Sports: Some Men Are More Equal than Others

By Mandisi Majavu · 16 Jan 2014

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Picture credit: The late Baby Jake Matlala courtesy Uhuru Spirit.
Picture credit: The late Baby Jake Matlala courtesy Uhuru Spirit.

Sport in South Africa has always been used by different political actors as a vehicle to advance political agendas. During the apartheid era sport was racially segregated, and one of the tactics that anti-apartheid activists used to fight against apartheid was the international campaign against apartheid sport. The post-apartheid government does not only utilise sports for nation-state building, but to mediate racial and social inequality too. Sports stars such as the late Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala and the recently retired Benni McCarthy are typically presented to the public as quintessential black heroes who against all odds managed to overcome being black and poor to become international sports stars. As a result, many young people in the townships regard sports such as soccer and boxing as their “ticket out” of poverty.  

The presence of large numbers of blacks in sports like soccer and boxing in South Africa serves as an inspiration for many young blacks from the townships that they too have the potential of becoming the next great soccer star or a world boxing champion. By placing sports in a hyper visible space, mainstream society encourages poor blacks to harbour aspirations that society finds “acceptable” and “manageable”. The reasoning is that it is better for the poor to be fixated on sports instead of focusing on collective political action to improve poor people’s lives.

Similarly, the mainstream celebration of black athletes in sports such as track and field, basketball and boxing is partly carried out to perpetuate the racist stereotype that blacks are more body than mind. Henry Gates once noted that “every black man…has had his own gauntlet to run. Each has been asked to assume the position.” In responding to this challenge, black men have had to think seriously about the kind of masculinity they choose to embody as part of their humanity in this world. Mainstream society generally embraces black men who turn to sports to express their masculinity.

Additionally, although sports reinforce masculinity and binary gender roles, sports in post-apartheid South Africa also confirms Robyn Wiegman’s observation that “all men do not share equally in masculine rights and privileges.” White men in South Africa play sports that are considered elite and intellectual, whereas young men from the township engage in what mainstream society regard as “barbaric” sports such as boxing. Historically white sports like golf, cricket, tennis, rugby, water polo and swimming are still pretty much dominated by white men. The latter social group is arguably the most socially pampered and subsidised group in the history of mankind, to use Ishmael Reed’s words.

It is worth pointing out, however, that in post-apartheid South Africa, young black men are also increasingly turning to rugby and cricket as a way to express masculinity and to earn millions of Rands. White liberals are resisting transformation in these sports though. In an attempt to encourage social amnesia of white privilege, white liberals argue that sports ought to be based on meritocracy. To use Matt Hern’s insight, a North American sports writer, white liberals conveniently ignore the fact that privileged whites have access to state of the art training facilities, well paid coaches and sophisticated nutrition, whereas most poor blacks in the townships have nothing like those levels of support.

The post-apartheid government has failed to provide this kind of support to blacks in the townships. Rather, the government chooses to focus its energies on outsourcing its social responsibilities. Obviously, the strategy to outsource government responsibilities to the private sector and civil society is consisted with the neoliberal logic that the post-apartheid government subscribes to. To this end, the Minister of Sport and Recreation has appealed to the private sector and civil society, “…to put your valuable time and money to assist all our young athletes, especially in schools and our educators with the necessary coaching and officiating skills as well as sport administration and management, among other things.”

Instead of being burdened with domestic chores, it goes without saying that every young girl and boy of school-going age ought to have access to sports in order to have fun and to develop their talents. Similarly, boys and girls of school-going age, irrespective of their class background, ought to have access to good quality education to enable them to develop their potential. Good quality education ought to be the priority.

There are very few individuals who become economically successful professional athletes. The truth of the matter is that the sports world does not have thousands of career opportunities to offer to professional athletes. In fact, the average professional athlete’s career is over by age 35. The more physically demanding a sport the shorter the career span. This means that professional athletes have to think about a second career when their sports careers come to an end.

The point I am making here is that “sport” is not the solution to our socio-economic problems. Research shows that even though a handful of professional athletes manage to make millions of Rands in their careers, that money eventually runs out. There are plenty of reports of “rags-to-riches-to rags” in the South African media. For instance, when the late Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala was admitted to hospital in 2010 it was reported that he could not afford to pay his own hospital bills because he was bankrupt. A boxing tribute was organised to raise funds in order to pay for his medical expenses.

Sport has a role to play in the construction of a liberated post-apartheid community. To achieve such a community however requires the post-apartheid government to first eliminate social inequality and to eradicate poverty.

Majavu is the Book Reviews Editor of Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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jam1
17 Jan

And Then There's...

And then there's disability sport which is even worse off. For a start, if you're disabled and need transport to get to the sport you want to do, you probably never do get there anyway. And then don't get me started on the total lack of government support, hardly existent. I am tired of people like feminists or people who were disadvantaged by racial inequality always only stopping at the surfaces of problems. I think that the only people who suffer worse discrimination than people with disabilities in this country are those with different sexual orientations. Indeed, when I listen to "normal" feminists complaining I often think that I have more in common with my disabled men friends when it comes to problems instead of some of the more trivial problems faced by able-bodied feminists from my own gender, because, in this country, some disabilities are such a huge handicap that sexual differences really do not matter in comparison to having such a disability, because the disability provides for greater struggles and obstacles to overcome, and, once the "feminist" overcomes an issue, she all-too-often forgets her disabled sisters and doesn't stand up for their rights.

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