Interview: GEORGE HOOK

Motley’s Eoin McSweeney speaks to George Hook about the new positive discrimination rule regarding South African rugby and the wider implications that it entails for country and continent.

“I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent. I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses.” This dream of Nelson Mandela’s has yet to be realised, despite his victorious struggle against apartheid in his native country. Africa remains in crisis and this is exemplified by its most powerful and wealthy nation.

Despite South Africa’s stature as the continent’s leading country, many serious problems still exist. The unemployment rate is close to 25%, which is a huge atrocity considering the country’s wealth. It suffers from shockingly high levels of rape, shown in a survey conducted by its government-funded Medical Research Foundation, in which 37% of men in the Gauteng Province admitted to raping a woman. Some of the incidents are terrifying, for example, an 8-month old infant was reportedly raped by four men in 2002, a single case in a raft of tragedies. Since apartheid ended, the Rand has continued to become weaker and parts of the country have slipped into extreme poverty. One of the most damning pieces of information is that the disparity in South Africa between the rich and the poor is greater than any other country in the world apart from Lesotho. Many of the wealthy are white, while the majority of the impoverished are not.

 

SPORT IS ESSENTIALLY ABOUT BEING THE BEST

 

All of this demonstrates just how little South Africa has evolved since apartheid ended. The gap between the black and white communities remains considerably large, even if the mutual resentment shared by both is not as obvious now. A quick look at how the Springboks Rugby Team has changed its selection policy is a perfect example of how the two societies are still considered unequal. Motley met with Irish broadcaster George Hook to discuss the situation and he gave an explanation of the rule change.

“The South African coach will have to pick five non-white players in the team, three of whom musts be black,” he explained, “Then you must have seven essentially on the bench, four of whom must be non-white.” This will be in place at next year’s Rugby World Cup and follows years of positive discrimination implemented by various South African governments. Yet this has never applied in a sporting context.

“They brought in positive discrimination. So when you got to a reception desk there were two blacks and two whites. When you got on an airplane, there was three whites and three blacks and so on. Obviously I agreed with that, even though at that point, the education levels of the Black Community were poor and they weren’t very good at the job. However sport is different. Sport is essentially about being the best. This will undoubtedly weaken South Africa. It’s really interesting, that when you do comparisons between the England rugby team and the South African rugby team, despite having a smaller general population of blacks, England has a higher percentage on their international team. Essentially, the true worth of sport is about being the best.”

 

THE PLACE OF RUGBY IN SOUTH AFRICA’S HISTORY

 

The reason that the rule change has attracted so much attention is because of Rugby’s place in South African history. The country played host to the 1995 World Cup, one year after the end of apartheid and it showed the world that the country had finally changed for the better. Nelson Mandela used his relationship with the team to help unify South Africa and bring together a broken country. Incredibly, South Africa went on to win the tournament. The world celebrated the country’s revival and one of the enduring images of the competition was the presentation of the cup by Mandela to the Springboks captain, Francois Pienaar. The story was even made into a film, with Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman starring in Invictus.

Yet rugby in South Africa also had malicious connotations that still exist today. Rugby was the sport of the white and the wealthy, while soccer was the sport of the poor Black Community. Despite having a population that was almost 75% black, the winning team in 1995 had one African-American player, winger Chester Williams or, as he was fondly known, ‘The Black Pearl.’ The sport was seen as one for the Afrikaners to play and it was another example of the great division between the two ethnic groups.

During apartheid, nearly all sports boycotted South African teams, a major example of this being their exclusion from the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup. However South Africa remained part of the International Rugby Board throughout the apartheid era. As Hook explains, it was a “low point for rugby” and that he “turned down invitations to South Africa until the 1995 World Cup,” at which stage apartheid had ended. Controversially, while they were excluded for the first two instalments of the Rugby World Cup, some teams still toured there; most notably the Lions in 1980, England in 1984 and even Ireland in 1981. The sport’s status, and its relationship with the powerful Afrikaners, divided the country.

“Soccer has been the sport of the Black Community in South Africa. The great tradition of South Africa was rugby,” Hook told Motley, “The problem with this, was that rugby was almost seen by the Afrikaners as an example of who they were. When you think of this, you must understand the place of rugby in South Africa’s history and its place in the mentality of its people.”

 

hook

 

THE ‘EVOLUTION’ OF SOUTH AFRICA

 

Mandela and Chester Williams were thought to have ended this disparity and broken the Springbok colour barrier. South Africa won the world cup again in 2007, which was seen as another triumph against apartheid. The country then hosted one of the world’s largest sporting events, the FIFA World Cup, in 2010. This was supposed to mark the end of the old South Africa and show other countries how far it had progressed, much like the hosting of the 1995 World Cup. Nelson Mandela made a brief appearance at the closing ceremony and a new dawn seemed to be on the horizon.

However, as the problems highlighted above show, this has not happened. Even the most recent sporting achievements of South Africa have been tainted by various discrepancies. Of the winning team in 2007, only two of the starting fifteen were non-white. When they played France in their final group game at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, there weren’t any white players on the South African side. Even a quick glance at Oscar Pistorius’ trial will tell you that all is not right in South African sport. Looking at this damning evidence, it seems that a disparity still exists, despite the efforts of Nelson Mandela. Following his death, South Africa now lacks a leader that can unite the two ethnic groups using sport as Mandela once did twenty years ago.

According to Hook; “Mandela was extraordinary. The 1995 world cup being a clear example, how he used the team and his relationship with Pienaar and so on. They haven’t got anybody of that stature now. The Black Community, understandably, thought that with the release of Mandela and the new regime, life was going to change for them. Life hasn’t changed for the vast majority of black people in South Africa. You only have to go to the great camps outside the big cities. You only have to go to Soweto, or even some of the smaller camps to see how many of the average South African lives. It’s not much better than their living standards under the apartheid regime. The difference is that they don’t have the past laws where they had to have an internal passport and they were clearly discriminated against. The economy hasn’t grown at a rate sufficient enough to give the average South African a proper standard of living.”

 

THE BENEFITS AND DRAWBACKS

 

This new regime has obvious benefits. It will create a sense that rugby is to be played by every South African citizen and not just those who are afforded the rare opportunity. Seeing their heroes play together and be victorious on the pitch, despite the colour of their skin, can inspire younger generations to play a growing sport. This can only lead to a breakdown in the class division and it is hoped that more African-American players will find a place on the South African side. It may also create more competition for places and thus higher quality players, because essentially, there is only ten places on the team for white players. Hook said that in his gut “they have to get blacks into the team and maybe this is the way to do it.” Positive discrimination has already worked in society, so no real question lies over the future success of this rule.

However its faults are obvious. From a player’s point of view, it is likely to create animosity within a squad. Jealousy could breed contempt and players could be considered undeserving of their place because they were only picked based on colour. Players are born to win and no professional athlete enjoys sitting on the bench at the biggest stage. It’s difficult to understand exactly how the coach will control the situation and explain to a particular player why he can’t play due to the rule.

“I have no doubt it will [create animosity within a group of players]. It is the goal of every athlete to compete in the Olympics, it’s the goal of every rugby player to compete in the Rugby World Cup. Now, sportsmen, from their earliest days are competitive. I’m in Cork Constitution Rugby Club this morning watching under 6’s because I have a grandson there, but everybody knows that Con have a first team, a second team and a third team and the best players are on the first team. That’s how sportsmen and women are motivated. Therefore I think that there will be a lot of unhappy guys.”

Another problem is the lack of consistency in the application of the rule. Why is there no restriction on the number of African-American players on the soccer team? It seems that now a negative discrimination is being placed on the White Community, which was not meant to be the outcome of Nelson Mandela’s dream. The rule seems to bring to light a less obvious racism in South Africa that would have disappeared if it had just not been addressed.

“Through being in South Africa and working in the USA with two coaches from the Afrikaner Community, I saw how the White Community in South Africa has accepted the new regime. The problem for the White Community, is that it actually goes beyond rugby because the White Community is now being discriminated against, and in a way, I didn’t fight for the end of apartheid in order to let the blacks discriminate against the whites,” says Hook, “I was an activist for equality, I wasn’t an activist for one group over the other. What you now find in South Africa, is that it can be difficult for a white to get a job. South Africa needs the White Community and I can see this driving a wedge between the two.You have replaced a white elite with a black elite and they have a long way to go.”

 

A LONG TERM SOLUTION  

 

Is there another solution? If more support is given to black children playing rugby at a younger age, it will certainly be of greater benefit than the current regime. Sport should unite people, not divide them and if a programme was implemented to introduce the poor in South Africa to rugby, the country could change forever. Work needs to be done at a lower level rather than the quick solution that is in place now. It will take time, but if such a programme had been successfully set up in 1995, we could have seen a different landscape in South Africa today.

“The negative about this is, that they are only doing this with the national team. They are not doing this with clubs, schools, universities, the professional teams in South Africa. Therefore you have to think that there is a certain amount of politics here. The problem for the coach, is that when you look at South Africa play (and the Irish match is a really good example), South Africa might be losing, they might be under pressure and that means black players are coming off and white players are coming on as substitutes and he’s going back to the roots of the rugby. Can there be real movement in South Africa, without positive discrimination? Probably.”

Looking at the current situation in South Africa, the solution that has been devised may work and more people from the Black Community will begin to play. However, because of the lack of consistency in implementing the rule change, the Springboks are contributing to their own downfall. By not supporting poor communities and using rugby as a tool to promote equality, they are not tapping into a vast talent pool. On a wider scale, this problem epitomises the African continent. Too many problems exist due to inequality and too many quick fix solutions are being proposed. As Hook put it: “South Africa must find its own way. I mean it has had unfortunate politicians, but we can’t exactly crow about the quality of politicians in this country either. It’s very difficult, because it’s not about the country of South Africa, it is about the continent of Africa. The continent of Africa in relation to Ebola in West Africa, the corruption in Zimbabwe. The problem is continent wide.”

 

George-Hook

 

GEORGE UNHOOKED:

 

Ireland’s Chances at the World Cup:

“Come 6 Nations and then the World Cup, Italy will be tricky, but you’d have to think we’d beat them. I can’t see France getting it right, although one, France are my favourite team after Ireland at every World Cup. Of the teams that haven’t won it, they are the best by a mile. You think about how many finals they’ve been in and how many semi-finals they’ve been in. They will be difficult. There’s something about France in a World Cup. I think that we have a big chance of coming through top. If you come through your group top, then you avoid New Zealand, which is a big deal and I think that Ireland want to be in the semi-final.”

 

The Handling of Concussions in Sport:

When you talk about professional rugby players being taken off for concussion, like Johnny Sexton and like Conor Murray, this year has been the first time we have seen it happen. I’m slightly cynical about the concussion story. They are terrified of a legal action because they have seen what happened in America in the NFL. They are only looking after about 500 rugby players i.e. the professional athletes. The vast bulk of players that are playing amateur rugby are doing so without a doctor on the side line or all these concussion protocols. If you look at underage rugby, there is a parent on the touchline. How does a parent know that their child is concussed?”

 

The Pricing of Tickets at the 2015 Rugby World Cup:

“Rugby is professional game now and it is an event. You have to compare the Rugby World Cup with a Rihanna concert or something. The people who used to go to the games were rugby people. Now, only 20 percent of the crowd may be rugby people. They’re pricing the tickets on what the market will bear. It is nothing about George Hook being able to take his grandson to a game so that his grandson will see an event that will live with him for the rest of his life and will increase his appetite for rugby and his love of the game. It has nothing to do with that now – it is an event. So it is simply about money now, it’s not about the sport. And that’s sad, but also a fact of life and I’m not worried about it.”

 

Brian O’Driscoll’s Replacement:

“We look at the history of Irish rugby and we have a small player population. When Jack Kyle dies, it probably took a decade or more to find a player, not better, but equal. They only come once in a generation. Nobody is going to replace him. Yes we had a great autumn. To win three out of three was great, nobody thought that would happen, but I think that at the World Cup, we will find it hard to score.”