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Township youths tackle South Africa's 'white sport': rugby

In the black Johannesburg township of Diepsloot, one volunteer coach is teaching children the basics of rugby.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 2008

new sport: Johannes Masetla was scared of getting tackled when he started playing rugby.

Scott Baldauf

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Diepsloot, South Africa

The coach's whistle bleats, and the two young players, both 8 years old, square off and run full speed toward each other. One boy carries the oblong ball, juking to the left to avoid the inevitable crunch of a rugby tackle. When the defender brings down his man, a field of young enthusiasts cheer.

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It's a scene replicated in nearly every town in South Africa, where rugby – a sport akin to football but without pads, forward passes, or TV time-outs – holds the same revered space as cricket holds in India and football in Texas. In nearly every town, that is, except for the black townships such as Diepsloot, where rugby is seen as a "white sport."

"I'm doing this because I'm tired of hearing that rugby is a white sport," says Bafana Thawuzeni, a Johannesburg fitness trainer and volunteer coach in Diepsloot. "Our country became free 14 years ago, so we should be equal. I'm doing this so that these kids have some exposure to all the sports in their country, not just the ones that blacks are supposed to be good at, like soccer."

Fourteen years after the fall of apartheid, a continued culture of separateness lingers in the realm of sports. Whites watch and play rugby, blacks watch and play soccer, and never the twain do meet.

While numerous South African politicians have vowed to "transform" sports in the country (a euphemism for racial integration) the athletic divide remains stubbornly entrenched by previous decades of racist laws and stereotyping.

More recently, the rift has been reinforced by economics and TV contracts, because soccer games are shown on regular TV and rugby is shown on cable TV or pay-per-view. This makes the task of idealists like Mr. Thawuzeni all the more difficult.

"Sports are a metaphor for South Africa's transformation" into a multiracial equal society, says Ashwin Desai, a sociologist at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

As long as the majority of rugby players are white, the vast majority of South Africa's black population won't be too interested in the sport – even when South Africa's national team wins the World Cup championships, as it did last year. But cherry-picking the best black players from small-town rugby leagues and placing them into major national rugby teams, through affirmative action, isn't the answer, says Mr. Desai, because that simply weakens the black teams they leave behind and reinforces the common perception of white teams as being superior against black teams.

"There need to be sports academies [for blacks], and at the lower level there must be a culture of rugby developed," says Desai. "But because there is so much money in rugby, the money will take the talented black players." There simply aren't any easy answers, he sighs. "Once you open up the minefield of race, you can't close it."

It's not as if South Africa is lacking for black talent, or for black role models. One of the fastest wings – the equivalent of a running back in American football – and one of South Africa's most recognizable players because of his lucrative advertising and endorsement contracts, is Bryan Habana, a black player for the Johannesburg-based professional team, the Blue Bulls.

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