Endgame for S. Africa's white teams

It seemed a seminal event in building a new nation. President Nelson Mandela used the World Cup of Rugby - held in South Africa in 1995 - to rally the country across racial divides. He donned the jersey of the white South African team. Officials said the team would be racially integrated by the time of the next World Cup this year.

Not so. The result is a call for affirmative action giving proficient black athletes "an edge" for getting in to rugby and the equally popular cricket.

Opponents argue that players should be chosen only on the basis of merit, and that it will take years for development programs to produce nationally ranked black athletes.

Those favoring affirmative action say white bias in sport is so entrenched that blacks with substantial potential are ignored or tacked on to squads as tokens never to be played in important matches.

The country's sports federations are "still struggling to get to grips with the realities of our new society," according to a recent parliamentary report on sport. As the strongest, richest sports in the country, rugby and cricket "have a moral obligation to the rest of SA [South African] sport" to promote national unity through racial integration, the report said.

Recently the rugby and cricket national teams trounced some of the world's best: England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales in rugby and the West Indies in cricket.

The problem is that those wins were produced by white teams unrepresentative of South Africa's racial reality, and demonstrate the continuing dominance of national life by the white minority.

Sidelining black players

What particularly angers critics of the sports establishment is that the few freshmen black players picked for the United Kingdom and West Indian series were not "blooded" - initiated - during those recent foreign matches. In both series, South Africa enjoyed substantial, even unbeatable leads on their opponents and could have risked playing more junior members needing experience in key matches.

As a result, the president of the South African Rugby Football Union, Silas Nkanunu, called for more blacks to be chosen by the owners and coaches of national and provincial teams, even if they are not quite as good as white contenders.

A black player nearly as good as his white counterpart "should have an edge," because he would have overcome incredible obstacles in getting so close to national ranking, Mr. Nkanunu said Jan. 12. However, he stopped short of calling for racial quotas.

A tougher position was taken in 1998 by the National Sports Council chair, Mluleki George, who called for a resumption of the apartheid-era international sports boycott of South Africa's white teams. (During apartheid, South Africa's expulsion from world rugby was a blow to Afrikaner morale far worse than economic sanctions.) And Steve Tshwete, sport and recreation minister, is threatening legislation to force integration of sport.

Whites often argue that neither rugby nor cricket has historically been played by blacks in South Africa. That is somewhat true of cricket but not of rugby. One-third of the country's 300,000 registered rugby players are black, says rugby journalist Mark Keohane.

"Quite clearly, the game of rugby does not belong to one tribe," says Mr. Keohane. But, seven years after the nonracial and whites-only rugby federations amalgamated, fewer than 10 nonwhites played with the 300 whites in the national Currie Cup last year.

In cricket, supporters of affirmative action point to the selection of a mediocre white player named Jonty Rhodes over a talented black named Herschelle Gibbs as proof that inferior whites are chosen over superior blacks.

In the country's schoolyards, apartheid-era imbalances continue to boost whites in sport. While there are a few dark faces on the lush playing fields of the country's private schools, most of the boys wearing the school team uniforms are white.

Apartheid's schools for blacks still do not include decent sporting facilities, and impoverished black parents haven't the money for sports equipment, for paying coaches, or for transport to local, regional, or national games.

The deprivation is at many levels. In 1997 the Transvaal Cricket Board started a mentoring program to match white team players with promising young players in black townships.

When asked his needs as an athlete, one boy wrote three times: "I need food."

Another asked his mentor to fill in for the father he'd never known, "someone to help me with my faults in life, not only in cricket."

Another wondered whether the white parents he sees at cricket matches "ever have to work," as his mother hadn't the time or interest to attend his games.

Where change happens

But change is happening at the lower ranks of sport in South Africa:

Rugby's Talent Identification Program has brought 50 of the most promising black players from around the country together to live, sleep, eat, and play rugby for four intensive months. Several will then be chosen for national and provincial teams, particularly for squads playing for the new Vodacom Cup, which requires that three blacks be on the field for each side in each match.

A national concrete company is building thousands of practice pitches for cricket in poor rural areas, scouts are digging deep in black communities to find talent, and coaches are starting to address the social and economic problems that inhibit poor black players from reaching their true potential.

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