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Sociology of Sport Journal, 2005, 21, 59-77
© 2005 Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.
Athletes as Agents of Change: An Examination
of Shifting Race Relations Within Women’s
Netball in Post-Apartheid South Africa
Cynthia Fabrizio Pelak
This study examines shifting race relations within one of South Africa’s most popular and
fastest growing sports—women’s netball. Drawing on political opportunity and collective
identity theories as articulated by social movement scholars, this article develops an analytical strategy to elucidate how athletes and sport administrators can serve as agents of
social change. This analysis relies on interview, survey, and archival data collected during
1999 and 2000. The findings show that netball athletes and administrators are contributing
to nation building in post-apartheid South Africa by constructing new collective identities
across historical racial boundaries.
Cette étude porte sur les changements dans les relations raciales au sein du sport le plus
populaire et prenant le plus d’ampleur en Afrique du Sud : le netball féminin. En empruntant
aux théories de l’opportunité politique et de l’identité collective telles qu’articulées par les
théoriciens du mouvement social, cet article comprend une analyse stratégique qui élucide
la façon dont les athlètes et les administrateurs sportifs peuvent servir d’agents de changement
social. Cette analyse se fonde sur des entrevues, une enquête et des données d’archives
colligées en 1999 et 2000. Les résultats permettent de conclure que les athlètes et les
administrateurs du netball contribuent à bâtir la nation dans une Afrique du Sud post-apartheid
en construisant de nouvelles identités collectives sans égard aux frontières raciales historiques.
The dismantling of apartheid during the early 1990s signaled the end of the
international sports boycott against South Africa. In 1991, after a 30-year absence,
the International Olympic Committee invited South Africa to return to the Olympic Games. The politics of racial transformation and sports in post-apartheid South
Africa have received much attention from scholars (Booth, 1998; Farquharson &
Marjoribanks, 2003; Nauright, 1997). The research, which shows that sports are
central to the nation-building process, focuses almost exclusively on elite male
sport administrators and male-dominated sports. Experiences of athletes at the
grassroots level and those in sports dominated and controlled by women are given
very little attention. Moreover, scholars generally assume that the South African
nonracial sports movement1 ended with the disbanding of organizations such as
the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee and South Africa Council of
Sport. In this article, I broaden the existing literature by arguing that the nonracial
sports movement continues in the new South Africa, especially in one of the nation’s
most popular sports—women’s netball.
The author is with the University of Memphis, Department of Sociology, 231
Clement Hall, Memphis, TN 38152.
Netball,2 a sport with roots in the United States and Britain and closely related to basketball, is an appealing context in which to examine collective action
and shifting power relations in post-apartheid South Africa because of its historical gender/race/class configuration. Netball emerged as a quintessentially feminine sport for White females of middle-class backgrounds during the 1950s. By
the 1980s, however, although it was still dominated by White women, netball became the most popular sport among South African women of all racial and class
backgrounds from rural and urban communities (Sport Information & Science
Agency, 1997). With the democratization of South Africa, a period of intense racial conflict emerged within netball that ultimately led to a substantial racial transformation of the sport. This analysis examines the transitional period of the 1990s
and develops a conceptual strategy for exploring how athletes and sport administrators can act as agents of social change. Theoretically, this analysis draws on
political opportunity theory (Jenkins, 1985; McAdam, 1983) and collective identity theory (Melucci, 1996; Taylor & Whittier, 1992) as articulated in the social
movements literature. Methodologically this study is grounded in an interactionist
tradition and informed by insights from Black feminist and Third World feminist
scholarship. The data used are quantitative and qualitative observations gathered
through fieldwork in South Africa during 1999 and 2000. By conceptualizing South
African women netball athletes and administrators as political actors and examining the process of collective change in netball, this study extends the scholarship
on sports and social change, race and sports, and collective identity among a diverse group of women.
Political Opportunity and Collective Identity Theories
Social movement scholars identify two major prerequisites for the development of collective action—a degree of openness in the political order and a shared
understanding of an injustice among a group of individuals. Political opportunity
theory addresses the first prerequisite, and collective identity theory grapples with
the second.
Political opportunity theory focuses on the political context, political elites,
and the level of opportunity for the articulation of grievances and oppositional
organizing. This theory holds that collective mobilization against the dominant
order emerges and succeeds in contexts in which divisions among political elites
and political institutions are heightened and counter-mobilization tactics by elites
are weakened (Jenkins, 1985; Jenkins & Perrow, 1977; McAdam, 1982, 1983). In
the case of the democratic transformation of South Africa, political opportunity
theorists are likely to focus on how the fragmentation among political and economic elites during the 1980s created opportunities and successes for the mass
democratic movement. In this study, political opportunity theory will be used to
examine how the shifting political context and divisions among netball administrators created opportunities to challenge the sport’s apartheid structures and
Collective identity theory, in contrast, focuses on the processes by which
groups collectively define themselves, maintain group solidarity, and act on their
grievances. Collective identity theorists argue that for individuals to come together
and translate their experiences of social injustices into social protest, they must
Athletes as Agents of Change
develop a collective identity based on common interests, experiences, and consciousness (Gamson, 1997; Melucci, 1996; Taylor & Whittier, 1992, 1995). The
process of forming oppositional collective identities is recognized as a challenge
in and of itself because it disrupts and reconfigures dominant social boundaries.
Melucci (1996) maintains that collective identity formation must be conceived of
as an interactive process because it is constructed, negotiated, and maintained
through ongoing interactions linking people. Taylor and Whittier (1992, p. 111)
propose three dimensions in the ongoing construction of collective identities—
boundaries, consciousness, and negotiation. They define boundaries as the social,
psychological, and physical structures that highlight differences between subordinates and dominants; consciousness as the interpretive frameworks used by challenging groups to define and realize their interests; and negotiations as the symbolic and everyday actions subordinate groups take up to resist and restructure
existing systems of domination.
Regardless of theoretical emphasis, social movement scholars agree that collective social protest can take many different forms. Based on a fluid conception
of social movements, Staggenborg (1998, p. 182) uses the notion of social movement communities “to encompass all actors who share and advance the goals of a
social movement” regardless of the site and form of their resistance. It is through
the notion of multiple and fluid forms of social movements that I come to think of
women netball athletes and administrators as part of the broader nonracial sports
movement in South Africa. Although South African netballers do not represent a
formal social movement nor do the players necessarily identify as political activists, they do intentionally mobilize to challenge the existing order in their sport.
Relying on theories of political opportunity structures and collective identity formation, I elucidate how netballers contribute to racial transformation in the new
South Africa.
Data and Methodological Approach
The data used here are part of a larger project3 that examines sports and
nation-building processes in postapartheid South Africa. The data were collected
during two 3-month stays in South Africa during 1999 and 2000. The inspiration
and design of this larger project were grounded in Black feminist and Third World
feminist scholarship4 that attends to the “micropolitics of context, subjectivity, and
struggle, as well as to the macropolitics of global economic and political systems
and processes” (Mohanty, 2004, p. 223). This diverse literature calls for historically specific, locally based analyses (Mama, 1995, pp. 8-9) that emphasize the
simultaneity of oppressions and the multiplicity of women’s social locations
(Collins, 2000, pp. 227-228), as well as focus on the interplay between social structures and women’s agency (Mohanty, 1991, p. 56).
Only select data from this broader project are used for this analysis. I rely
primarily on semistructured interviews with 14 elite netball athletes. The interviews were conducted at the 2000 South African Netball Championships, a weeklong tournament including over 600 athletes from rural and urban South Africa.
The sample of athletes was randomly drawn from a list of players from the top 10
most competitive teams. The interviews focused on: (a) the participants’ sporting
histories; (b) the personal, structural, and organizational changes within netball;
and (c) the athletes’ attitudes and thoughts about gender, race, and class relations
within sports. All interviews were tape recorded, transcribed in full, and analyzed
with the assistance of the computer software program NUD*IST. The ages of the
athletes ranged from 20 to 36 years and averaged 25 years. The racial/ethnic/cultural
backgrounds of interviewees approximate their relative representation within competitive netball. According to a representative survey that I conducted at the championship tournament, 47.2% of netball participants identified as White and/or
Afrikaner, 43.1% as Black and/or African, 5.2% as Colored, 3.2% as Indian, and
1.2% as having mixed racial/ethnic/cultural heritage.
The analysis of the setting is also informed by semistructured interviews
with eight top-level sport administrators, archival evidence, and surveys from 251
netball participants. The sample of administrators was purposively drawn based
on the administrator’s position in the governance of netball and national sports
bodies. Three administrators were board members of Netball South Africa (NSA),
the governing body of netball in the country; one was a provincial netball administrator; one was a national administrator for netball at the school level; and three
were from the South African Sports Commission, the national umbrella organization for sports. The archival data includes newspaper articles on women’s netball
between 1994 and 2000 (obtained using SAbinet’s South Africa News electronic
database), written press releases and policy statements from NSA, and a written
transcript of the speech delivered by the Minister of Sport at the 2000 Netball
Championships. The survey of 251 netball participants (athletes and managers)
was conducted at the 2000 Netball Championships and designed to assess the demographic background of participants, the structural barriers they experience in
competitive sport, and their attitudes regarding racial transformation in netball.
Self-administered survey forms were distributed to members of 30 of the top 40
regional teams participating at the tournament.5 Twenty-four out of the 30 teams
sampled returned completed forms for a team response rate of 80%. Of the estimated 382 individuals who made up the 30 teams sampled, 251 usable surveys
were collected for an individual response rate of 68%.
Overall, I adopt a methodological strategy of “passionate objectivity” as
described by Hargreaves (1997, p. 193). The aim of this strategy rests in my desire
to draw valid conclusions, however partial, about the experiences of South African
women netballers through the use of systematic observations while appreciating
that my representations are selected, framed, and mediated by my own voice and
experiences (Harding, 1991). To understand who netballers were at the end of the
20th century, I choose interview excerpts that are both characteristic and/or unique
among the responses. To insure participants’ anonymity, I use pseudonyms to identify the respondents. Given that the language used to represent race and race relations in South Africa has been and continues to be contentious, variable, and context specific (Jung, 2000), I use the racial/ethnic identifiers that the informants
used to describe themselves. When not directly referencing an individual’s selfidentity, I draw on a convention of the Black Consciousness Movement, referring
to South Africans of African, Asian, and Colored identities as Black. I also frequently use quotations around racial terms to remind the reader of their social and
political construction (Omi and Winant, 1994; Winant 2000). As an analytical starting point, I now turn to examine the shifting political opportunity structures in
Athletes as Agents of Change
Shifting Political Opportunity Structures
Organized netball first emerged in English-speaking “White schools” in the
late 1950s then quickly diffused to Afrikaans-speaking schools. By the 1960s, as
one administrator remarked, “Afrikaner women owned netball in South Africa.”
Experiences described by older Afrikaans-speaking administrators suggest that
netball offered Afrikaner women an acceptable “ladylike” sport that contributed to
the larger project of Afrikaner nationalism while not challenging dominant norms
of femininity and womanhood espoused in Afrikaner communities.
The early development of netball corresponded with the emergence of the
nonracial sports movement. The international sports boycott directly affected netball
from 1970 until 1994—no international netball teams traveled to or from South
Africa during this period. During the late 1970s, in the context of mounting international pressure and shifting political demands, the apartheid government instituted a number of so-called multinational sport reforms that encouraged the development of separate sports federations for Africans, Whites, Coloreds, and Asians
but did little to alter the dominance of Whites (Booth, 1998). In response to these
reforms, White netball administrators started training camps in Black townships
and lobbied Black schools to offer netball for girls. The mission to “spread the
gospel of netball,” as described by Liezell, a White netball administrator, increased
Black women’s participation in netball. The “triple oppression of class, colour and
gender,” however, severely limited opportunities for Black women in organized
sports (Roberts, 1992, p. 3). Disparities in sporting opportunities among South
African women during this period were evidenced in the number of netball facilities available in White areas versus African areas. According to the South African
1977 Official Year Book, there was one netball court for every 20,035 individuals
in White designated areas and one court for every 310,443 individuals in African
As apartheid was being dismantled during the late 1980s, formal talks to
unify the four racially segregated associations began. The talks were extremely
contentious and saturated with historical distrust and suspicion. It was not until
1994 that a racially inclusive national governing body was formed. The formation
of Netball South Africa (NSA) marked a major change in the political opportunity
structure within netball and many seized the moment to articulate their grievances.
At the first national netball competition after unification in 1994, Black players
protested what they perceived as racial discrimination in the selection of national
players (Motsei, 1994). In 1995, dissent re-emerged around an all-White team
traveling to the All Africa Games (“Stop NSC meddling,” 1995). Amidst this conflict the president of NSA was pressured to resign, and shortly thereafter the executive committee was reconfigured. Again, in 1996, Black women organized protests at the national championships and stopped the competition from proceeding.
The protestors argued that racial transformation in netball was taking too long, and
that White leaders were not working hard enough to integrate Black women into
netball at all levels. The problems became so intense that officials from the Ministry of Sport and the National Sports Council stepped in to arbitrate. Another shake
up occurred at the 1999 National Championships, and the executive committee
again was replaced. This time an African woman was appointed president of NSA,
and a diverse executive committee was installed.
By the end of the 1990s, netball was in a new place. The following quote
from Nkosi, a high-level administrator at the South African Sports Commission,
describes the unique struggle within netball:
I think netball is much more advanced than say cricket in dealing with [racial] transformation issues. They have been through the painful process longer.
Netball is still going to have problems, but its problems will not be
transformation-related. I think it is because they have not taken short cuts.
They have seen through all the pitfalls that were there. You can see the pitfalls with rugby, with cricket, and hockey; you can name most of the sports.
You can sort it by the grumbles. It is still there, the stomach is still grumbling, you know. Now and again, you will get the outbursts [within netball],
but look at the national team. The top seven netball players, four or three of
them are Black. . . . They have become more sensitive and more innovative
in dealing with [racial] transformation than other sports.
Many have left netball to avoid the pain of change, but those who have
remained and have recently joined are dealing with the “grumbling in their stomachs,” those gut-wrenching feelings that accompany challenges to beliefs and practices that have been reproduced for centuries. Despite the positive changes,
netballers still face the formidable task of constructing a unified collective identity
that both transcends race and incorporates racial/ethnic/cultural differences. How
do netballers come together, despite their differences, to develop shared meanings,
experiences, and, most importantly, a connection to collective efforts that are greater
than their individual interests? I now turn to the question of collective identity
formation among netball participants at the moment of the 2000 National Netball
Reconstructing and Reinforcing
Racial Boundaries
Collective identities are built on boundaries that mark the social territories
of groups by highlighting differences (Gamson, 1997; Melucci, 1996; Taylor and
Whittier, 1992, 1995). Separate collective identities of racial groups during the
apartheid era were established by an array of boundary-marking mechanisms. Indeed, it is hard to find another nation state in the 20th century that spent as much
energy and as many resources to establish and maintain strict racial boundaries as
did South Africa. Given the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, one would expect that the process of dismantling racial boundaries among women in netball
would be difficult. In this section, I draw attention to the ways that the politics of
identity, a racial quota policy, spatial segregation, and discursive practices are reinforcing and reconstructing racial boundaries among netballers.
In response to Black women’s collective protests during the mid-1990s,
netball leaders instituted a number of affirmative action policies in order to increase Black women’s participation and influence. The most controversial policy
was that of racial integration quotas for provincial teams competing at national
tournaments. As a starting point, in 1995, racial quotas were enforced at competitions of the under-19 age division. By 2000, quotas were enforced at the highest
level of competition—the National Netball Championships. Provincial teams lost
Athletes as Agents of Change
points in the tournament if they did not have at least a 40% representation of “Blacks”
or “Whites” on their player rosters. In addition, the policy required that there be at
least two players of the underrepresented race playing on the court at all times.
Tensions surrounding this policy at the championship tournament were palpable.
As one would expect, the policy received more support among those identifying as
Black and/or African than those identifying as White and/or Afrikaans.6 The following comment by Kay, a 21-year-old White player, expresses an extreme posture toward the policy:
Um, in South Africa it’s, it’s, everything goes with, it’s Black, okay. They
must come in everything you do. And it’s not fair, because I think the best
player must get the position in the team, and um, it doesn’t work like that.
They must be in the team. And in the end, the White people will move out,
the best players will move out to give them space. So, I don’t know if I have
a future in netball. A lot of my friends went overseas just to work. But I don’t
think that running is the answer. To me, just to go overseas and run away
from them, it doesn’t help. That’s what they want. They want to take over
our country. So, I don’t want to give them that satisfaction.
The boundaries between “us” and “them” are clearly marked in racial terms
by Kay. She sees her space in netball (and South Africa) as being threatened
and invaded by Blacks. She does not seem willing to redefine boundaries to
share space with Blacks and build a unified South Africa. As a follow-up to
the above comment, I asked Kay whether she saw South Africa as a rainbow
No, there’s not even Black in the rainbow [she laughs]. So I don’t know
where they get that expression from. No, I don’t see a rainbow actually.
Usually it was apartheid between White and Black, now it’s changed the
other way around. It’s between Black and White.
Kay rejects the symbolic imagery of a rainbow nation, which has been invoked by leaders such as Nelson Mandela in order to build solidarity among South
Africans. Her comment regarding the change from “White to Black” to “Black to
White” reflects her belief that Whites are disadvantaged in the new South Africa
just as Blacks were disadvantaged under apartheid. Although these sentiments represent an extreme position, they suggest a highly contentious environment in which
sisterhood or unity among netballers is not predetermined based on a shared gender identity (Mohanty, 1991).
Paradoxically, the use of binary racial categories in the quota policy reinforces the rigid racial boundaries that the policy aims to dismantle. Although the
policy challenges racial inequalities, the designation of players as “Black” or
“White” simultaneously underscores racial divisions. This paradox is highlighted
in a story about the implementation of the policy at the tournament that was shared
by Marika, a 28-year-old White woman.
Well, I think yesterday the first strange thing happened. One of our players
got injured, one of our Black players. And we had to put a White player in
her place and we had to take another White player off and put a Black player
in her place. That’s minor and that will sort itself out. It wasn’t a problem
whatsoever but you had to think about it. It is very new to us that you have to
actually go and figure out. You have to adapt.
Marika’s story of her team complying with the policy requirement of having
two players of the underrepresented group on the court at all times illustrates how
challenging racial exclusion in netball can contribute to reifying racial categories.
The binary construction of netballers as either “Black” or “White” reflects historical power relations, but such a construction also contradicts the multiple racial/
ethnic/cultural categories to which athletes identify and the fluid and situational
nature of identities in South Africa (Jung, 2000). Although netball administrators
maintain that the term “Black” is inclusive of all “non-White” South Africans, the
meaning of the term varies widely among athletes, who come from all across South
Africa where regional differences are stark. Many use the term Black to refer only
to Africans rather than to refer collectively to all persons of color.
The ambiguities of the racial terms, as well as the historical tensions between apartheid-defined groups, are evident in an exchange with Nomsa, a 36year-old Black woman. Talking about tensions between Coloreds and Africans in
netball, Nomsa said:
Coloreds don’t have a standing place. They don’t know where they are. . . .
They must just decide whether they are White or Black and then we can
know where they fall. If you watch the [X] Province team, they’ve got one
Colored girl. And with us [Africans], the team is only White. We say it’s
only White. Because once she’s there, she’s White. . . . And the surnames,
one of them I think, it’s Johnson or Peterson. It’s White! So, they say they’ve
met the quota system in that fashion. But, if they say Black, let it be a Black,
you see the face is Black.
In a follow-up question, I asked Nomsa if she considered Africans, Coloreds, and
Asians as “Black.”
Hmm [pause]. But, if they [Coloreds] are with Whites, they don’t consider
themselves as Blacks. That is the problem. They consider themselves as
Blacks if they have a problem with the Whites. Then they’ll be calling themselves Blacks. And, if things are smooth and nice, they are Whites.
I responded by asking, “It sounds like you don’t trust Coloreds?” She answered:
No, no. You cannot, you cannot trust Coloreds. We can stand here and say,
“Blacks this side and Whites this side.” I’m telling you, they are going to fall
on the White side.
This exchange not only highlights the political tensions between Africans
and Coloreds but also illustrates how the political meaning and boundaries of racial categories are themselves fluid and situational. Nomsa discursively marks
boundaries through references to “we” and “they,” the color of one’s face, a person’s
surname, and political alliances. She also uses the quota policy to construct strict
boundaries between “Whites” and “Blacks,” with “Coloreds” having to choose a
side. The politics of identity in netball, like that of the broader society, are critical
to boundary marking and the negotiation of new collective identities.
Despite the ongoing reinforcement of racial categories, players also talked
about how rigid racial divisions were loosening up. Assertions expressing the need
Athletes as Agents of Change
for tolerance and acceptance of differences were common. Lynne, a
23-year-old Afrikaans-speaking woman, explains how netball itself serves as a
site for bringing women together:
If you put yourself in the team, then you must be there and you must accept
the other players. It is not that you are White or Black; you can’t think that
she is White and she is not. People are different in culture or color, or whatever. But, all of us are people; all of us are in the world and living together.
Maybe tonight we sit down and have a talk. The White and the Black differ
very much. Because [of] our religion, we do this and this. In our culture, we
believe in this and this. And then, you see the differences but you can do
nothing about it. You must be accepting of one another and play the game.
Echoing the desire to be unified, Zingisa, a 23-year-old Black woman, employs
the frame of teamwork and sportsmanship: “I think sportsmen, whoever they are,
should build sportsmanship, no matter what culture, or whatever—we should be
one. We shouldn’t judge each other by color. We should be one.” For Danielle, a
24-year-old White/Afrikaner woman, the love of netball brings people together:
If you love your sport, you play the sport. So it doesn’t matter who is with
you in the team. It all depends on—not depends—it helps if you’re all together. That’s why netball is such a lovely sport. So it doesn’t matter who or
what you are, it’s a team playing together.
The above quotes demonstrate the willingness on the part of netball athletes to
accept differences of race, culture, and color. The metaphors of teamwork and a
shared commitment to netball appear critical to transcending divisions.
Integrating geographically based netball teams is extremely difficult in the
context of rigid spatial divisions. Although racial residential segregation decreased
slightly in the 1990s, South Africa is still one of the most spatially segregated
nations in the world (Christopher, 2001). Movement across communities, which
was restricted during apartheid through Influx Control policies, Pass Laws, and
Group Areas Acts, are today constrained by structural inequalities, high costs of
transportation, and perceptions of crime and safety. In general, White women’s
fear of crime constrains their visiting historically Black townships in order to play
netball, and Black women’s lack of financial resources limits their traveling to
historically White dominated central cities in which most sporting facilities are
available. Sheila, a 22-year-old White woman, expresses her fears of traveling to
Black townships:
We [Whites] don’t dare go and live there [in Black townships]. There is a lot
of murder and things going on there as well. So we don’t dare go near their
places. Like townships and things like that, we don’t go near that. It is too
Nomsa, in contrast, describes the financial and logistic difficulties experienced by her “Black” teammates when they travel from Soweto to Johannesburg
to compete:
When we travel to Johannesburg, we take taxis. We collect 10 rand per player
and we take a taxi. They drop us [at the courts] and then they come long after
the games have finished. The Whites drive their own cars. After the games,
they take their cars and leave us there. If maybe one of them is nice enough,
she can take you to the nearest point but not all the way home.
Divergent experiences of traveling to team practices and matches builds resentments and works against constructing a unified “we” among netballers. Although the racial quota policy demands integration, spatial segregation, Whites’
fear of Black neighborhoods, and contrasting material realities among South Africans hinder the integration of teams. To further elucidate the reconstruction of
boundaries, I turn to explore how collective identity formation within netball is
shaped by netballers’ shared consciousness.
Forging Group Consciousness
of Intersecting Inequalities
Boundaries locate persons as members of an insider group, but it is group
consciousness that imparts a larger significance to a collectivity. According to Taylor
and Whittier (1992), the development of a shared consciousness is an ongoing
process that crystallizes when a group of individuals realize their common interests and develop a shared understanding of their situation. I use the concept of
consciousness to refer to the interpretive frameworks used by netball athletes to
understand and frame their diverse experiences. Specifically, I am interested in
how interpretations of individual or group disadvantage and privilege are articulated in terms of race, gender, and class structures rather than individual or group
failings and efforts.
Rigid gender segregation in organized sports creates a context that encourages the development of female athletes’ gender consciousness. Given the visibility of men’s sporting opportunities, female athletes typically use male athletes of
their own racial/ethnic and class backgrounds as references to understand their
circumstances. It is through gendered experiences within and connected to sports
that netballers forged a group gender consciousness. The following story from
Zingisa shows how interpersonal interactions serve as lessons on the ideology of
male superiority and the trivialization of women’s sports:
I think they [men] are scared that women will be superior. They don’t want
us to be superior; they want to keep us inferior. I think, people just think that
women can’t do it. If I am talking to someone, and they see my tracksuit, and
I tell them that I play netball, they may ask, “You’ve been overseas?” I say,
“Yes, twice.” And they just, especially men, they go, “Wow, I didn’t know
that netball was that serious.” They don’t take us seriously; they don’t think
netball is a serious sport. They think it is boring. It is because they never take
time to go and watch.
Interactions within families can also raise athletes’ gender consciousness. In
the next quote, Cara, a 25-year-old Afrikaner woman, talks about gender socialization and the differential support for men and women athletes within Afrikaansspeaking families:
Men in rugby have more support. But, that is our own problem because the
thing is we in South Africa, especially the Afrikaner people, the Afrikaansspeaking people, our parents tell us to be respectful of the men, to do what
the men want, to listen to him, to follow him, to whatever. And your mother
Athletes as Agents of Change
tells you that if you are playing tennis with your boyfriend, let him win,
don’t let him lose. Because men in Africa don’t like losing, they don’t like
women to be stronger than them, they don’t like women to run them. I know
rugby; I know the rules. I know the rules for cricket. Huh, you take the man
in the street and he won’t even know how many players play netball. And
that is our parents’ fault I think. You have to teach your son and your daughter to have respect for one another and we are taught to respect the man and
to go with his things.
Cara’s thoughts lend support to the argument that sports play a central role in the
construction of male dominance within the Afrikaner community (Grundlingh,
1995). Her awareness of gender imbalances is grounded in her personal experiences of growing up in a family where girls let their boyfriends win. Similar excerpts from other informants suggest that it is through accumulated experiences of
the trivialization of their athleticism and the gender hierarchies in sport that women
in netball develop a shared gender consciousness.
Whereas athletes generally expressed their gender consciousness through
stories about interpersonal relationships, administrators expressed their gender
consciousness through observations of institutional inequalities. In the next excerpt, Dorthea, a 60-year-old White administrator, reflects on the multiple and
intersecting layers of economic and gender privilege in South African sports:
I think for the biggest women’s sport code in this country, we are getting a
raw deal, partly because it is still a man’s world. Sponsors are more inclined
to give money to men’s sport than women’s sport. If you look in the newspaper and see how much money is pumped into male sports and you look at
what is coming into netball, and especially what we are getting from the
people in charge, by far, it is not enough. At present, we are struggling to
make ends meet. The clubs in the regions, they have to find various ways
and means of getting money to run their clubs in a fairly organized way. And
for some clubs, it is very difficult.
Dorthea’s assessments were affirmed by the Minister of Sport in his welcoming
remarks at the opening ceremonies of the 2000 National Netball Championship:
“At a time that male-dominated sports are claiming the overwhelming lion’s share
of the publicity and sponsorship cake, netball is continuously being treated as no
more than a time-passing social activity for young girls and women” (Balfour,
It is no secret that women’s sports, including netball, take a back seat to
men’s sports in South Africa. Not all South African women, however, experience
gendered inequalities in the same way (Hargreaves, 1997, 2000; Jones, 2001; Roberts, 1992). The varying levels of race and class privileges and disadvantages among
netballers mediate their experiences of gender inequalities and, thus, influence the
development of a group consciousness. The subtext of a comment by Lynne, an
economically advantaged 23-year-old Afrikaner woman, illustrates how race/class
privilege can mediate an athlete’s concern about gender inequalities:
I don’t know, I think everyone has the right to live and play. For me, every
woman has the right, you know, to play netball. And, every man has the right
to play soccer or rugby or whatever. For me I really don’t really think about
that because I am just playing the sport. If I don’t like it or love it, I won’t
play. Cause, I have opportunities to play tennis or whatever, or squash, or
horse riding.
Lynne uses a rights discourse in talking about gendered opportunities within sport
and reinforces the status quo of sex-typed sports by stating that women have the
right to play netball, and men have the right to play soccer and rugby. Lynne’s race
and class privileges create sporting opportunities in tennis, squash, and horse riding
and, thus, might work to limit her concerns about gender inequalities. Unrecognized race and class privilege thus operate to weaken a group gender consciousness and ultimately the formation of a new collective identity.
Whereas most netballers invoked a structural framework to explain gender
imbalances, when it came to understanding race and class inequalities, many athletes relied on individual based frameworks. A fragmented race and class group
consciousness among netball athletes is illustrated by contrasting explanations for
why Black women frequently drop out of teams. I asked Danielle, who identified
as White and Afrikaans, why she thought Black women drop out of netball. She
Well it depends. Um, I don’t know. It all depends on let’s say if they can’t
keep up with the training, or can’t keep up with the techniques, that can be a
problem. I don’t think money is a problem. That I don’t think. So it all depends on what they can do, or want to do. If the want is there, I think they’ll
probably stay there.
When I asked Nomsa, who identifies as Black, the same question, she
They normally drop out because of financial problems. And it’s heartbreaking, really, heartbreaking. . . . This thing of Black women not wanting to
play netball, it’s not like that. I’m 36 years old and I’m still playing today.
So, these women are not playing because it’s costly.
The assessment offered by the White Afrikaner player is based on a framework of
individual skills and desires, while the Black player interprets the problem as one
of financial hardship.
Netballers also hold divergent beliefs about meritocracy and individual choice.
In the following quote, Sheila talks about how an individual’s desire and heart can
overcome financial difficulties:
It is difficult for some of them [Blacks] and it is difficult for some of us
[Whites]. That is the people that I see. I want the best coaching, but to get the
best coaching I must drive 50 kilometers to the court and 50 kilometers home.
You understand. But it is my choice because I want to have the best coaching
because I want to have my colours, my national colours [to get on the national team]. But, ok, they have transport problems sometimes, I can understand that. But if you really, really want to do something, put your heart to it,
there must be a way. Sometimes I feel that they [Blacks] just take it for
Although Sheila recognizes the transportation difficulties facing some players, she
believes it is ultimately the individual’s choice and effort that secures access to
quality coaching.
Athletes as Agents of Change
Without suggesting that racial/ethnic identity directly determines race/class
consciousness, the divergent interpretive frameworks employed by athletes of diverse backgrounds suggest a fragmented collective consciousness of intersecting
inequalities among netballers. The lack of a shared consciousness among netballers
constrains the construction of a unified collective identity and ultimately the emergence of collective action against structured inequalities facing netball.
Negotiating Power Relations
Through Everyday Interactions
Whereas shared boundaries and group consciousness lay the foundation for
collective identity formation, negotiations refer to the symbols and everyday actions that groups use to resist and restructure existing systems of domination. Taylor and Whittier (1992, p. 118) use the concept of negotiations to call attention to
the “forms of political activism embedded in everyday life” that blur the distinction between “doing” and “being” on the part of social-movement actors. Drawing
on this conceptualization, I highlight some of the ways in which restructuring historical power arrangements within netball involves forging new interpersonal attachments and developing new modes of relating across historical boundaries.
The appointment of the first African president of NSA serves as a salient
symbol of change in netball. The following quote from Thenjiwe, a Black woman
administrator, conveys the symbolic importance of the new president for transforming the image of netball from a conservative White sport of the past to a
racially inclusive sport of the future:
Netball was just not well accepted by most South Africans. . . . Whatever
people would say about netball, it was very negative. We had to change. I
think the image of netball is no longer one of being White. People can start
seeing more racial integration because it’s now headed by a Black woman. It
is the first time in the country that netball has a Black woman as president.
And I think that has brought a lot of acceptance of netball. Even if we’re not
yet there, I think the process is there. We are moving.
Another powerful symbol used to transform the image of netball is the inclusion of Black players on the national team. Racial diversity among elite national squads is the litmus test used by many South Africans to measure racial
transformation. This point was illustrated previously, in the section on Shifting
Political Opportunity Structures, by the comment made about the racial diversity
of the national netball team by Nkosi of the South African Sports Commission.
Beyond the symbolism, the integration of teams has contributed to reducing
the social distance between women of diverse social and cultural backgrounds. In
response to a question about the status of race relations within her team, Portia, a
27-year-old Black/African woman, talked about sharing a hotel room with White
teammates: “Things are fine. If I can say this, I’m also sleeping with them [Whites]
in the very same room; I mean we’re sharing this hotel, four in each room. I don’t
think there is a problem, on my side.” Although the idea of “Blacks” and “Whites”
sharing a hotel room might not seem like a transgressive event, in the context of
South Africa this everyday action is a significant change. With the integration of
teams, the everyday act of sharing a hotel room can be a means of building group
solidarity and renegotiating power.
The decrease of social distance between “Black” and “White” athletes within
the context of “integrated” teams, however, does not mean that historical relations
are automatically transformed. The reworking of historical relations is complicated by and deeply entangled with the legacies of colonialist ideologies and practices. The following excerpt from an interview with Sheila, who identifies as White,
illustrates how neocolonial relations can be maintained despite increasing racial/
ethnic/cultural diversity. Speaking to the question of racialized tensions within her
team, Sheila remarked:
No, we don’t have any problems. We are a very nice team. They do what
they want to do and we do what we want to do. We had this situation the
other day where there was one [African] girl in our team; she just took off
her top in the middle [of the gymnasium]. And I was like, “excuse me what
are your doing?” She said, “I’m hot.” I said, “But you don’t do that here.
Everybody is hot, wait until you get in the change room and do it there.” But
for them it is nothing to just take off your top there. She still had her bra on
but it still was in front of everybody. It is not like she was a small lady, she
was a 10-D [large breast size], I would say. So they are learning from us as
well. If they do something wrong, we are like, no that wasn’t correct. Not for
us, but in the eyes of other people, that wasn’t correct. So they are learning
different kinds of things.
Sheila describes her team as problem-free and very nice while discursively
reinforcing the division between we and they. Although she states that “they do
what they want” and “we do what we want,” she tells a story of policing the other.
Sheila suggests that her African teammate violated some modesty code and needed
to be taught the correct behavior. This interaction is reminiscent of colonial discourses and the historical surveillance of racialized, gendered, and classed bodies.
The manner in which Sheila positions herself as educator of her African teammate
invokes the history of the “civilizing the natives” project in which British missionaries during the late nineteenth century used cricket to mold African men into
“gentlemen” (Odendaal, 1988). Like cricket, netball at the turn of the 21st century
might be serving as a site to instruct Black women in the mores of White middleclass femininity.
Despite the unfinished transformation of netball, “the process is there” as
Thenjiwe asserted previously. The ongoing renegotiation of power relations between Black women and White women and the construction of a new collective
identity involve not only structural changes, such as affirmative action policies,
but also symbols and everyday interactions in the lives of netball athletes and
administrators. As Mohanty (1991, p. 58) argues, a shared collective identity among
women of diverse racial backgrounds can only be forged through concrete historical practices, such as those on the netball court.
The findings of this study contribute to our understanding of the potential
role athletes and sport administrators play in social-change projects. The centering
of this analysis on relations among South African women extends the gender and
sport literature that concentrates on relations between women and men. Examining contentious race relations among women within sports also challenges the
Athletes as Agents of Change
universalization of women athletes (Dewar, 1993) and demonstrates how a shared
gender status among women is not sufficient for mobilizing against gender inequality within sports (Mohanty, 1991; Ray & Korteweg, 1999). The study’s focus
on a popular South African sport dominated and controlled by women addresses
the androcentric bias of the existing literature on race and sports in post-apartheid
South Africa and illustrates that women athletes are making a significant contribution to nation building in the new South Africa.
Borrowing from political opportunity and collective identity theories, I conceptualized netball athletes and administrators as political actors who continue the
nonracial sport movement by collectively challenging historical race relations within
netball. Although netball might not constitute a formal social movement organization, the waves of collective action within netball are consistent with the basic
goals of the South African nonracial sport movement. Guided by political opportunity theory, these data show that the democratic transition of South Africa undercut state support for the status quo within netball and weakened White netball
leaders’ ability to control the sport. Unlike male leaders of White dominated sports
such as rugby and cricket, White female leaders of netball did not have the economic capital to “throw at the problem” and, thus, were more vulnerable to challenges. Black women netballers seized the new opportunities this fragmentation
created and organized against unequal power relations. The collective identity shared
by Black women made it possible for them to articulate and act on their grievances
of racial discrimination. As a result, by the end of the 1990s, netball had its first
African woman president, a diverse executive committee and national team, and
strong affirmative action policies that mandated racial integration.
Despite the changes, a new collective identity has yet to solidify. Using the
three dimensions of collective identity formation identified by Taylor and Whittier
(1992) —boundaries, consciousness, and negotiations—this analysis examined the
ongoing process of collective identity formation among elite netball athletes. The
data show that historical racial boundaries have been both redefined and reaffirmed.
The racial integration of teams, the metaphors of sportsmanship and teamwork,
and the commitment to netball encouraged the dismantling of racial boundaries,
whereas the discursive binary construction of racial categories and the persistence
of spatial segregation and material inequalities contributed to maintaining racial
boundaries. These findings also suggest that netballers, in general, saw racial/color/
cultural differences as obstacles to overcome and tolerate rather than assets to
benefit from and embrace. This posture contradicts the insights of some South
African feminists who argue that building an effective racially diverse women’s
movement in South Africa requires that women not only recognize differences
among women but also embrace and celebrate those differences (Lemon, 2001;
Meintjes, 1998; Salo & Mama, 2001).
Moreover, although netball athletes and administrators expressed a shared
consciousness of gender inequalities, they expressed divergent interpretations of
race and class inequalities. The fragmentation of a collective consciousness of
intersecting systems of inequality (Collins, 2000) weakens netballers’ collective
identity and, thus, their potential challenge of persistent gender, race, and class
inequalities within sports. There is, however, evidence that netballers are continuing to make strides in developing a group consciousness of structural inequalities.
During a 2003 trip to South Africa to present these findings to research participants, I talked with several netball leaders. They reported that the racial quotas
for regional teams have been replaced by racial targets, and that the intense racial
tensions present at the 2000 National Championship have subsided. Moreover,
they suggested that issues of class inequalities and class differences have moved to
the fore. It appears that the increase in racial integration and the lessening of racial
tensions have created space for netballers to disentangle the race and class barriers
facing South African women.
This analysis also illustrates that, through daily interactions within teams
and the promotion of new symbols, the image of netball has shifted from “a White
sport” to “a racially diverse sport.” Nonetheless, the story Sheila told of “teaching” her African teammate the proper morals regarding taking off clothing in the
gymnasium poignantly suggests the persistence of neocolonial relations. We do
not learn about the reaction from her African teammate, but the confidence with
which Sheila told the story suggests that her reprimand went unchallenged. Despite the difficulties inherent in negotiating the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, this analysis suggests that netball has made significant changes while other
popular sports have not. The recent report of a shift from focusing only on racial
inequalities to giving attention to economic-based inequalities suggests that netball
athletes and administrators have continued the work of negotiating a group consciousness and building a new collective identity.
The findings presented here suggest several important directions for future
research. First, sport scholars should consider drawing on social movement theories to further our understanding of sports as a site of social change and athletes as
political actors. The analytical tool of collective identity formation is particularly
well suited for examining how interactions, symbols, and structures at the micro
and macro levels contribute to constructing imagined sporting communities. Second, even though national political and economic elites might not recognize or
celebrate female athletes’ contributions to nation building, sport scholars should
not perpetuate this gender bias by ignoring them. Future studies are needed to
further our understanding of female athletes’ roles in nation-building projects. Third,
more research is needed on relations among women in sports. Examining power
relations among women can produce insights into why patriarchal relations within
sports have yet to be transformed. As shown in this study, a collective identity
among women athletes cannot be assumed based solely on shared gender status.
Finally, it is my hope that this study will inspire more research on South African
women athletes, especially by South African women themselves. The sociological
literature on women’s experiences within sport is extremely Euro-American centric. We know very little about African women’s sporting experiences. Given the
growing popularity of competitive sports among Third World women globally,
scholarly attention is warranted.
This study was supported by grants from the Elizabeth D. Gee Fund for Research on
Women and the Departments of Women’s Studies and Sociology and the Office of International Studies at the Ohio State University. I am grateful to Timothy Curry, Jessica Price,
Townsand Price-Spratlen, Barbara Ellen Smith, Verta Taylor, and anonymous SSJ reviewers for their invaluable comments on previous drafts of this manuscript. I also acknowledge
that without the generous assistance of many in South Africa this research would not have
been possible.
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Athletes as Agents of Change
Netball is typically played on a hard-surface court, 100 feet by 50 feet, that is divided into thirds with goal posts at opposite ends. There are seven players on a team, and
they are restricted to certain areas of the court depending on their position. The aim of the
game is to score goals by throwing the ball through the hoop at the top of goal posts. Players
may not run with the ball, kick it, hold it more than three seconds, or touch another player
(International Federation of Netball Associations, 2001).
For additional details regarding this project, see Pelak, 2002.
The terms Black feminist and Third World feminist are highly contested and take on
different meanings for scholars of diverse disciplines and geographic locations (Baca Zinn
& Thornton Dill, 1996; Mama, 1995; Mohanty, Russo, & Torres, 1991). Although I recognize that some gender scholars, including those from Africa, reject the feminist label because of its connection to Western hegemony (Mohanty, 2004; Salo & Mama, 2001), I use
the term to refer to the work of antiracist gender scholars who are committed to the eradication of multiple and intersecting systems of inequalities.
The top-10 teams were excluded because those teams were participating in the faceto-face interviewing. I felt it was inappropriate to ask the most competitive athletes to participate in both the interviews and the survey, given that their focus was on athletic competition.
According to the representative survey conducted at the tournament, 42.3% said the
quota policy was positive, 46% said it was negative, and 11.7% said that the policy was
neither positive nor negative. Respectively, 65 and 62% of Blacks/Africans and Indians
said the policy was positive. Only 19% of White/Afrikaner respondents said the policy was