Poor Transformation Choices Limits Economic Development

Minister of Sports and Recreation, Fikile Mbalula’s recent decision to ban Athletics South Africa (ASA), Cricket South Africa (CSA), Netball South Africa (NSA) and South African Rugby Union (SARU) from hosting and bidding for major sporting events has certainly been a controversial choice.

This comes as a consequence of these federations not meeting their own set transformation targets and has served to polarise the sporting community. On the one hand it seems a long-overdue, albeit harsh, attempt by government to force transformation, whilst conversely many believe that even though the intention is sound, the methodology is severely flawed. The die-hard cynics amongst us may even believe that this is merely the latest salvo from a political dispensation intent on using racial division as an election strategy.

Nevertheless, the impact of major sporting events on the national economy cannot be denied. The hosting and preparations for the 2010 FIFA World Cup cost this country an average of R35m per day, seven days a week, for four years. That’s an enormous amount of money injected into the local economy and the business case becomes even more compelling once the economists have included further economic inputs from tourism and run it through various sectoral multipliers.

Having now expended all of those resources to build the infrastructure required to host the FIFA World Cup, does it really make sense to stop other sporting codes from sweating those assets to ensure maximum economic returns? The reality is that sporting codes in South Africa require far more than simple transformation “window dressing” at the highest echelons of the sport. Transformation should not only mean more black faces in national teams, it should mean equal opportunity for every person who wants to participate in their sport of choice. In this latter regard, government’s role should be to ensure that everyone in our country has an equal opportunity to play the sport of their choice by working to create the necessary infrastructure that would allow equal participation at grass roots level.

We have learnt the hard way, in both corporates as well as State Owned Enterprises, that transformation simply doesn’t work when senior black personnel are parachuted into leadership positions. Those individuals are often not ready for those roles and it becomes detrimental not only to the organisation but more importantly, to the individuals themselves. The same applies to sport. If we are to become serious about transformation, the solution is not to seek headlines by preventing economic opportunities for sporting federations but rather to build the required grassroots structures that would create a far larger pool of black sporting talent across all sporting codes. Emerging athletes need to be continuously tested against the absolute best in their class in order to become world champions, irrespective of race, and we should all be working together to create such an environment.  There are no quick fixes to centuries of economic imbalance and trying to force national teams to transform from the top down will only serve to diminish our national sporting capability and heritage.

The Minister’s pronouncement comes at a time when most of us are desperately trying to stave off a possible credit rating downgrade, and when we should be looking for opportunities to stimulate the economy rather than curtail it. Whilst his firm stance can be appreciated in that it demonstrates a serious commitment to transformation and inclusive growth, these objectives will only be met through ongoing attention to structural change at grassroots levels.

As a former FIFA official, I am acutely aware that the reality of how South Africa really won the rights to host the 2010 World Cup will soon surface. Perhaps the Minister’s time will be better spent managing the potential fallout and loss of credibility that will result from the inevitable truth surfacing. Apart from the actual bid process and massive “bonuses” paid to officials who secured the hosting rights, there is also the matter of the proceeds of that event. SAFA received hundreds of millions of Rands from FIFA once the event was successfully delivered, yet we’ve seen precious little improvement in our national team performance. To the contrary, Bafana Bafana (ranked 70th) have only slipped further down the rankings and now sit well below the likes of Uzbekistan (67), Guinea (58) and Cape Verde Islands (47). We have become the laughing stock of African football despite being by far the most highly resourced footballing nation on the continent. Perhaps the Minister could explain to the South African citizenry how the proceeds of that event, funded by our taxes, were expended to allow for greater opportunities for our youth to participate at the highest levels of the sport. Unfortunately, what has happened is that certain well-known administrators (and politicians) have become multi-millionaires whilst grassroots structures continue to struggle for survival.

Perhaps the time has come to move on from simplistic racial quotas and to start growing toward an environment where athletes across all sporting codes are granted the opportunity to pursue their sport of choice at easily accessible, world-class sporting facilities in their own communities; and we cannot even start contemplating building those facilities if we limit opportunities for those sporting bodies to host the type of tournaments that could generate the necessary proceeds.

This article was published in the Sunday Tribune on 22 May.

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