Thursday 7 March 2024

Athletes’ and artists’ role in shaping the public discourse and South Africa’s future

In his fourth Lenten reflection, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba writes on the role athletes and artists can play in society. 

At the heart of a number of our lessons this week are themes of sacrifice, suffering, endurance and achieving the ultimate biblical goal, being made right by God, freely. Among those in society today who often have to be willing to make sacrifices, to suffer and to show endurance—albeit at different levels—are the athletes and artists who distinguish themselves by their achievements.

While not in this week’s readings, of course the popular Pauline line is “I have run the race and I have kept the faith...” (2 Timothy 4:7) With that phrase in mind, ahead of this weekend’s big Cape Town Cycle Tour and as elections approach, in this reflection I want to ask: What role should sportswomen and sportsmen play in our national conversations on politics, race and gender in society, and for the sake of the future of South Africa?

While my parents were physically strong and walked long distances to bus terminals and train stations every day, neither of them were ever sports people. My petite mom loved watching wrestling, boxing and car racing when we finally bought her a TV, but she didn’t take part in sport. However, both she and my dad used to say to us as kids, “Sport builds character and gives courage.” So my elder sister became a great 800m runner and amongst us siblings and our kids, we became athletes in rowing (our son captained his crew), tennis, swimming, hockey, netball, rugby and soccer.

Yes, mom and dad were correct—each one of us has our different qualities of character and varied levels of courage. Preparing this article, I spoke to a rugby player, a woman golfer, a lawyer who works in the music industry and a politician who used to lead sports boycotts in apartheid times and also led the South African Music Association. I also drew on desktop research to develop a deeper understanding of the painful experiences suffered by those in segregated sports. Sadly, in my view our Department of Sports, Arts and Culture is wanting in the task of filling the gap of addressing past inequalities; instead it focuses mainly on photo opportunities when athletes have won trophies.

When individuals whose voices are marginalised—such as people living in poverty, those suffering from inadequate service delivery and inferior education, as well as those who experience discrimination for their race, gender or sexuality—see their issues and concerns reflected in the national discourse, they can be empowered to take action to change the status quo. Public figures can play a key role in directing this discourse, and athletes, with their fame and the adoration they attract, clearly possess the influence to advocate for the voiceless. 

One who writes on his quest for equity in sport, Andrew MacMaster, says that “the personal vulnerability and public voice of athletes make them perfect crusaders for justice” and continues: “Athletes possess one of our country’s most visible platforms and as a result can play a key role in directing public discourse by using their platforms to bring attention to issues facing our under-served communities. They possess the influence to advocate for the voiceless, the marginalised, and their fame... makes them well-suited to this opportunity.”

The Minister of Sport and Recreation in the first Mbeki Cabinet, Ngconde Balfour, sought to deal with issues of equity and visible redress during his time, but the inequality of opportunity for athletes notoriously still persists to this day.

Over and above his captaincy of the Springboks, Siya Kolisi is the sports person most South Africans would want to identify with. Not is he only the most recognised athlete in South Africa, but he is one of the smartest and most articulate South Africans committed to the vision of a new, improved version of our country, and what he does in wider society best epitomises the role athletes can play.

When Covid-19 was rampant, and also when fires devastated shacks in unequal Cape Town, we managed to collect food, clothing and other supplies for victims. But the challenge was, how do we get the supplies to where they were needed? Siya, through his practically-minded foundation, provided us with trucks, thus filling a gap and helping to deliver aid to the most marginalised, nearly destitute people in society.

This one example answers the question, should athletes and artists be part of our public discourse? Yes, of course!

When it comes to artists, one thinks back to apartheid days to recall how the prophetic lyrics of those such as Miriam Makeba, Johnny Clegg, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa shaped our lives.

Nowadays, the example of Siya Kolisi drives the point home most effectively in our democratic era. Unfortunately, he is an aberration. Why are all our other athletes and artists not fulfilling their roles as outspoken social critics, courageously addressing the inequalities of opportunity?  What are they afraid of?

It is not just their fame that makes them well-suited to this task. Ultimately, the historic dynamic of personal sacrifice in the face of overwhelming opposition that most successful athletes and artists represent make their actions all the more noble, and ultimately more effective in advocating for equal rights and justice.

Unquestionably, there have been too many examples of those who used their platform facing repercussions from the so-called powers that be. Athletes in particular have been targetted for being outspoken.

In my mind, the greatest example was in 1967, when Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the military on religious grounds. He was subsequently arrested, stripped of his championship title, and banned from boxing in the US for three years. His moral stand was later recognised when he was granted conscientious objector status in 1971. Interestingly, by that time most Americans felt that it had been a mistake to have fought in Vietnam. He became an international icon for social justice and in 1997 was recognised with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.

In the instant that successful athletes and artists discard their individualistic professional identity for a communal one, they humanise themselves to the nation in a powerful and relatable way. In displaying endurance and a willingness to sacrifice, their professional identity becomes subsumed into one of a caring humanitarian.

In South Africa, entertainers such as musicians seem to face less scrutiny for their political actions than athletes. Entire music festivals have been dedicated to protests, and these artists almost certainly suffer fewer professional consequences when they actively use their platforms for advocacy.

Perhaps sports stars are subjected to more criticism on account of sport’s reputation as non-partisan, universally-adored entertainment, a rallying point regardless of ideological differences. While this can explain the backlash athletes can suffer for their protest and activism, it is exactly why we need them to be activists.

The power of disruption is an important one; often those who are oppressed lack access to the traditional channels of change, and the voice of famous athletes can help bring awareness to the toxicity of the status quo. And when they suffer as a result, it helps to highlight the way marginalised communities are held in oppression by unjust and unstable power structures. 

When athletes and artists are willing to risk their images, their pay checks and possibly their entire careers for speaking up for the poorest and most forgotten among us, it makes their statements all the more powerful. And the courage they display when taking such stands models the courage that it took for our forebears to resist and eventually defeat oppression in South Africa.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your feedback! Note that we do not normally publish your Anonymous comments here. Rather comment on our Facebook page: