Springboks Caught Off-Side

By Teresa Oakley-Smith

Perhaps one of the more interesting facets of the recently released white paper on mining and minerals is the attention paid to internal transformation, reflected in the emphasis on compliance with employment equity, skills development and the eradication of racism

Looking for racism in rugby is a little like looking for a drunk in a bar. Surely there should be someone who is drunk but who is to determine how drunk is drunk and who is to verify the authenticity of the witness. It would be most surprising if the eminent judge selected to investigate the South African Rugby debacle didn’t find that there were instances of racism, after all this is South Africa and we are still dealing rather ineffectively with the legacy of our past. What is interesting to me is that the judge and his assessors have not been asked to make any recommendations. It seems therefore somewhat of a wasted opportunity since surely it is not the uncovering of racism but how we deal with it that is at issue.

Reading about the recent training camp I am struck at how ill prepared the coaches and officials were in terms of the issue of prejudice. All the available research on proximity reveals that simply putting people together (or forcing them to room together) does not break down prejudice; rather it exacerbates it, unless the proximity goes hand in hand with appropriate and sensitive training. (I’m not sure that running up and down a kopjie would fulfil this criterion.) My sense is that nothing in Rudolf Strauli or his assistants (be they black or white) equips them for the job of melding a team from South Africans of vastly different backgrounds. Instead of the army/boarding school ethos which appears to have pertained in the camp the organisers would have been well advised to put time aside for the psychological, cultural, racial and other elements of team building.

It is also surprising ten years on from our founding elections, that so little is being done in this regard not only in sporting codes but in our society at large. We live with the dangerous assumption that if we just leave things alone “alles sal regkom!” We seem to have invented and are sticking with a thus far disproven theory that there is an evolutionary process at work which ensures the deracialising of our institutions if we do nothing but leave things as they are.

For the team to stand up and declare that there is no racism at play and that they are all united is clearly a nonsensical fallacy which puts players in the very awkward position of having to go the World Cup defending an obvious lie which the press of the world will be at pains to uncover. I don’t believe any white South African can not be racist in some way. Surely it is part of the way we were and are socialised as human beings in this country. Our rugby players including those in the national team are no different from other South Africans carrying with them the human burden of prejudice and bigotry. Surely it would be better for them to acknowledge, as Rudolf Strauli and Gideon Sam did somewhat belatedly, that of course there is some prejudice but they are working hard to overcome it. After all, sport is known for its ability to provoke prejudice from fans and players alike. European football is a prime example.

The other major problem I see in all of this is that we are not leveraging off our strengths in rugby and in all other areas where South Africans must work together as teams. The very differences we have when blended together effectively are powerful inducers of innovation, creativity and ultimately productivity and success. Therefore to work at understanding difference can certainly benefit us all, whether we are in business or sport. To build an effective national team takes more than practising rugby. The kind of team work which the game involves demands trust, effective communication and a thorough understanding of one’s team mates. Substantial work is therefore also needed in the area of prejudice reduction to develop these qualities.

So what recommendations could be made to Sarfu given that the judicial team has not been asked to make any? Firstly I would recommend that Sarfu conduct a comprehensive organisational culture survey to help them understand the extent and nature of the racism and other prejudice that exists. Thereafter, they need to develop an effective policy on prejudice and specifically on racism so that they have an effective yardstick against which to measure, when allegations occur which they surely will. Thirdly, they should develop effective procedures spelling out how instances of alleged racism should be handled and by whom. Furthermore, the players and officials must try to move beyond the stage of denial. Accepting that racism pertains in rugby as it pertains in all of our social institutions, the critical question is “what can we do about it!” This in turn calls for an effective programme of education for all sportsmen and officials which helps them to confront their prejudice, understand and value the differences between South Africans and begin to get the benefits that come from playing in a team where other players are not all “like us,” but blessed with the diversity that South Africa has to offer. Preparation for big games should include broad based team building drawing on the knowledge of experts in the field of difference. In this way, our rugby team could become a truly winning combination that would have the support of all South Africans.

As damage control I strongly suggest that Sarfu begin to work with the players to help them identify and work through prejudice. Our team should not be treated as pariahs for they have clearly been let down by the officials and administrators from their sporting code. There is no quick fix in the game of life but an evident willingness to admit our failings and be seen to be working on them brings with it new respect. We can’t kick racism into touch while we deny it exists. Let’s acknowledge it, understand its centrality to team building, stop pretending it’s a “side issue” and support the Springboks in dealing with it. And, let’s give them our support in the World Cup!

Theresa Oakley-Smith

Managing Director of Diversi-T