William Gumede: It won't help to sprinkle black faces in high places

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The Independent Online

The unbridled joy at South Africa's Rugby World Cup triumph has been dampened by gloomier speculation that the winning squad is likely to be broken up and its coach sent packing, to make way for a new regime that will, through enforced government quotas, reflect all the colours of the rainbow nation.

Following colonialism and apartheid segregation, all South Africa's institutions must now become representative of the country's diverse population and adopt a new rights and value system based on the post-apartheid democratic constitution. The word for this is "transformation". However, some black politicians are cynically using transformation – or the lack thereof – to score brownie points. They want to grab the headlines, by occasionally targeting a "white" sport to compensate for poor performance. At the same time, some white politicians are using transformation as a bogey, to show that whites are under siege from a black government.

Transformation in itself is tricky enough, but these additional minefields must be negotiated. Yet, South Africa's obsession with seeing "transformation" as only replacing white faces with black – be it in sporting teams, the judiciary, company boards, or the workplace – is surely misguided. The result of forcing the appearance of individual black faces at the top is less likely to lead to effective and lasting transformation.

Not surprisingly, black players are often caught in this no-man's land: when teams lose, they are unfairly blamed for being responsible; if the team wins, they hardly get any praise. The immediate consequences of this is that some black professionals are refusing to be seen as affirmative action candidates, whether in sport or in the workplace. Transformation, if it is to work, will have to have a bottom-up approach. Access to opportunities, finance, training, world-class facilities and support must be made available to black clubs, schools and universities.

However, grassroots black club rugby, school rugby, is totally under-resourced. Because of the emphasis on black faces, all the big clubs and provinces do is secure the best black players, and once they have them, they are not interested in grassroots development. Those who are shouting the loudest for black quotas in the national rugby team do not appear to care about this terrible situation. But that is real transformation: it is harder, it takes longer, yet it will bring more sustainable results.

The same argument could be made for business transformation. The popular idea has been to create a few rich black businessmen quickly, such as Tokyo Sexwale, Cyril Ramaphosa and Saki Macozoma. However, for the 5million small black business entrepreneurs who have eked out a living during the discrimination of apartheid, government support, access to finance, or training are all distant dreams.

The obsession with replacing white faces with black ones has meant companies insufficiently train black employees:they just poach black talent from others.

Putting black faces in the national team or creating a few black business tycoons are band-aid measures. South African companies could have, for example, identified potential black talent in poor schools in 1994 and then supported them throughout their education. But very few "adopt" a township club, school or community.

The government too has fallen far short. Sometimes its outbursts about the lack of transformation mask its own failure to build school and sporting infrastructure in poorer areas. School sports in many black communities have, in effect, stopped, because of the lack of resources and heavy teaching loads. For me, and many of my generation, afternoon sport and other activities at our poorly resourced township schools gave new purpose to our lives.

Take, for example, the national soccer team. It is managed by mostly black administrators, and has mostly black players and clubs. However, because of the faulty view that soccer is now "representative" of the make-up of the population, there is no government monitoring of the sport. The national under-23 team has not qualified for the Olympics, and the national team is in the doldrums. The former reservoir of the youth league, the Chappies League, has been closed. There are no organised youth structures. The management of the national soccer body is a national embarrassment. Yet, the government says nothing, even though South Africa will host the 2010 World Cup.

The issue should not be about perfectly representing all groups in a sporting or company team. It should be about the right of every individual, especially those from poor black areas, to be able to get the best support, training and finances to become world beaters and to become part of teams or managements on the basis of their own abilities. This necessarily means there are not always going to be perfectly representative teams of all races.

The challenge of transformation is to continue excellence, while making the country's sports, companies and institutions more representative. This will mean making transformation more broadly based. Getting it wrong, either by focusing only on supplanting white faces with black ones, or by doing nothing, will not only increase racial tensions and divisions, but will also be brake on the development of the country.



The writer played school, club and university rugby, cricket and football, under the auspices of the South African Council of Sports (Sacos). The international edition of his book Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC is released next month.

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