“Thrilling victory for SA’s first black Idol” was the headline in a majority of media reports following the conclusion of Season 8 of South African Idols. For those of you who have better things to do with their time may not follow the show, SA Idols is a nationwide talent contest ostensibly about singing, but places an equal emphasis on producing a performer as well. In the seven previous years of the show’s history not one of the winners had been a black African person, which caused a great deal of consternation for some members of the public.
Please note that the headline does not reference the thrilling victory for a talented individual– it highlights the importance of the skin colour of the winner – Khaya Mthethwa. Forget about who killed JFK or Princess Diana – there are innumerable conspiracy theories that M-Net allegedly rigged the contest to ensure there was a first black winner. What seems to have gotten lost in the celebrations and hype around Khaya’s melanin status is the fact that he is actually a talented singer and arguably deserved the title.
Many questioned how it was possible that a country with a majority black population had never seen a black winner in the competition after 8 years? This is an all-too-familiar refrain in South Africa and it is not just limited to talent competitions for pop stars, but also to sport.
And so we return to the troublesome and touchy topic of transformation in South African sport. Whenever the word transformation is brought up, there is a collective girding of loins and a dusting off of clichés and righteous indignation for all concerned individuals. This is to be expected – transformation is an emotional issue and everyone has an opinion on the issue.
Perhaps, it might work better to attempt to approach the problem from a different angle.
1. Acknowledge there is a problem
As most people who have battled with dependency issues (e.g. alcoholism or narcotics) know, the first step to overcoming an issue is to acknowledge that there is a problem.
One of the key points that is always brought up is that people look at the racial profile of a particular team, let’s take the Springboks as an example, and note one of two things:
(a) The team should be selected on merit. Only the best of the best should be allowed to represent the national team, or
(b) The team selection does not reflect the demographics of South Africa. This needs to be rectified as soon as possible and one of the ways of doing this is through affirmative action or a quota system.
To my mind, the two points are not mutually exclusive and it does not have to be only view that takes precedence over the other.
The problem that needs to be acknowledged here is that the team selection does not reflect the demographics of South Africa. One can debate ad nauseam the reasons for this, but this is a fact.
2. Long versus Short Term Solution
This is not the politician’s solution, but it’s important to realise that transformation should be an ongoing exercise and not an immediate quick-fix solution.
It’s great that Makhaya Ntini was such a brilliant fast bowler and “opened doors” for younger black players by showing what he could do on a cricket field. What is equally significant to note is that the reason why some people query the lack of number of black cricketers is because it does appear as if Ntini was an anomaly. Lonwabe Tsotsobe currently flits in and out of the team, but there do not appear to be any other serious black African contenders following in Ntini’s footsteps.
The topic of “grassroots development” is brought up time and again when transformation in sport is mentioned. A clear and concise blueprint with measurable and achievable targets is needed for all sporting codes in South Africa. It is important that these targets are assessed and progress updates provided to ensure that true development can take place.
3. Lead from the front
It is obviously not possible for every single player to follow a coaching or development role when they have retired from the game, but it is also crucial for former players of colour to lead the way in taking up technical roles. It certainly appears that a lot of former professional rugby players such as Ashwin Willemse, Owen Nkumane and Breyton Paulse have opted for lucrative roles as pundits and analysts for DSTV’s Supersport tv channel – these same players could also have a huge impact in motivating and inspiring young and upcoming players.
This would serve to inspire young and upcoming previously disadvantaged people to realise that they can make a difference not only by playing but also by coaching and developing.
As Jose Mourinho has shown in football, one does not need to have played the game professionally to become a successful manager or coach.
4. Quotas are necessary
Contrary to popular belief, South Africa is not the only place in the world that has affirmative action policies to attempt to redress imbalances.
In the United States of America, the National Football League introduced the Rooney Rule in 2003 to ensure that minority coaches, especially African Americans, were considered for high-level coaching positions. The rule mandates teams interview at least one minority for head coach and general manager openings.
The result has been significant. There were only three minority coaches or General Managers (“GMs”) in 2002, the year before the Rooney Rule was implemented. At the start of this season, there were eight coaches and five GMs.
I believe that South Africa needs some form of Rooney Rule for coaching and playing staff. Before I get burned at the stake for this proposal, let me elaborate on one possible version of how this could be implemented. Rather than focus on the quick-fix band-aid approach (trying to shoehorn players of colour into the national teams) that has clearly not worked in the past, would it not make sense to introduce the quota system at more junior (and non-professional) levels?
This is not a new suggestion. Greg Hurvitz has suggested a similar approach in a blog post for the Mail & Guardian.
In summary, when playing sport at the highest level I am of the view that only the best representatives should be included in the team on merit. However, the issue of transformation has to be addressed so that a real difference can be made at the highest levels.
Transformation is an emotional issue. That doesn’t mean that it should be ignored.