This paper focuses on the issues of race and gender in sport in South Africa since Nelson Mandela became president of the government of national unity on 10 May 1994. It examines the legacy of apartheid on sport in South Africa when white male supremacy denied equal opportunities to Blacks, Coloureds, Indians and Women, by the use of segregationist policies and practices in sport. The ability to participate in sport in South Africa has been intrinsically linked to the political history of the country. An examination of the development of sport shows the way legislation was used by the Nationalist Party to create a policy based on discrimination in which black people were denied basic human rights on the basis of skin colour. There were huge racial imbalances in South African sport that were not due to specific sporting legislation, but to government policy, legislative acts and economic conditions. This paper examines how in spite of the post-apartheid policy of racial equality, race relations in South Africa today are such that individuals still have a differential opportunity to participate in sport. Black people continue to live life and participate in sport within a context of unequal race relations. Finally, this paper also examines issues of gender in South Africa in the post-apartheid era, as the development of sport in South Africa has been male dominated reflecting the present gendered nature of South African sport.

The paper is heavily dependent on material gathered during a three week trip to South Africa in December and January 1997/1998, and 10 days in February 2002. In Johannesburg, staff at the University of Witwatersrand were interviewed, and an accompanied visit to Soweto, a conglomeration of townships to the south-west of Johannesburg, took place; the guide provided valuable insights into the life of its inhabitants, and was able to show me the impoverished sports facilities in the communities and schools. I was also able to observe the sports facilities and interview staff at Parktown Boys High School, an elite and exclusive fee paying school in Johannesburg.

Further travel to Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town enabled me to meet with sports administrators and athletes. The squalid living conditions in Guguletu, a massive township outside Cape Town were observed. Living there is a fight for survival. Children who have access to a ball play soccer on the waste ground beside the main road. Health and housing are a greater priority than sport development that is only appropriate to those who are not living in poverty. Interviews with academics, sports administrators, and coaches at the University of the Western Cape, and teachers from schools in the townships were also conducted. At the University of Stellenbosch, the Afrikaner rugby stronghold that has been so important in the history of South African and Afrikaner rugby, academics and coaches were interviewed. Here it was possible to contrast the relative affluence of the white, middle-class South Africans, with the poverty of those living in the townships.

This paper is also based on material collected from a number of official reports, newspapers and magazines, films, videos, and material from the Internet. Before travelling to South Africa a number of people involved with sport in South Africa had been contacted. Interviews were conducted with a sports administrator from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who was also an official with the South African team that participated at the World University Games in 1997. E-mail correspondence was exchanged with South African academics from the University of the Western Cape, one of whom was also involved in many gender sports initiatives in South Africa, and with a member of the ministry of sport. Other semi-structured interviews were held with people on the basis of their involvement with sport, or their knowledge of sport in South Africa.

The Development of Sport in the Post-Apartheid Era

The 1995 Rugby World Cup Final between South Africa and New Zealand was a celebration of the lifting of apartheid. It signalled the emergence of a re-united nation. The massive media attention given to the competition gave South Africa the unique opportunity to show the world that for the duration of the game the nation was united. Francois Piennar, the South African captain 1, insisted that the team learn the words to the new national anthem, “Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika” (God Bless Africa), the Zulu theme song which has long been sung by workers to alleviate stress and boredom while working (Booth, 1998; Miller, 1995; Nauright, 1997). Significantly, President Nelson Mandela decided to wear a Springbok rugby shirt and baseball cap at the pre-game ceremony. Hargreaves (1997) felt that Nelson Mandela brilliantly used the Springbok emblem and transformed it from a symbol of white superiority to one of national unity. This was an unprecedented act by the South African president that drew great acclaim from the predominantly white crowd.

The World Cup Final symbolised the emergence of a new era in South African sport; it was a symbol of a nation united through sport; a single community in which collective interest transcended social differences. The Rugby Union World Cup, and other successes in international sport, have given the impression to the outside world that the transformation of sport in post-apartheid South Africa has been one that has encountered few problems. However, as apartheid policies had been entrenched for many years, its abolition did not just signify the replacement of one system with another. Morris and Hindson (1992) summarise the situation as one where “old elements, ideologies and strategies remain, and social forces committed to the previous order still operate, consciously and unconsciously alongside and clashing with new elements” (p. 52).

The post-apartheid era began while South Africa was suffering an economic recession, so much so that the black population was arguably worse off than during the apartheid period. Inflation was high, over 7 million people were unemployed, and 10 million people lived in shanty towns; 42% of deaths resulted from living in poverty (Tyamzashe, 1993). There was uncontrolled rural-urban migration. South Africa’s economy was dependent on cheap black labour. Indeed, the South African Congress of Trade Unions claimed that apartheid and racial discrimination was based on the quest for profit (Jarvie, 1985). In 1996, the average annual income for Whites was 34,400 South African rands compared to 3,600 for Blacks (Editor, 1996). Almost half of the black population of South Africa lived below the subsistence level. In these conditions all people were vulnerable, but African women, and children were most at risk. For this group, sport was an irrelevance as the end of apartheid had worsened their plight (Hargreaves, 1997).

Most of South Africa’s wealth was controlled by the white population. In short, there were two South Africa’s, one White and rich, one Black and poor. Shifting the economic balance in favour of the black population was therefore an essential part of nation-building in the post-apartheid era. Access to sport in South Africa was determined in part by economic conditions, and it was difficult for the majority of black people especially women to gain access to good sports facilities, most of which were in white areas. The legacy of apartheid had deprived townships of a sports infrastructure, and they remained under-resourced in terms of sports facilities (Hendricks, 1996). This lack of facilities was confirmed by a female teacher from a coloured township in Cape Town who described her school sports facilities as almost minimal. She said,

we had a tarmac area on which we played netball and there was some form of cricket pitch the guys played on; that’s about it except for the patch of grass…the maintenance costs for other sports were too costly and we could not afford that. As for apparatus, we would never have sufficient balls to practice skills.

Clearly the legacy of apartheid adversely affected the ability of certain groups to participate in sport, and until there were changes in the political, social and economic conditions, sport could not develop dramatically, especially for the black population. Hence, there was criticism of money being spent on supporting athletes at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, and sponsoring the bid to host the 2004 Olympic Games (Hargreaves, 1997). Although, ironically, money was spent on improving sports facilities prior to the 2004 Olympic bid, some of which were situated in townships. Hence, the ability to participate in sport has increased in some of these deprived areas.

The transformation of sport in the post-apartheid era cannot be separated from the broader social, economic and political framework. This framework still prioritises Whites and their participation in sport. In this situation, black women have emerged as the most deprived social group (Hargreaves, 1997). The ANC did plan to achieve greater gender equality and encourage women’s empowerment and racial equality. The new Constitution made provision for a Gender Commission, and the ANC committed itself to a “Women’s Charter of Rights and Effective Equality between the Sexes” (Hargreaves, 1997, p. 202). The Charter displayed the anti-racist and anti-sexist philosophy of the new government, and it has been applied to political, social and cultural life, including sport. It is claimed by the government that the provision of sport for disadvantaged communities is a priority, and girls have been targeted as a group in need of special attention. But the development of comprehensive equality between gender and races has been slow, mainly as the allocation of resources remains uneven. By addressing gender inequality, poverty and violence against women, the ANC attempted to make it easier for women to take advantage of the opportunities provided in sport. However, just because all sections of the communities are equal according to the law, it does not follow that there will be equality of opportunity. This was re-iterated by a former member of the Women and Sport South Africa (WASSA) who said,

sport is still seen to be the domain of men. This is still the case irrespective of what the constitution says in relation to equal rights, the men still decide if women can participate in sport or not, and African married women, essentially when she is married needs to be covered. Therefore, you are hardly going to find a Muslim girl swimming in the Olympics unless the family have given her space to do that so the custom overrides the constitution, so we have not made enough sustainable progress since 1994.

According to Hargreaves (1997, p. 198) “there are massive gender inequalities in the sporting structures of the country, and a strong association between sport and masculinity”, and this is because few resources are available for female sports due to the issue of gender being considered less important than race and ethnicity.

Roberts (1991) maintains that there was no strategy for sport in South Africa prior to 1990. Many stadiums and arenas had been constructed, but were mainly located in traditional white areas. During the apartheid years, sport was mainly the domain of the white minority and the rest of the population had been deprived of access to suitable sports facilities (Archer & Boullion, 1982). South African sport reflected the power and privilege of the white population, and the inequalities that existed between males and females in all racial groups. Sport in the white communities was a symbol of white, male, Afrikaner, superiority, and in Indian and Coloured areas, there were fewer resources for sports, most of which were used by men. For Africans, facilities in the townships were impoverished and generally only catered for soccer, and in some cases netball. For many people, sport was an irrelevance. In schools there were limited resources for Indians, Coloureds, and Africans. Poverty, travel problems and patriarchal controls limited female participation in sport (Hargreaves, 1997). A female teacher confirmed the limited resources by saying,

you need transport to go regularly to practice, during the time your family require supper, you need a uniform, the kids have to get their homework done; women are economically dependent on their husbands, if he says no, you cannot participate. Look at our high incidence of rape in the townships and few have cars; violence on women is increasing, so we need to understand the way personal circumstances impact on our ability to participate in sport. Women do not always have the choice, they do not have the choice either because of culture, or because of gender stereotyping, public transport and violence against women. Interpreted that women are not interested is ridiculous, so until we realise the environmental circumstances that limit women’s ability to participate…we need to change this before it can happen. So we need to get more women involved; we need more space, creche’s; we need to help them to make space, and we need a safer environment.

So, although funds were available to encourage participation in African townships, there was little encouragement for girls’ sports. The United Kingdom/South Africa sports initiative, for example, focused on traditional male sports and more recent initiatives, such as the Proteas Mmuso Sport Education Programme and facility management, do little to equalise opportunities for girls (Coghlan, 1990).

The return of South Africa to the international sporting arena immediately posed questions for the national organisations regarding the selection of national teams. The vast majority of elite athletes were still white and male and this would continue; white males had a pre-eminence which militated against women’s participation. The National Sports Congress (NSC) argued that the token inclusion of an unqualified black athlete, male or female, in an international team would be an insulting gesture. Interestingly, Booth commented that the selection of Chester Williams, a black player, for the South African rugby team was a classic example of a token black player, who because of the opportunity provided, developed into an international player (Booth, 1995). It is interesting to note that Williams was the product of a “privileged” upbringing and was not brought up in a township (Stoflie, 1996). But selection is problematic at national and provincial level. For example, the selection process for annual men’s Super 12 rugby competition which is contested by four teams from each of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, highlights selection problems in both male and female sport in South Africa. The South African rugby authorities stipulated that the South African teams should include a minimum of two black players. The South African Rugby Union coaches complied with this rule by only selecting the bare minimum for the 2002 competition leading to allegations of racial prejudice. This action resulted in several talented players including two who had already represented the South African Springboks, not being selected (Editor, 2002). As one black South African sports official informed me,

black South African rugby players are not being given the chance for representative rugby and there is still racial prejudice in the rugby organisations; you are always hearing about why black players are not included in representative teams;the players are always too young, too inexperienced, or too light. What we are saying is that if there are two players of about equal ability, then select the black one.

Criticism of the system of merit selection was highlighted by the selection of the Table Tennis team for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when Cheryl Roberts, a non-white player, was chosen in preference to a white player, Surita Odendaal, who had regularly beaten Roberts. However, due to Roberts’ credentials as a coach to the under-privileged, it was thought that she would be an ideal role-model for young black players so she was selected (Miller, 1992). A member of the Ministry of Sport informed me,

the answer is simply that merit is the only criteria for the selection of national teams. The Minister has, however, urged national federations to ensure that their teams reflect the demographics of South African society to race. What this means, therefore, is that federations should make a concerted effort to ensure sufficient numbers of black players are developed to such an extent that they can be selected into national teams on merit. In some instances national federations have signed performance agreements with the Minister in which they have undertaken to reach specific representative targets within specific timeframes. (I don’t see this as quotas).

There were further problems for South Africa during this period. The international tours that have taken place since South Africa’s return to international sporting competition have arguably been representative only of White South Africa. Many apartheid symbols remained, most notably the “Springbok” emblem worn by sports people representing South Africa. Indeed, South African teams are frequently referred to as the “Springboks,” a name synonymous with Afrikaner nationalism. For the white population the “Springbok” emblem is an indication of cultural identity and signified their power during the apartheid years (Booth, 1998). In August 1992, South Africa played its first international rugby match in the post-apartheid era against New Zealand. For white South Africans the match was significant as it provided them with a stage to illustrate their animosity to the new government. The NSC had declared that the South African team were not to use the “Springbok” emblem, and that it was to be replaced by the “Protea” (the national flower of South Africa). The South African Rugby Football Union (SARFU) defiantly refused to cooperate and wore the “Springbok” emblem on its shirt (Retief, 1996). Booth (1998, p. 210) has maintained that,

in South Africa the symbols of representative teams, especially rugby have continued to divide rather than nationalise blacks and whites. As part of its policy of reconciliation the ANC accepted the Springbok emblem in rugby. It was a bold move and one fraught with danger. For three-quarters of a century the Springbok signified Afrikaner nationalism, racial division, and white exclusiveness and superiority. Instead of abandoning traditional rugby supporters, the ANC has attempted to confer the emblem an alternate set of values, but in doing so the ANC has offended both the conservative whites and its black constituency. The decision to reprieve the Springbok is a classic illustration of the problems confronting states as they attempt to nationalise diverse peoples.

For some, the acceptance of the Springbok emblem in rugby by ANC leader Nelson Mandela was perceived as a sign of weakness, yet he and the ANC insisted that the emblem could serve as a representation of reconciliation (Du Preez, 1996). At the rugby match at Ellis Park, Johannesburg (itself an icon of white South Africa), thousands of apartheid flags were waved and the white national anthem “Die Stem” was played. It might be argued that the actions of the white crowd constituted a fight to reinforce its dominant social structure, a structure under threat. However, the existing white symbols had not been officially replaced, which publicly and officially vindicated the actions of the crowd. There is little doubt that many Whites felt that their power had been undermined, and were experiencing difficulties in coming to terms with a post-apartheid South Africa. This was a defiant, defeated gesture; Nauright (1996) felt that the Whites were creating a “security blanket” in an attempt to maintain their former lifestyles and cultural practices.

A New National Sports Policy

For sport in South Africa to make the successful transition into the post-apartheid era, there was a need to unify the sports structure and formulate a national sports policy (Craig & Rees, 1994). Over several years the NSC played a central role in this process. The NSC had played a prominent part in negotiations with various international bodies such as the IOC and the International Athletics Federation (IAAF), and provided a ‘gateway’ for South Africa to return to international competition. The NSC 2 emerged as the body to oversee the unification and development of sport in the new South Africa. Its immediate objectives included co-ordinating sports activities on behalf of, and in support of, the national federations, developing mass and elite sport and making sport accessible to all communities (Booth, 1998).

In November 1993, a national conference entitled the “Vision for Sport” conference was held and was to prove to be a milestone for the future of sport in South Africa. The conference was a gathering of national and regional representatives of the NSC, as well as officials from Great Britain and Australia. The conference initiated several plans that laid the foundations for mass participation and the development of elite sport. To increase participation, South Africa adopted a programme similar to the pyramid structure of sport implemented by Cuba. This structure designated four layers, “foundation”, “participation”, “performance” and “excellence”. At the core of the pyramid emerged a scheme called “Protea Sport”. “Protea Sport” was (and is) an integrated programme catering for young children at the base of the structure to national sports stars at the apex. The system also allows for the development and empowerment of sports administrators, coaches and technical officers through conferences, workshops and accreditation schemes (Nqwenya, 1993). The conference also proposed that a National Academy of Sport should be established based on the Australian model, so an officer from the Australian Sports Commission was seconded to assist with its development. The Academy would particularly aim to identify and develop athletes with elite potential. In order to cater for South Africa’s widely distributed population regional centres of excellence were also established, and it was also suggested that 40 per cent of the selected squads at the academies should be black athletes (NSC, 1993).

The “Vision for Sport” conference also provided impetus for the establishment of the Government Department of Sport and Recreation (DSR) on 1st July 1994, an occasion that illustrated the government’s pledge that sport could play a prominent role in the process of nation building. The newly formed Department published the paper, “Getting the Nation to Play”, which detailed a five-year plan that would provide all communities with basic sport and recreation facilities. The plan incorporated the Protea Sports Programme and the Academy of Sport (Department of Sport and Recreation, 1995).

The Department was also an important avenue for funding and has financed the construction of multi-purpose sports facilities throughout the country. The funding policy of the Department has attempted to start to redress the inequalities created in the apartheid-era by developing “sport for all” schemes, and has initiated criteria to ensure financial assistance to those associations which require it the most. However, while the sports policies at national level have become unified, the unification at the provincial level, is still undeveloped (Skosana, 1996). Opportunities in townships to participate in sport need to be developed, and in order to redress the imbalances several regional DSR’s such as in the Western Cape have produced “Rainbow Papers” whose findings aim to tackle disparities in sport (Jones, 1998a). The foundations and the plans have been laid and now need to be implemented, although economic conditions will be a major factor in their success or failure. Certainly, the DSR and the regional departments envisage sport as an important element in the nation-building process, one which may simultaneously help to counter some of the problems associated with poor living standards such as crime and drugs (Katzenellenbogen, 1996).

Local government in particular needs to work with the sports federations to help make community sport a reality. According to the ANC sport should be a right, not a privilege, and subsequently the DSR has worked in conjunction with the Education Departments to ensure that more school children are active in sport or recreational activities (ANC, 1992). During apartheid, schools catering for the privileged, mainly white children, provided an excellent “nursery” for major sports such as rugby union and cricket, and the structures of privilege remain. As a lecturer involved in the professional preparation of teachers informed me, “a form of physical education and sport is alive and well at many of the former white and coloured schools”. However, in the vast majority of schools for black and coloured pupils there is a distinct lack of facilities, and physical education is not part of the curriculum (Fredericks, 1996).

In order to address this issue, the United Schools Sports Association of South Africa (USSASA) was founded in 1993 to install sport structures in schools without them, and to identify and nurture talented athletes. However, personal observation suggests that schools in townships are still being built without indoor sports facilities, and at best there might be a space for a football field and occasionally a netball court. As a lecturer informed me,

despite all these major changes in the status and character of physical education, very little has changed in the former black schools, although many organisations are offering physical activities in the townships. So a lot is happening and yet not much has changed regarding the status and presence of physical education in schools. It has very little to do with whether you are a boy or girl, it has everything to do with which school you are at. Those locked into the cycle of poverty will continue to attend schools closer to their homes, and for them little has changed, classes are still huge (between 60-80), and the physical education period will be sacrificed for Mathsor Science. The status and presence of physical education is also linked to whether the school chooses to employ someone for that position.

There is still inequality of opportunity in sports participation between Whites and non-Whites, and males and females in South Africa. Roberts (1995) cited in Hargreaves (2000, p. 200), for example, maintains that South African sport is “gender biased, male dominated and sexist”. She supports this assertion by saying that most leadership positions are held by men at national, regional and local levels. The Sports Minister is a man and the NSC is mainly controlled by men. The general absence of women in decision-making positions reflects deep-seated power imbalances between men and women in South African sport. As Burnett (2001, p. 7) notes,

women’s under-representation as athletes and decision makers in national teams and national Sports Federations is mirrored by their absence in sports development projects (the United Kingdom-South Africa Sports Initiative), and their marginalisation as presenters of sports development in schools (Protea Sports Programme) despite individuals perceptions of personal empowerment.

There was the potential to radicalise the gendered nature of sport, but it was not easy as funds from the NSC are limited, and co-ordinating a gender policy throughout the country was complex and difficult. Hargreaves (1997, p. 199) feels that the opportunity to radicalise gender relations and attitudes in South Africa has, in part, been lost, and that now, “Westernised gender relations of power are firmly established”. Further, the legacy of apartheid limits the opportunities for many Blacks to participate in sport, and in particular it deprives township women of sports infrastructures, so that they remain under-privileged and under-resourced. As Burnett (2001, p. 7) further notes,

legislation and policy cannot eradicate deeply rooted discriminatory practices and male hegemonic strongholds, yet the government and women’s groups can do much to politicise women’s sports and to transform sports culture and society to become proactive in placing women and physical culture (including sport and recreation) on the agenda for change.

The focus on gender in sport is a fairly recent occurrence. For example, the Women and Sports South Africa structures (WASSA) were only established in 1997; the National Advisory Council for Women and Sport was finalised in November 1997. These national sports structures for women have now been defined and the government has committed itself to support women’s equality with men in sport and recreation. The issue of under-representation of women in international sports events is also being addressed. In 1997, workshops were held in every province, culminating in the Minister of Sport and Recreation, Mr Steve Tshwete, launching the Women and Sport South Africa (WASSA) National Steering Council. This Council reports to the minister to ensure greater gender equity in sport, and recreation. A former member of WASSA informed me that it was comprised of volunteers who acted in an advisory capacity, initiated projects, co-ordinated projects and distributed information. However, she went on to say, “WASSA hardly functions now as many of the original members have ceased to continue and replacements have not been forthcoming”.

At the moment the reality is that women are under-represented in sport, and black women are the least involved at all levels of the sports system (Jones, 1998b). As I was informed,

no doubt more women are participating, no doubt more women are aware of their right to participate, no doubt more women are involved in organised sport, and more women are involved in decision making. Women have gained a lot, but they have also lost too much, and should have held on to what they have gained. We need two women on every committee, now there is usually just one, and one can be manipulated to adopt a male opinion. 


Apartheid policies divided the nation, and in relation to sport this resulted in the majority of the population being deprived of opportunities and access to facilities. The size of the task to eradicate these disparities was immense, and consequently it was inevitable that there would be problems. The NSC has attempted to confront the issues, and despite economic problems is attempting to promote equality of opportunity in sport. The NSC and its affiliates have held two “Vision for Sport” conferences which have attempted to address the issues and propose possible solutions for the future of South African sport. But more needs to be done. For example, important initiatives have been implemented at the Gender Equity Unit at the University of the Western Cape; a Women’s Studies Winter School has been organised, and a report entitled “Moving towards Gender Equity in Sport and Other Physical Activities” has been published (Jones, 1998b; Ravele, 1996).

Internal power problems between organisations still need to be resolved for South African sport to develop. For example, there have been differences of opinion between the major sporting bodies, such as NSC and the NOCSA, since their establishment. A major disagreement was caused by the “war of words” that ensued over which body should take control of the management of the 1998 Commonwealth Games team to Kuala Lumpur (Smit, 1994). Both bodies claimed the right, and the situation was only resolved with intervention from the Minister of Sport, who announced that a new independent Commonwealth Games Committee would be formed. Further, the Minister announced that a new single body to administer sport was to be established which would streamline the present system, thus allowing NOCSA to concentrate on elite participation and Olympic-related matters, and the NSC to administer sport at the grassroots level.

The question as to whether “sport for all” can be a reality is one that remains unanswered. There is little doubt that steps are being taken to redress the inequalities created by apartheid, but it is doubtful if the development of sport can be a major priority for the South African government at the present time. There may also be political consequences following Nelson Mandela’s retirement from office in 1999, which will affect the development of sport. Mandela has been a unifying figure during the transformation process and his influence has been immense. While it is not within the parameters of this paper to elaborate on the political implications of his retirement, it has been suggested that South Africa is in for a long period of single party domination (Welsh, 1996). With South Africa’s political future uncertain, it is perhaps premature to make predictions or assumptions regarding the development of sport.

We do know that facilities are improving; programmes have been set in motion, and the nation has made an impact on the international stage in many sports. Taking into account the years of isolation, it is easy to be pessimistic about whether “sport for all” can become a reality for the majority of South Africans when it is analysed within the broader socio-economic and political framework. But we do know that already there have been some remarkable achievements. Concerted efforts are constantly being made in an attempt to make sport accessible to the majority. Yet the reality is that it could be many years before this is achieved, and for a South African team to truly reflect its “rainbow nation”.

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