DANIEL GALLAN: Calling all South African athletes - the time for action is now

I was raised on an ethos espoused by Nelson Mandela that claimed sport has the power to change the world. I was reared on the energies that emanated from the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the 1996 African Cup of Nations. I revelled in the triumphs of “Baby” Jake Matlala, Penny Heyns, Ernie Els, and Josia Thugwane. I twisted my body in imitation of Paul Adams and danced around a football wishing I possessed an ounce of what Doctor Khumalo had in abundance.

This year has provided some sobering context regarding our relationship with sport. It has been difficult to take too seriously the fate of a ball as death tolls rise and economies collapse around the world in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

2020 has been riddled with bewildering moments but perhaps the most staggering of all occurred when a 22-year-old footballer penned an open letter to British lawmakers that directly led to change in government policy.

By relating to his own experience as one of five children in a single-parent home, and citing his charitable work which has contributed to over three million meals to those in need during the lockdown, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford shone a light on the UK government’s lack of decency and common sense.

“This is a system failure,” he wrote of the 200,000 children that have been forced to skip meals under lockdown while nine out of 30 children live in poverty in the UK. “This is not about politics; this is about humanity. Looking at ourselves and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can’t, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves. Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”

The next day, Prime Minister Boris Johnson reneged on a decision to cancel a food voucher scheme and announced a new £120 million “Covid summer food fund” for 1.3 million pupils. Johnson directly thanked Rashford for what he had done.

Now is the time for similar action in South Africa.

There are numerous sports stars that use their hard-earned platform for social good. Siya Kolisi, Caster Semenya, Faf du Plessis, and Brian Baloyi are just a handful who have ascended beyond their standing as entertainers and public figures in this time. They have reached down from the pedestals we as fans have placed them upon to directly touch those less fortunate.

Some have mirrored the great athlete-activists of the past by taking advantage of live broadcasts to drive a message of change and solidarity. After the rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana in Cape Town sparked nationwide protest against rampant gender-based violence last year, Springbok wing Makazole Mapimpi brandished ‘RIP Nene’ on his wristband after scoring a Test try against Japan. But as heartening as this was, it was still the sort of activism that reaches down.

Now is the time to reach up. To directly call on those with their hands on the levers of power. To challenge our politicians to be better and uphold the social contracts they operate within. To hold them to a higher standard.

This is no simple task and I do not ask it lightly. South Africa is a polarised nation, politically and socially, and is fraught with problems which the pandemic has made stark. Schools are under-resourced, access to water is still beyond too many living in townships, police brutality impacts the already impoverished, and harsh evictions are an all too common threat for those without a stable home. All these problems are laced with a thread that stretches back to our racist and divisive past. We are a divided people. Divided by race and gender and access to wealth.

Sport is the one true galvanising force in the country. The outpouring of solidarity was evident last year when South Africans of all stripes celebrated the victorious Springboks. In 2010, at our Fifa World Cup, only the most cynical among us could deny the gravitational pull that compelled us towards a unified centre. Forget about the corruption and mismanagement that exists in the board rooms. Once that opening whistle sounds, sport has no equal in the Republic.

I say this directly to the athletes of South Africa. Lead us. The power you hold by virtue of your status is untapped. Politicians have long shaped you and your role within society. Some openly mock your failures while others claim your success as their own. What Rashford has demonstrated is that you have the power to challenge the powerful.

What causes you take up is yours to decide. There is no shortage of campaigns worth waging in South Africa that would cut across racial and political lines. Ardent supporters of both the EFF and the VF+ would surely agree that the levels of gender-based violence are a national disgrace. No affiliate of the DA or the SACP could counter the point that there is an unacceptable number of people living rough on the street.

Lead us. Write an open letter calling out politicians they cannot ignore. There are enough journalists and broadcasters who would gladly help spread your message. Even those who delude themselves that sport can exist without the heaping side order of politics would applaud your desire for a better world. Those who openly take umbrage will find themselves in a disgruntled minority.

This will require courage. Whoever decides to stick their head above the parapet will be taking a risk. I appreciate you have a small window as a professional athlete and sponsors, media managers and agents might prefer you to shut up and play. But since when does the tail wag the dog? You can shape the narrative.

For all the horrors of COVID-19, this global catastrophe has forced us to reevaluate our priorities. In your absence on the field, we have rightly recognised healthcare workers and delivery drivers and farmers as the heroes they are. Soon the spotlight will turn back to you.

You don’t need anyone to start this conversation. Use your own social media platforms and the rest will follow. I have spoken to players’ unions from a variety of sporting codes in the country and every one of them said they will support you in your cause. Only those with an interest in higher rape figures and homeless people will take issue with your activism.

You don’t need experience in politics. Rashford didn’t have any and look at what he accomplished. The differences between the UK and South Africa are innumerable but there are enough parallels in sport’s importance that makes me believe that your letter would attract attention at the Union Buildings.

Speak to what matters to you. Relate your own personal story where appropriate. Reference the commendable charity work you have already done. Pay no mind to the trolls. Don’t get side-tracked and bogged down in 'whataboutism'. You can’t challenge every injustice, but you can sound a clarion call that will be answered one way or another.

Mandela’s Rainbowism has been desaturated by decades and sustained inequality and political ineptitude. But sport’s power has endured. It does have the power to change the world in a very tangible sense beyond the ephemeral goodwill that emanates from a triumphant tournament. Rashford proved that there can be lasting and durable change when a sporting icon directly calls for it.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance cricket correspondent for Eyewitness News based in the UK.