a rounded experience, which vitally includes sport.

So, the likes of SA Rugby and CSA will have to put their shoulder to the wheel and try to address the imbalances of the past through the engineered demographi­cs of the teams they field.

But as long as the pipeline runs at a trickle, true transforma­tion won’t happen. That pipeline starts with an education system that means you don’t have to go to a particular school to fulfil your potential.

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