ANALYSIS: Women's football isn't new. So why is Banyana still undervalued?

Women’s soccer started in South Africa in the 1960s – around the time South African football was expelled from the global game because of its apartheid policies. It took another 30 years before a national women’s team was formed in the 1990s. Using that sluggish trajectory, the year 2020 (30 years later) should be the year Banyana Banyana carve another piece of history – by helping fully professionalise women’s soccer in South Africa.

The global rise of women’s soccer began in 1863, when the rules of the game were standardised and refined. The English Football Association, intimidated by the popularity of the women’s game, then banned women from playing on the same fields as men – it was the 1800s, stay with me here.

The move sent women’s soccer into decline in the United Kingdom, and by association most of the colonised world.
Italy and France breathed new life into the game by starting women’s leagues in 1930 and slowly the sport spread its wings again.

In the modern era, a tiny piece of legislation, signed by US president Richard Nixon in 1972, changed everything for women’s sport. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex by any educational institution or programme that receives state funding. If this law was broken, your funding was cut.
Title IX changed the face of women’s sport in the United States and set in place a sporting infrastructure that gave rise to women’s soccer among other major sports. More women could now go to universities on sports scholarships. It was a classic game changer.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that boys’ sports in South Africa and the world are outrageously better financed than girls’ sports. Alpha males are bred and put on display in youth rugby and cricket teams, while the rest cheer from the side lines as unwitting participants in their own marginalisation.

Years after Title IX, the US women’s soccer team became a leading force in global sport. They accumulated three Women's World Cup titles, four Olympic women's gold medals, eight CONCACAF Gold Cup wins, and ten Algarve Cups.

In 1972, when Title IX was signed into law, South Africa was a world apart from North America. Our country was waist deep and mired in what at best could be described as a state of paralysis, and in reality a civil uprising. The apartheid system not only dehumanised people based on race, it further discriminated against women – and black women in particular. They bore the brunt of the government’s aggression as the social fabric of black society was attacked.

Amid the euphoria of Banyana’s World Cup qualification and African Cup of Nations heroics last year, we lost sight of a moment during the team’s Ghana sojourn that should give us pause for thought. A lonely Refiloe Jane, Banyana’s gifted midfielder, on the eve of the biggest match of her life, had to leave her teammates and board a plane back to Australia after being summoned by her club Canberra United. The club had every right to call upon a player whose services they own. Jane missed the final and could have been the difference in the end. Banyana lost to Nigeria in a penalty shootout in the Women's Africa Cup of Nations final.

“A piece of me wants to play in the final but the other part of me wants me to go and chase my dream of playing pro football overseas‚” she said at the time. “It is not a good situation to be in, but it comes with the territory of being a professional athlete.”

Though not unusual, the situation demonstrates how the few local professional women footballers we have are at the mercy of their pay masters, even when on national duty. What would have been palpably clear to Jane was that her future depended on her overseas club’s ambitions, not her country’s. She had to obey – there was no freedom of choice. There are few such choices to make in the men’s game. Competitive salaries and match bonuses have been in place for decades, while women like Jane are forced to work like apprentices, even though most Banyana players have diplomas and degrees.

In South Africa’s Sasol Women’s League, teams wait months to receive an annual R32,000 grant from Safa – paid in two tranches. Late payments mean teams who are not sponsored can’t host home games.

In July 2017, Banyana players protested not receiving their stipends after qualifying for the 2018 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations. The team decided not to return their kit. Safa threatened to deduct part of their stipends to cover the cost of the unreturned kit.

This is not a new era for the South African Football Association. Banyana and women’s football have been around for years. The women’s national team started competing internationally in 1993. So why is it that women’s football as a Safa asset remains undervalued and under-resourced compared to the men’s game? And why is corporate South Africa indifferent to women’s sport in general, and women’s soccer in particular?

To be fair, Banyana were awarded a R2.4 million bonus by Safa for their performance at the AWCON and the World Cup. The gesture though, on the face of it, appears to be a reaction to the spirit in which the team has garnered support for their cause among the public and media.

From a business point of view, and when numbers are crunched, Banyana don’t command the large audiences that the men’s game does, although thousands came out to support the national team in two friendly matches against Netherlands and Sweden in Cape Town after their AWCON return.

The Department of Sport and Recreation has donated R5-million over the next three years to help launch a National Women’s League – a drop in the ocean of what is realistically needed for a professional league.

Banyana’s recent disappointing outcome at the Cyprus Cup shows that their journey is far from complete.

Banyana has had the same sole sponsor for the past 10 years – hardly a sign of progress. The SABC has offered a paltry R10 million for broadcast coverage of women’s football, whereas in previous years that amount reached R110 million over three years.

It should be impossible to undervalue the worth of a victorious and successful Banyana in the South African context.
But day in and day out we are reminded that we live in a society where a woman as talented and admired as Babes Wodumo is forced to broadcast a cry for help on social media – because no one was listening.

This is the world that some Banyana players come from; where men’s physical status and financial dominance is celebrated and rewarded – with more dominance. Do we have the conviction to change laws, like the Americans, in favour of equality in sport, where the women’s game succeeds because of the system – not in spite of it?

Adrian Ephraim is deputy news and sports editor at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianEphraim