The big news this week in rugby circles was the entry of the Eastern Province Kings to Super Rugby next year, at the cost of the Lions. The Lions, perennial underperformers in this competition, were ‘relegated’ not only because of their poor performances this season (although they did manage to beat finalists, the Sharks), but because the South African Rugby Union had promised some years ago that the Eastern Province (and Port Elizabeth) would return to top tier rugby, even though their team (the EP Elephants) could not manage to win the second division for the last few years. They also don’t play in this year’s Currie Cup, the premier domestic rugby league in South Africa.
Enough has been written about the political reasons for the Kings’ inclusion. It has mostly to do with developing black rugby players, which is a necessity, of course, given South Africa’s past (and current!) racial inequalities, from access to training facilities, quality coaching, good nutrition, to generally higher incomes that should translate into more time for luxury goods and services, like playing rugby. The main question, though, is whether the Eastern Cape, vis-à-vis Johannesburg, the Lions’ main recruitment area, can deliver these uncut black diamonds?
Urbanisation is a global phenomenon. Somewhere around 2008, a poor, subsistence farmer (think rural Peru, or rural Angola, or rural Turkmenistan) decided to pick up his meager possessions and move from his rural plot to the city, and suddenly, for the first time in human history, more people on earth lived in cities than on farms. It’s also happening in South Africa – and has done so since the discovery of minerals at the end of the nineteenth century – as cities offer more, well-paying jobs, greater variety of consumption opportunities (think movies, restaurants, shopping malls), greater access to public services (running water, sanitation, paved roads) and better networks (social, capital, entrepreneurial). Which means that the Eastern Cape, although there are several urban areas (Port Elizabeth, East London, Bisho, Umtata), is not growing as fast as greater Joburg, which is still considered, literally and figuratively, the place of gold. This is growth in population numbers, and in income: Eastern Cape residents are migrating to Joburg (and Soweto) because of greater opportunities to earn money.
Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski predict in Soccernomics, a book that appeared in 2009, that football will continue to grow as a global sport, but that the inequality between teams in the Premier League, for example, will also grow. The reason for this inequality is the densification of cities at the cost of rural towns and cities, which typically would have had strong local support (i.e. demand). With more money in cities, and now also greater numbers, big city teams will have a far larger budget to purchase the best players, and rural teams will struggle to be competitive. The results of the last few seasons confirm this, although Man City’s success has arguably less to do with the size of their support base and more to do with the size of their owner’s purse. Perhaps Spain is a better example: the two top teams come from the two largest cities – and the gap has simply grown over the last decade.
Johannesburg remains the financial capital of South Africa and a major entrepot for the continent’s entrepreneurs, businessmen and financial elite. It is also a huge attraction for the poorest of the poor that settle in the townships around Joburg, because it still offers the possibility that with a good work ethic and a lot of luck, anything is possible. These “immigrants” (local, many of them from the Eastern Cape, and foreign, from other African countries) are usually those with the willingness and the ability to improve their lot in life, and dream of sending their kids to good schools and possibly even university. And it’s these kids that will dream of playing for Bafana Bafana, or, as SARU would hope, for the Springboks, and actually have the ability (the inputs, including good education and training facilities, good nutrition, an organized sport league, etc) to reach these goals.
I’m not saying that the Eastern Cape cannot or will not produce outstanding black rugby players. They already have. But promoting Eastern Cape rugby at the cost of developing rugby in Johannesburg shows a lack of understanding of the changing demographics of South Africa. More black players with the ability to compete at international level will come from Soweto than from Bisho, not because Sowetons are innately better, but because they are wealthier and have access to better facilities, schools and leagues.
If SARU is serious about promoting black rugby players in South Africa, they should support Lions rugby, not penalize them.