Black Lives Matter forces South African sport to face past demons

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – The Black Lives Matter movement has forced South African sport to reflect on its post-Apartheid history and created fissures between former team mates in a country still trying to come to terms with its racist past.

The BLM movement has put a spotlight on the way societies treat people of colour around the world and in South Africa the debate has centred on sport.

The discussion has focussed on how opportunities were scarce for Black players across some sporting codes even after the fall of Apartheid, the system of racial segregation that existed in the country from 1948 until the early 1990s.

It has been a public debate that has often turned ugly and threatened to create further divides, including between former players from an older generation and those who currently feature in national teams.

Happier times -South Africa’s midfielder Siphiwe Tshabalala celebrates after scoring a goal against Mexico during their 2010 World Cup group A first round football match on June 11, 2010 at Soccer City stadium in Soweto, suburban Johannesburg. NO PUSH TO MOBILE / MOBILE USE SOLELY WITHIN EDITORIAL ARTICLE – AFP PHOTO / ROBERTO SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

When South Africa’s World Cup-winning former rugby captain Francois Pienaar went down on one knee in support of BLM at a cricket fixture in July, he was criticised by some former team mates.

Former Springbok prop Ollie le Roux retweeted a post that likened BLM to worshipping Satan.    

Pienaar said he was showing solidarity against “any form of racism and suppression”, but the backlash from the public included death threats.

“I think a discussion must be held to fully understand the black pain, but the other side of the coin is the farm murders which have caused a lot of white pain,” Le Roux told the Sunday newspaper Rapport, referring to the regular violent attacks on usually white-owned farms in South Africa.

Shortly afterwards, eight South African members of the Premiership rugby team Sale Sharks side did not ‘take a knee’ before a game in England, though they did wear ‘Rugby Against Racism’ t-shirts.

‘CANCER CALLED RACISM’

The country’s minister of sport, Nathi Mthethwa, asked South African Rugby to take action against the players, who included 2019 World Cup winners Faf de Klerk and Lood de Jager, in a sign of the pressure that will be put on sports federations to ensure their athletes comply with the government’s anti-racism message.  

“Racism is no longer in the statutes books but some are practising it covertly and we are saying that we will hunt them down because we know the pain that is caused by this cancer called racism,” Mthethwa said in a statement.

“We are ready to take whatever steps necessary to ensure that people toe the line and those who are racist are taught to embrace other people.

“If that doesn’t happen‚ government is going to ensure that we do what the constitution mandates us to do.”

Cricket South Africa, the sport’s governing body in the country, has recently come under fire from various quarters, including former black players, who say black athletes were blocked from the national team.

Other allegations have concerned the poor treatment of those black players that were selected, including under the captaincy of current Director of Cricket Graeme Smith.FILE PHOTO: South African President Nelson Mandela (L) raises his arms in jubilation as Springbok captain Francois Pienaar holds aloft the Webb Ellis cup after South Africa’s victory over New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup final played at Ellis Park June 24. South Africa won 15-12 in extra time/File Photo

He has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, but the current squad recently had a four-day “culture camp” where, among other things, they could air views on issues concerning race and the past treatment of players.    

“It’s extremely important to have discussions around race, the country’s history and transformation,” batsman Rassie van der Dussen said in a statement from CSA after the camp.

“In South Africa, you cannot afford to be oblivious to the past and in my opinion, it almost borders on ignorance if you don’t go to the effort to research the history of our country – the good and the bad.”

Rugby and cricket in the country have been in focus without any on-field action due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they face the prospect of microscopic scrutiny when teams start playing again in the coming months.

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