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Transformation: Why do we still use colonial and apartheid boundaries?

In this second article we will deal with the issue of the ‘Provinces’ – a complete misnomer, but the main reason why the sport of Athletics is in serious trouble in South Africa.


In 1994 South Africa entered a new era, with a new Constitution. In the apartheid days there were four provinces – Transvaal, Orange Free State, Natal and the Cape. Of course there were the apartheid homelands as well, including the Transkei.

Because of the vast size of some of these areas, the SAAAU had been split up into what it called provincial associations, although these were not based on the real provinces, but they tended to follow the same terminology. So we had Northern Transvaal (mostly Pretoria), Southern Transvaal (Joburg), Western Transvaal (Potchefstroom) and Eastern Transvaal (Witbank and Nelspruit),  Eastern Province (Port Elizabeth) and Western Province (Cape Town). Later there was Far North (ie Pietersburg – now Polokwane). And the troubling ones, like Border (a very colonial creation, since it was in the area which was on the border of the Cape Colony and the Transkei, where many frontier wars had been fought), South Western Districts (and old colonial designation of an area of the Cape south coast) and Griqualand West (Kimberly but named after the supposed home of the Griquas). Of course, the Transkei was considered to be independent – it was trans (or over) the Kei River from South Africa.

It all made sense in colonial and apartheid times and tended to fit the structural scheme of South Africa.

In the new constitutional, post-apartheid, era there have been nine provinces named in the Constitution of South Africa (Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Gauteng, North West, Northern Cape, Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal). But athletics has 17 ‘provinces’.

The ASA names reflect the colonial and apartheid past

Two decades after the abolition of apartheid we still have Border (the nearest border is with Lesotho, since the homelands were abolished), Transkei (although which side of the Kei is ‘trans’ no-one knows), South Western Districts (which is to the east of the Western Cape province, and mostly north of Cape Town) and Griqualand West.

Then we have the absurd names: Gauteng North, Central Gauteng, but no South Gauteng (that probably would be Vaal Triangle, although whether it fits only into Gauteng is debateable). And North North West and Central North West, but no South North West (maybe it was realised how absurd that would seem).

Only Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Free State and KwaZulu Natal are both constitutional provinces and also athletics ‘provinces’.

So why is this important, other than for purely nominal reasons?

To answer this one needs to understand the levels of government in South African, and with that the different levels of funding available.

Government Funding

There are three tiers of government in South Africa: National, Provincial and Local. The Constitution of South Africa defines the roles which each plays. Some roles can only by fulfilled by one tier of government, for example on the national government can deal with matters related to defence or foreign affairs. In other areas, more than one tier is involved – for example, transport: There is a national, provincial and local departments of transport. There are no national traffic police, and provincial traffic police only operate on provincial roads not within municipal boundaries.

With Sport, the Constitution, in schedule 5, clearly lists provincial sport as an exclusive competency of provincial government and provides for provincial government oversight of local sports facilities. Schedule 5, in part B, makes it clear that local sports facilities are the competence of local government.

It could be argued therefore that provincial governments may fund provincial sport in whatever manner it deems necessary – for example if the Gauteng provincial government wants to split its funding into three (Gauteng North, Central Gauteng and Vaal Triangle), then it can do so. But it cannot fund sport outside of its borders.

Local government is slightly complicated: It consists of three different types of municipalities: There are eight metropolitan municipalities: Buffalo City, City of Cape Town, Ekhuruleni Metropolitan Municipality, City of eThekwini, City of Johannesburg, Mangaung Municipality, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality and City of Tshwane.

The remainder of the country is broken up into 44 district municipalities, which have under them local municipalities.

This is where the athletics administrative model falls down hopelessly. The following shall be used as examples:

ASA’s Gauteng North is essentially Tshwane. So it falls under the province of Gauteng and the local government of Tshwane. All good and sensible with no funding confusion or clashes.

ASA’s Central Gauteng, is a mess. It consists of Ekhuruleni, Johannesburg (Joburg) and West Rand District Municipality (ie Merafong City, Mogale City and Rand West City Local Municipalities). Now the funding issues start. CGA also falls under Gauteng provincial government, no problems there. But, if CGA cannot receive funding from the City of Joburg, unless the money is going to be spent on the ratepayers of Joburg, likewise, if an event is held at Germiston, the Ekhuruleni municipality cannot use its funds to provide buses for participants from Soweto (which is in Joburg). If one municipality allows an athletics body to use one of its facilities for free, but 90% of the participants come from another municipality, who is benefitting from the free funding?

Not only are the municipalities legally bound to spend their money on their own areas, sooner or later the ratepayers of one area will object to subsidising the ratepayers of another one.

This situation plays out across the country, where ‘provincial’ athletics bodies overlap more than one municipal boundary. Funding from government becomes incredibly complicated, which in practice limits its availability.

Why Does ASA Cling To The Old Boundaries

This is a relatively complex question with no openly admitted answer. An attempt was made in 2013 to revise the athletics boundaries to fall in line with the Constitution of the country. This lead to vociferous opposition from some ASA affiliates, who resorted to underhand tactics to ensure the matter was never debated.

One of the arguments against changing the boundaries is that the ANC has adopted a policy that they will investigate reducing the number of provinces from nine to six. However, this has been the case since 2007 and nothing has yet come of it. In any event, the number of provinces does not affect the principle involved.

The situation is a lot more complex, and has more to do with egos than practicalities. The answer lies in understanding the following factors:

What roles do provinces play (which cannot be done by clubs)?

In simple terms, there is not a lot that provincial federations actually do. Their primary role is essentially to co-ordinate provincial fixtures and to distribute licence numbers. If we add hosting championships, selecting provincial teams and providing technical officials it is really hard to tell what else they do.

Attending provincial federation meetings is an interesting process. There are lots of speeches by important people. They are all motivational and positive. The delegates to the meetings usually nod their heads and get irritated with anyone who disagrees with the important people. Reports are tabled and budgets are presented (normally at the meeting without being distributed before the time). And everyone goes home and nothing has really changed. No-one discusses the athletes.

However, attend one of the fixtures meetings (which are generally road running fixtures, the track & field and cross country people still do their own thing – see the comments on this elsewhere) and you will see a different story. Delegates participate quite strongly (at least when the month in which their club’s race falls is being discussed) and get quite animated if their interests are being trodden on. Then, when consensus is reached (I have yet to know a fixtures meeting where there wasn’t consensus reached), everyone goes home happy and the next year’s road races are set. Generally without a speech being made.

The issue of ‘licences’ will be dealt with elsewhere, but to summarise – licences are a form of taxation in South African athletes, the enforcement of the tax being the need to wear the ‘licence number’ – in other words the bib number. The original intent, which was to ensure that all participants agreed to abide by the rules and thus were licensed to take part, has been lost.

In a complex system, the national federation issues the bib number and their provincial delegates sell them to their affiliated clubs, who supply them to their members, and the provincial federation keeps the proceeds. This is generally the main source of income for most provincial federations (if not all). As a distribution point, this function could be done by anyone.

Championships and Teams

The pretty much leaves provincial championships and teams. When it comes to provincial championships, nearly all ASA ‘provinces’ use club road races as their championships. And a large number of these ‘provinces’ don’t hold track & field or cross country championships, and if they do they are so small as to be hardly worth holding. But, as with the other functions already discussed, any governing body can hold a championship, so whether it is the current ‘province’ or another body is irrelevant.

Provincial teams are the biggest problem when it comes to the current structure of athletics in South Africa. Let’s start from the perspective of the athlete: They want to represent their region. It is the pinnacle of many athletes’ careers. For others it is the stepping stone to greater things – you get to go to SA Champs, and if you do well you could be selected for the national team and your international career could be launched. Representative teams are really important for athletes.

From a federation point of view, unfortunately, it is necessary to be blunt about it, it is all about egos.

Federations spend about half their budgets on sending teams to national championships (not a bad thing). The problems however are not with the cost to the federation, but in the abuse of power that comes with the whole exercise.

Let’s start with how a team is selected. Some provinces set insanely high selection standards in the belief that the aim is to win medals. I have seen provincial selection standards which require athletes to break the national record just to make the provincial team. Of course, this discourages half the athletes immediately and they give up. This is followed later by athletes who did not meet the standard being selected, which is more discouragement to the rest.

Other provinces just select anyone who pitches up at the provincial championships. Of course this is unfair on the athletes from the stricter provinces, but there is possibly no solution to that problem.

In Western Province, for track & field we set our standards based on the top 6 at SA Champs over the past 5 or 6 years. This was a fair standard, as it filtered out the effects of altitude if the champs were rotated and it also ensured that the athletes selected would mostly make the finals. Of course, it was not top 6 on the overall stats list, but purely at the national championships. That also meant that the effect of championship racing was also taken into account. In theory, we were on strong grounds.

I was a selector for a number of years, and then later as president of WPA I had to sign off on teams. That is where I saw the blatant manipulation that goes on despite the fair selection standards. We had sprint coaches as selectors who had long arguments as to why their athletes should be selected since they had to run into 0.5m/s winds at X Stadium and would have qualified otherwise. Of course, when they discussed distance runners, the effect of the 0.5m/s over 25 laps suddenly became irrelevant. And they would win their case if there were other selectors who also wanted to push their athletes into the team. I once walked out of a selectors meeting when I opposed what was going on and they then tried to bribe me by putting one of my athletes in.

When I had to sign off teams I often raised queries as to why one athlete was left out and another was included. I knew the answer was that the athlete included had a coach who was a selector and the other not. Every time the selectors came back with a team which included both. Once I was told an athlete who was way short of the standard had to be included to complete a relay team. The rest of the team was strong so I agreed, but only on the basis that the athlete only run the relay. I was at the national champions and in the heats I saw the athlete running the individual race. I was furious. I cornered the head of selectors, who was his coach, and asked what was going on. Oh, the relay team had to withdraw because one of the athletes was an 800m runner and the 800m final was too close to the 4 x 400m final. So they just decided to put the athlete in the individual 400m. It turned out this decision had already been made well before the team left home and they forgot to notify me! He was knocked out in the first round….

Then we have the issue of managers and coaches for provincial teams. Initially managers were appointed for teams based on ability to assist the athletes. They were good at logistics or were experienced coaches or former athletes. Teams travelled for only a couple of days so team coaches were not essential but useful for athletes in technical events. More recently, a recommendation for being a provincial team manager is to be the provincial president’s wife, or to be a member of some provincial structure, regardless of experience. And team coaches are taken along to do no-one knows what. A common motivation is for them to gain experience! Surely the athletes need assistance from someone who has experience. Unless it is not about the athletes.

But what are the downsides of provincial teams, other than the unfair selections and the freeloaders? The biggest problem is that the performance of the team means nothing to anyone, beyond the immediate aftermath of the team returning home. The administrators pat themselves on the back for medals won, even though it was the athlete who won the medal, assisted by their immediate support team. The athlete gains nothing, other than maybe getting provincial colours (if the administrators remember, I know of a case where they forgot their athletes had won medals), the support team even less.

Commercial Value

The reason for this is that provincial teams have no commercial value. An athlete joins a club and runs in the club’s colours throughout the year. If they do well, the club gets exposure. That exposure can bring with it sponsorships for the club. With that the club can pay the athlete. Everyone wins: the sponsor is getting brand exposure, the club is getting results and can reward its athletes for doing so, and the athlete gets paid. But with provincial teams the athlete competes once in the provincial colours, often at an obscure venue without any coverage. The province also cannot guarantee to a sponsor that their top athletes will compete – injuries and other commitments may prevent it. So sponsors are loath to sponsor provincial teams because the return on investment in terms of brand exposure (especially for one or two races a year) is negligible.


In summary, the current ‘provincial’ structure of South African Athletics does not reflect the geo-political reality of South Africa. It reflects a by-gone age which is directly intertwined with that of apartheid. It serves no purpose whatsoever, other than to retain positions for a few administrators.

Unfortunately, the emperors who run the different regional federations are entrenched for life and will not easily give up their imperial thrones. Since the regional federations elect the ASA board, and the ASA board is mostly made up of regional presidents, why would they want to change the system? If there were 52 different athletics federations falling under 9 provinces, how could they be relied upon to vote for the ‘right’ people?

The Sports Indaba in 2011 took a decision to change sports boundaries to the geo-political boundaries in South Africa. The response from the ‘provincial’ emperors to a proposal to change the ASA Constitution to bring it in line with that decision was vicious and violent. They had to entrench themselves quickly to prevent it happening.

The government has proven to be too weak when it comes to sport to enforce the Sports Indaba decision. Until it does, the sport will suffer from lack of funding and the participation will continue to shrink to be centred on the metropolitan areas.

And the emperors will keep voting for themselves….

(by James Evans)