The Commonwealth may still matter to SA

ANTHONY BUTLER: Big changes coming for offshoot of British colonialism

First published in BusinessLive

28 JULY 2022

Some South Africans will feel a pang of regret as the 22nd Commonwealth Games get under way in the English city of Birmingham. After all, it was with much excitement that then sports minister Fikile Mbalula announced in September 2015 that Durban would be the first African city to host this event.

SA’s games were due to start on the 104th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, July 18 2022, and were a stepping stone to a bid for the first Olympics on African soil.

Others will be rather pleased SA is not the host. Despite strenuous lobbying by mega-event advocates, multisport competitions remain financially ruinous to almost all who are dumb enough to pay for them. The 2010 games in Delhi, for example, were meant to cost $250m, but the final bill was by some estimates more than $10bn.

Moreover, critics familiar with Mbalula’s political style observed that the games would benefit the minister himself far more than they would assist the country. Even the feasibility studies provided him with money to splash out on KwaZulu-Natal elites who had risen in Jacob Zuma’s wake to dominate much of the ANC.

Worse still, the symbolic character of the Commonwealth is a slap in the face to most participants. SA participated in the first precursor to the games, an “Inter-Empire Championship” held in 1911 in a South London venue for bar billiards, darts and football, Crystal Palace. SA went on to be a star performer in the British Empire Games for two decades.

In 1961, at a Commonwealth prime ministers’ conference, Malaya, India and many African states pushed successfully for the expulsion of SA because of its race-segregation policies.

On the bench for three decades, the country nonetheless remained at the centre of the politics of the Commonwealth Games. Nigeria boycotted the 1978 festival in Edmonton in protest at New Zealand’s sporting relationships with SA. More than 30 countries stayed away from the 1986 games in the  campaign to change British government policy on the apartheid state.

SA returned to the games in 1994 as part of the post-apartheid cultural and sporting dividend. In the years that followed there were special triumphs, including swimmer Chad le Clos’ 17 medals, from 2010 to 2018.

Such accomplishments were inevitably overshadowed by the politics of post-apartheid competition. Sports bequeathed by colonialism, such as swimming, netball, lawn bowls, and cricket, are those for which access and resources remain most dramatically unequal. Indeed, symbolism and unequal access continue to bedevil transformation in precisely the sports that differentiate the Commonwealth from other global forums.

Beyond sport, however, the Commonwealth remains an important potential resource for SA. It is true that the body matters most to three dozen small member states that depend on it to address their special challenges concerning trade dependency, development finance and climate change. The Commonwealth helps such countries secure finance, voice and state capacity they would otherwise lack.

But the Commonwealth also includes major economic and political actors that share cultural, legal, linguistic and sporting legacies with SA, among them Malaysia, Nigeria, Kenya and the Australasian countries. Almost half of the 2,5-billion Commonwealth residents are citizens of India, one of the two new poles of the emerging international order.

The body sometimes looks like a washed-up colonial residue. But solidifying postcolonial sentiment across the Commonwealth, and a coming transition in the UK monarchy, are likely to bring a major and positive reorientation in the organisation’s leadership, direction and role. If the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA) consortium keeps losing coherence,  this may make the Commonwealth an increasingly important partner and resource for SA in international affairs.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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