With the Springboks' racial make-up again under scrutiny, agents say mentorship and support, in school and beyond, are key to true transformation.
That a group of professional rugby players would anonymously break ranks with the rugby fraternity and approach an unaffiliated party such as Cosatu for help suggests a deep-seated feel of reprisal in the sport.
But for some sports agents, the controversy over the composition of the Springbok squad signals that the entire system, particularly in the way players are groomed from the most junior levels, is up for an overhaul.
Says Nqoba Koza (37), an agent accredited with the South African Rugby Union (Saru) who owns athlete management company ForSport: “It’s one thing to have the guys on the field, but what about the boardroom? Who owns the teams? Who is writing about them? It has to be a holistic transformation for us to start seeing the results we want to see.”
Koza, who played KwaZulu-Natal schools rugby and cricket since the age of 13, says even beyond an infusion of “black social capital” into the sport, it is important that, in the same way parents care about their children’s report cards, they should care about the rugby score on a Saturday.
“And this, to me, is regardless of socioeconomic background. The black dad must wake up in the morning, [put on] his shorts and come and sit on the side of the field for three hours watching his son play. The coach doesn’t even know his name, so he’s not accountable for whatever happens to the kid.
“When they get to senior level, there’s not enough black agents engaging the coaches. The players end up … sitting on benches, rotting away,” he says.
Koza says that for the past 20 years black youngsters just out of high school have been left on their own to negotiate contracts. “That’s why these guys end up with careers that are twice as short as their white counterparts, and after their careers they end up with nothing,” he says.
“I’m sure there’s plenty of guys now who are post their playing careers and are just probably selling photocopying machines.”
Adjusting the business model
After dealing with the reality of managing athletes such as former Springbok rugby player Akona Ndungane, Olympic gold medallist rower Sizwe Ndlovu and Eastern Province Kings rugby player Andile Jho, Koza and his team quickly realised that to make a difference to their clients they would have to adjust their business model.
“We had to focus on building the actual infrastructure and the commercial elements of the business first, and then attract the players based on the capacity to manage them. When we started, we didn’t have the capacity in terms of the networks and the commercial infrastructure to deliver on services.”
Koza describes their strategy as two-pronged, focusing on media platforms and player development. “With Vula Ngumbhoxo Lo, which in 2013 ran for a season on Supersport, we created the first rugby TV magazine show that was in vernacular, looking at things from the perspective of the rugby supporter who has been ignored. In most shows you don’t see people like us talking rugby. And we want to do more of that across the codes.”
Koza describes development as making sure that the already abundant black talent doesn’t disappear. “A guy might go to a model C school, he might even go to a private school and play first-team cricket, [but] as soon as he gets to university, he realises that this business of hopping into a taxi with his cricket bag to get to the club is a serious challenge every second day. As a young man, if he’s not that committed, he’s probably going to get to a point where he [is going to say] … I give up.
“I’m not saying we’re going to go buy that guy a car, but if he just had support, somebody standing there going: ‘What you’re doing is important – just keep doing it; we’ll find a way. Maybe by third year you’ll have a car.’ Just something.”
For Mkhonto Mafanya (34), a Saru-accredited sports agent with the company Home of Sport who played high school and provincial rugby, it’s about the little things, such as making sure his black clients do not feel like outsiders.
“They come from completely different backgrounds to white clients. In the unions there’s a massive Afrikaans culture and you have to make sure that they try to fit in and settle as much as possible. Because the guys are trying to fit in and play the rugby at the end of the day.”
Lungelo Payi (34), a former EP Kings player-turned-agent, says salary discrepancies that black players have long complained about go a long way towards crippling a player’s future and stability.
“You find that their financial management is not good because they are earning less,” Payi says. “And since they don’t have money, they take whatever contract comes their way. Also, mentorship for them is not the same; they are always being told what they are doing wrong. So they skip goals all the time.
“You find the mentality of the players is: ‘What will you give me if I sign with you?’ instead of thinking about how he is going to save his money.”
Payi believes that agents cannot solve transformation issues alone. “Some are nicely positioned with the unions, which makes it easy for them to have players signed because the unions are signing for a friend of a friend.
“As much as South African rugby has regulations, there is no accountability. You submit your fees but don’t account for the progress you have made with your players.”
Cosatu’s recent statements on South African rugby have made it clear that the trade union federation believes there is a direct correlation between the number of black Springboks and the team’s success, or lack thereof, on the pitch.
However, Cosatu Western Cape secretary Tony Ehrenreich told the Mail & Guardian that it is important to remember it was not only black players who allegedly approached the trade union federation – white players also had gripes about “the way contracts were allocated, depending on where one is in the inner circle. It’s a whole range of human resources issues that affect not only transformation but fairness and contractual issues.”
Ehrenreich said this shows how players are let down by the players’ association, “which has been so embedded in the system and has been such a long part of white domination that they were no longer representing the players’ interests”.
This week, when approached by the M&G, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, through his spokesperson Esethu Hasane, said he had postponed a meeting with the South African Rugby Union (Saru) to discuss some of the recent issues around transformation because of parliamentary duties. “To engage [with] the media before that would be unprofessional,” Hasane said.
Ehrenreich said Saru’s black board members are ineffective and are hanging on to high salaries and perks, and the government is not doing enough to put pressure on sponsors and teams. “The government gives tax breaks, for example to Absa, to put millions of rands into sports. So those are public funds that are effectively going into the sport in the form of sponsorships and other stuff.
“They claim to be doing some cosy political deal somewhere that nobody in the country knows about,” he added. “When we look at the players on the field, we’re not seeing transformation reflected. So clearly the sports minister is not doing enough and he must do more.”
In response to Cosatu’s comments, Saru spokesperson Andy Colquhoun said: “Saru recently signed an memorandum of agreement with the government and the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee on a strategic transformation plan for rugby.
“Our focus now is on delivering our understanding with them and we will continue to engage with sports leadership in the country on our progress.”
Colquhoun said the South African Rugby Players Association has already gone on record to say the allegations about unfair labour practices in the sport are unsubstantiated.
Kwanele Sosibo Mail & Guardian