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Thursday, January 20, 2022

School sport at the heart of correcting inequalities

Mosibodi Whitehead

When I decided to write about the importance of school league football for the overall development of South African football, I could not have known that the Minister of Sport and Recreation, Thokozile Xasa, would be presented with the fifth annual Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on Sport Transformation in South Africa report.

The report revealed that school sport in our country is broken. It shows that less than 10% of the 25 000 schools in South Africa participate in an organised sports programme. The EPG on Sport Transforma in South Africa, led by Happy Ntshiingila, was borne out of the 2011 Sports Indaba at which the Transformation Charter was adopted.

It is responsible for the monitoring and evaluation of how different South African sporting codes perform relative to their transformation targets.

Cricket, football, netball, rugby and tennis were the five pilot codes which would form the basis of what has now become an annual report on how well South African sport can better reflect the current demographics of the country.

In collecting the data, the EPG soon realised that school sport is at the heart of correcting South Africa’s history of unequal access to opportunities.

The logic is simple.

The reason why sports such as tennis, rugby and to a lesser extent cricket remain largely white and male – all the way from players to administrators to coaches. This is primarily because the recruitment strategy is focused on a few private and former Model C schools whose demographics are very different from the greater South Africa.

Data supplied by Tennis South Africa (TSA) to the EPG for the 2016/2017 financial year shows that only 606 of the 13 710 primary schools in the country play tennis and most of them are private and former Model C schools.

Just 17 township primary schools play tennis when the total number of township primary schools is over 6 000.

It is no wonder then that South Africa’s Davis Cup team remains lily white with Raven Klaasen as the only player of colour. There simply aren’t enough black children playing tennis at the primary school level.

Having said it, it would be unfair to point the blame at TSA alone. One of the main challenges they face in bringing tennis to townships is access to facilities. Many township tennis courts have become derelict and the only time you will hear the bounce of a tennis ball is when it is being chased by aspirant footballers in their afternoon kickabout. Not the intended purpose.

However, there are successes.

The Arthur Ashe Tennis Centre in Soweto is one such example where the facility is owned by the municipality, the City of Joburg,  and allows local children to play tennis through the federation (TSA).

The results have been encouraging with a number of talented players coming out of TSA’s development programme at Arthur Ashe – most notably Amukelani Mokone.

The 15 year old was selected to be part of the SA Schools U15 team that toured the UK last year and is now a pupil at the prestigious girls school St. Mary’s in Waverley.

She was  recruited by St. Mary’s coach and SA Fed Cup captain Rene Plant who recognised her considerable tennis potential. It all started at Arthur Ashe under coach Oupa Nthuping.

Many more Amu’s would be produced if all of the surrounding primary schools were involved in a regular, organised tennis programme using the city’s facility and the TSA’s coaches.

The Department of Sport and Recreation (SRSA) realizes the need for this sort of partnership focussed nodal approach to school sport where the municipality provides the facility; the federation the technical expertise and the Department of Basic Education (DBE) the children. These children would be from townships and rural areas.

There’s already in place a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between SRSA and DBE going back  to 2011. However, even by Xasa’s own admission, the MOU need be reviewed because it has only been partially implemented. The main stakeholders: SRSA, DBE and its provincial departments, and national and provincial federations currently operate in uncoordinated and non-aligned silos.

The 2016/2017 EPG report concludes that a complete overhaul of the school sport system in South Africa is long overdue.

However, before that can be achieved we first have to understand the magnitude of the problem because while the EPG has started the process of transforming school sport, it is far from complete. There are major gaps in the data, especially for federations such as basketball where data is almost completely lacking.

If we concede that unlocking the potential of school sport is the key to transformation then we need to understand the current status of sport at every single one of the 25 000 schools in South Africa.

To that end we urgently need a School Sports Indaba whose first order of business must be to inform the terms of reference for a comprehensive audit of school sport on a national scale.

SRSA, DBE, SASCOC, SADTU, civil society and all South Africans with a vested interest in sport must come together under one roof to chart a course whose first step must be to collect the necessary data to help us understand the problem.

For just as the Transformation Indaba provided direction and gave birth to the Eminent Persons Group in 2011, so too will the School Sports Indaba guide our thinking on how to fix school sport and ultimately level the playing fields.

Mosibodi is a sports broadcaster and writer.


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