In the focus groups which I helped conduct for ENCA in the run-up to the last election several Africans spontaneously voiced the wish that “whites could run South Africa again at least for a while, just to get things working again”. There was, of course, no nostalgia for being ruled by a different ethnic group. Instead it was a recognition that South Africa used to be much more competently managed in a technical sense and also of just how much difference that makes to everyone's lives.
The sporting events of the last few months have triggered similar considerations. The Springbok rugby team has had two periods of management by affirmative action appointees - between 2008-2011 under Peter De Villiers and again in 2016-2018 under Allister Coetzee. The head of SARU commented that De Villers' appointment had “taken into account the issue of transformation”.
As Tendai Mtawarira has pointed out, De Villiers was lucky to inherit a World Cup-winning team and was able to rely on the senior players to take charge of the team. Nonetheless, this ended with the Springboks losing in the World Cup quarter-finals in 2011. In 2019 De Villiers announced that he no longer supported the Springboks (he had taken against Eben Etzebeth) which led to angry demands that he should cease parading around in a Springbok blazer and, of course, a complete denouement when the Springboks won the World Cup.
Coetzee courted less outrage than De Villiers but when he had coached Western Province and the Stormers they had never won anything and his record with the Springboks showed what a relevant measure that was. By the time he was sacked they were ranked fifth or sixth in the world. Rassie Erasmus, who was then appointed, had been a notably successful coach ever since 2004 and had been a technical adviser to the Springboks at both the 2007 and 2011 World Cups. If merit alone had counted, by 2019 he should probably have been celebrating his tenth year in charge of the Springboks.
It took Erasmus only eighteen months to transform the Boks into world champions. In a way this was unsurprising. South Africa has now won three World Cups and the sporting talent (of all races) just keeps coming through. With competent management the Boks should always make the finals or semi-finals. Soccer works on the same principle. For years now African soccer players have been the best in the world – think of Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, George Weah, Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Their countries never come close to winning the World Cup but these players all migrated to teams with top management where they won everything. The management of virtually all African soccer teams remains abysmal.
We have now seen something a little similar in cricket. After the atrocious regime of Thabang Moroe had resulted in the nadir of South African cricket, experienced management was drafted in in the shape of Jacques Faul, Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis, Linda Zondi, Justin Ontong and Ashwell Prince. Within a week the Proteas had shown a clear improvement against a strong English team.