Children are the future of any society and culture, and schools are the incubators of that culture. The focus of this article is school sports in South Africa in 2020, as portrayed online. The issues addressed in this article are important to South Africans and for those emigrants who still remember their roots.
To provide a reference point, research was done firstly by viewing the country on Google maps, and plotting the visible presence of a swimming pool at schools. Blue swimming pools at a school (or a town) are taken as evidence of an aquatic sports culture, and of good governance. Dead pools, shown with black pins show the opposite, and grey pins indicate neither a functioning nor a dead pool, suggesting an indifference to aquatic sports at that location.
Secondly, websites and any other online publications as well as social media were searched for any evidence of aquatic sports. Many schools were found to have competitive swimming programs while lacking their own swimming pool. The creation and continued existence of a functioning pool is often recorded in the history of a school - where such histories are published online. See the map for the location of the swimming pools.
One might ask: Does South Africa have a system of school sport? In reply one might say that the 2019 Rugby World Cup victory of the Springboks was a direct outcome of South African school’s rugby.
This begs the question: How did it become so good, and will it endure? For answer the first part of that question one would need to understand something of the history of school sports in the country. The second part is a reference to the future of South African society.
Success in sports requires four things: namely suitably talented athlete with the right attitude; a good coach; adequate facilities and finally a system of competition at the appropriate level. South African schools have developed all of these.
Whether it will endure depends on the political leadership. One might argue that world class politicians require the same: suitably talented (intelligent) people with the right attitude (serve the people), properly coached (educators at school and university) at world class facilities (schools and universities) and finally a system of competition (elections) free from corruption.
Alas, South Africa does not seem have any leaders with these qualities, which would suggest the high performing school system might not survive. One only needs to look at neighbouring Zimbabwe provides an example of exactly how a high performing system was destroyed by inefficient and corrupt leadership. On the bright side – such incompetence is unlikely to overcome determined efforts to resist its corrosive influence on society.
NOTE: There is a large body of literature on the history of South Africa, complete with pronouncements on the motives of the various actors. So, education provided by whites for non-whites was always “inferior” and designed to “subjugate” or “disadvantage” etc. The underlying premise is always that whites owed the blacks an equal world to the one they created for themselves, and that they deliberately failed to do so in order to take advantage of the blacks. This narrative is not universally accepted by white South Africans.
The arrival of the Dutch in 1652, the discovery of gold at the Witwatersrand, the Boer War, 1994 election, the 1996 South African Schools Act and the resultant “white flight” from state schools and the introduction of racial quotas in school sports team selection, were all significant events that help form the sporting landscape in the county’s schools by 2020.
The races of South Africa
Bushmen and Hottentots – today known as the San and the Koi or Khoekoe - were the only humans at the Cape when the Europeans began to arrive along the coast in the late 1400’s.
Europeans settled in South Africa when the Dutch VOC built a base at Cape Town in 1652. Schools were set up to teach the children of the white settlers, and for the children of migrate eastwards along the coast and into the interior, taking their coloured slaves with them, their children’s schooling was limited to reading the bible.
Coloured - or “mixed race” - communities grew from children of South East Asian, Chinese and black slaves and prisoners of the VOC, as well as Bushmen and Hottentot women. They are found mostly in the Cape province.
Bantu tribes migrated south along the eastern seaboard from central Africa. By 1816 the small Zulu tribe under Shaka conquered northern Natal, pushing other tribes like the Xhosa south into Transkei region and Swazis and Sothos into the crags of the Drakensberg. Other tribes like the Venda migrated westwards onto the highveld of the Northern Transvaal.
Indians, both Muslims and Hindus, first came to the Cape both as political prisoners and free labourers and soldiers of the Dutch VOC. Their where their descendants became part of the coloured community. From 1860 Indians were brought to Natal in large numbers to work as indentured labourers. From 1869 free “passenger Indians” came to live and work as traders in Natal, and later throughout the country – except the Orange Free State that legislated in 1876 that no Indian may stay overnight in the country.
Chinese immigrants also began to arrive after 1870, to work on the diamond and gold mines. Today they little part in South African school sports, although former world champion open water swimmer Chad Ho is of Chinese extraction. An annual sports festival has been held since 1960, where they play basketball, badminton, golf, table tennis, shooting, soccer and squash.
Schools in South Africa a diverse in their design on scope. They range from the 1856 Grey High school, with its Victorian bell-tower and two swimming pools set in the leafy suburb of Mill Park in Port Elizabeth, to the typical flat-roofed structures without playing fields commonly found in the townships.
Regardless of age of size, there is a visible difference in the physical condition of schools – often in adjacent properties. Some are immaculately maintained, while others appear derelict.
During the 1700’s the Cape experienced an influx of Christian missionaries, who play an important role in the history of schooling in the country. They established schools with a focus on baptizing and educating the non-European children. After the sale of the Cape to Great Britain in 1806, church-run and funded schools appeared all over the Colony. Church schools are an important part of competitive school sports in South Africa today, as they are top ranked schools in several disciplines.
By Union in 1910 each province had state schools for the separate race group, which were managed separately. White schools are divided between Afrikaans, English and dual medium, or separate parallel classes of both languages in one school. Some were single sex, although most state schools are mixed. They were mostly suburban, although many platteland children were educated in a single room plaasskool. Until 1994 white children largely attended their nearest state school with other white children from the same suburban socio-economic class and language. Private schools were relatively rare, and mostly found in the larger cities. A few notable institutions developed in rural locations – particularly in Natal. In the Transvaal the government ignored mission schools that catered for blacks – if they did not have to provide any finance for them.
Not all schools in South Africa require pupils to participate in organised competitive sports. Participation in at least one sport summer and one winter sport is compulsory at many schools, while others have no participation requirements. However, in those schools that do compete, they mostly take it very seriously. Success in sports has become a marketing tool for schools as they compete for a market share.
Schools in South Africa focus mostly traditional British sports – rugby, cricket, netball, hockey, tennis, swimming and water polo. Soccer, or football, was once popular at many white schools, and today many schools again field teams in local and national competitions. Besides these high-profile codes, there are many sports including horse riding, biathlon, lifesaving and shooting that are popular schools sports. Even chess and e-sports are considered part of school sports at which South African children excel.
To succeed at the highest level the athlete must have the right genetics and attitude. South Africa has produced world champion athletes in many disciplines - swimming and lifesaving; rugby and cricket; pool and bowls; motor and motor cycle racing; rowing and canoeing; biathlon, biathle and triathlons; mountain biking, golf, athletics, boxing and karate and more. Genetics is a key factor in this success, but so is the sporting competitve culture, and the wealth of the society.
Every athlete needs an impassioned coach to succeed. In South Africa teachers were often known to take up the profession just to be able coach schoolboy rugby. This is probably the true reason for the success of school sports in the country.
Despite the modern trend of awarding “participation” medals to all involved, school sports at first team level is deadly serious business.
Organized competitive school sports in South Africa is an important part of culture at many schools. This is represented by badges and colours blazers that carry a great deal of respect within the school community. The sporting traditions and achievements of a school is fundamental to its stature in the community – both locally and nationally. It is created and maintained by the people of that school – it’s staff, pupils and parents.