The Paradox of Gender and Sport Development: The Case of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan.

The Paradox of Gender and Sport Development: The Case of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan.

David Bogopa
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University


Social scientists and development practitioners are interested in the social problems prevailing within the sports institution, especially because these amplify a cross-cultural perspective. Such social inquiry may entail, for example, knowing how female and male inequalities are expressed in communities. Sport has traditionally been considered a man’s domain. Men owned, organized, coached, competed, and watched sport largely in exclusion from women. Religious, medical, and societal beliefs demoted women to their homes as wives and mothers. Traditionally, cultural expectations in many communities about appropriate feminine behavior and gender-bound roles have limited/constrained women’s active participation in sport. The major sporting activities, with the possible exception of the Olympics, are primarily for men. This reality is worse at big-time football games, for instance, where women play the role of courtesans, jiggling and grinding on the sidelines. Further, there is a tendency to socialize men in our cultures to be competitive and women cooperative. In the context of South Africa, there are cultures that for a long period relegated women to the domestic sphere. This is evident when we analyze sport participation of both men and women. Women in South Africa are still missing in many major sporting activities such as soccer and rugby, sports that draw the largest crowds of spectators. This paper seeks to examine the ways in which sports is so divided along gender lines and how women have been excluded from mainstream sporting activities in South Africa, particularly in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan, Eastern Cape Province. The paper emanates from the argument that gender as a social construct that defines difference can be mobilized through sport and that to change such a condition there is need to understand the underlying structures and modes of perpetuating such a divide in our cultures today. Many questions are explored; for example, what is meant by development? What are the perceptions about women sport? Is there any financial support from the business sector? Finally, this paper will propose some solutions to the problems.


In South Africa and other parts of the world, there is perception among cultural groupings that women are inferior and dependent on men. For example, key or high positions at work places are still held by men and women report directly to men, in a way that women are always subordinate. This perception developed in agricultural states as a means of reinforcing the seclusion of women. Proponents of this perception view women as inherently inferior and further point out that the natural superiority of men was reinforced in most of the legal, moral, and religious traditions.

Standpoint theory [4] puts the experiences and perspectives of the oppressed people at the center of analysis. The theory assumes that the experiences of those who enjoy and control differ significantly from those who are marginalized in sport. Further, the standpoint theory assumes that members of an oppressed group develop an understanding of how the world operates from the perspective of the oppressor groups and the realities on the ground faced by the oppressed groups. This theory applies well to the situation within South Africa. Women have been oppressed for a long time; they were never given a complete opportunity to participate in sport. And in South Africa as elsewhere, there is a tendency to socialize men in our cultures to be competitive and women cooperative. In this context, there are many cultures which relegated women to the domestic sphere. This is evident when we analyze sport participation of both men and women. Women in South Africa are still missing in many major sporting activities such as cricket, soccer, and rugby, sports that draw the largest crowds of spectators.

Ortner [10] in her work entitled Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture, fully shares Firestone’s sentiments that women are universally oppressed and devalued. Additionally, she points out that it is not due to biology as such that ascribes women to their status in society; rather, it is the manner in which every culture defines and evaluates female biology. She further argues that, in every society, higher value is placed on culture than on nature. According to Ortner, culture is the means by which humanity controls and regulates nature. Finally, she concludes that women are closer to nature and men closer to culture. Women are seen to be closer to nature because their bodies and physiological functions are more concerned with the natural processes that include menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation.

According to DeCorse & Scupin [3] men are viewed as intelligent, stronger, and emotionally mature. In addition, many communities view women as sexually dangerous. Women found having extra-marital sex were either executed or severely punished. In this way, sex for women outside of marriage is unacceptable but not so for men.

The above-mentioned theories and perceptions demonstrate the inequalities in how women are treated in most societies. The intent of using these theories does not suggest that all societies suppress women, but it is to show that there are societies and individuals that continue to make life difficult for women in this day and age. For example, there is a tendency by many organizations and companies in South Africa to utilize team-building events to strengthen the institution. In most cases, these events use soccer as the main activity organized for the day, but only men play soccer. Women are left to become spectators cheering the men. Although there are human rights charters throughout the world that discourage forms of exclusion, groups and individuals still exist that continue to frustrate women.

The Objective of this Research

The purpose of this paper is to examine briefly the status of women in sport, with special emphasis on South Africa. Given stereotypes that exist there and the history of apartheid in the country, the author seeks to show that women are doubly disadvantaged. Using the case of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan, the author demonstrates the current situation of women in sports in South Africa, indicates some recent improvements, and suggests possible ways to improve their situation.

Research Methodology

The author used four research methodologies for this paper. First was person- to-person interviews; both women and men were interviewed to obtain their responses regarding the exclusion of women in many sporting activities – for example, soccer, cricket, rugby and others in South Africa. Second and to supplement the interviews, a questionnaire was also issued to females and males (amateur sport persons, sport administrators, and spectators) of different age groups in Port Elizabeth. The total number of questionnaires issued out was sixty and only forty-two responded. The author also relied on observations through interaction within various communities on a daily basis which provided a first-hand experience. The author grew up in a township where there were limited sport facilities and the situation is still the same after fourteen years of democracy. Finally, secondary data was also gathered from texts, magazines, and newspapers as well as the internet.

Women Sport in South Africa

The situation of women taking part in sport within the context of South Africa is complex. There are sport policies in place that do not condone the exclusion of women in sport. In practice however, the situation is different. The majority of women in South Africa continued to be marginalized. The author participated in a research project in 2007 on sport participation in South African schools particularly those situated in disadvantaged areas. The majority of schools in these disadvantaged areas (townships and rural areas) do not have the netball fields where school girls can showcase their talents. This is revealing because netball is one of the popular sports among females. Even in residential areas, it is rare to find the netball fields, but soccer fields exist in number and in many places. Females in South Africa continue to face exclusion at triple levels, namely: exclusion at residential areas, at schools, and at national level. This is a major contributing factor to there being so few South African women in international sport.

In support of this statement, DeCorse and Scupin [3] argue that, increasingly, women are deprived of sport competition in the male, power-orientated public context. The female in the supraband societies’ sport context has usually been depicted in a supportive role. An example would be the Choctaws of Native North America who are the descendants of the prehistoric Mississippian peoples. It is only in recent decades that this passive image of femininity has been modified as women become more actively involved in different sporting events.

Another problem within South Africa sport is racism. Previously, during the apartheid period, there were legislative devices that kept people separate in terms of sport and other spheres of daily life. For example, The Separate Amenities Act of 1950 was passed by the previous South African regime; it required that different ethnic and racial groups were to be developed separately. Sport facilities were channeled to white areas. Blacks were not allowed to swim at ‘white beaches’ and the government discouraged sporting competition between different “racial groups.” Political groups such as the African National Congress, Pan African Congress of Azania, Azanian Peoples Organization, and others responded by calling on international communities to exclude South Africa from international sport participation. International communities heeded the call and South Africa was excluded from international sport. And, as a result, the country was deprived of an immense pool of talent. Further, the Group Areas and Population Registration Acts of 1950 had rendered racial segregation compulsory [7].

Because of this ban, South African sportsmen and women could not compete internationally. South Africans could not participate in major world sport events such as the Olympics and soccer, rugby, and cricket world cups. In December 1991, the South African Football Association was formed with the view of reforming soccer and ridding it of its racial divisions. FIFA accepted South Africa back into the soccer world stage and in the mid-1992, South Africa’s national soccer team played its first international match against Cameroon [1].

Within the national context of the above, women in South Africa also experienced a similar problem of being excluded in some sporting activities. For example, previously, women could not play soccer, boxing, rugby, cricket, and other sporting events. South Africa now has fourteen years of democracy and yet we still find ourselves grappling with issues such as exclusion of women in sport and racial exclusion in sport. Below are some of the South African instances that show that women continue to be excluded directly or indirectly in sport.

There is a lack of corporate support to women sport in South Africa, for example, women in Netball are also experiencing hardships, especially of a financial nature. The Chief Executive Officer of Netball South Africa argued that the recent South Africa’s loss to New Zealand was due to lack of sponsorship. She further mentioned the fact that there is lack of international exposure because of no corporate sponsorship to be able to compete against other countries, such as New Zealand and Australia [16].

Perceptions from Interviews on Women Sport in South Africa

The author interviewed the director of Soccer School of Excellence at former University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) about the existing women’s soccer team on campus. He couldn’t give much information; he only said “Yes, there is a UPE women soccer team and they have won the league”. He referred the author to the soccer manager for more information. The author also interviewed the UPE cricket manager about women cricket team. His response was that there is no women cricket team at UPE and he suggested the author should contact Eastern Province Cricket Board.

One of the women national soccer players says that “It’s funny for me how we women do not get the recognition. My heart is very sore … I’m wasting my legs for this country [13].

The former captain of women national soccer team says “Behind-the-scenes battles for cash and support within South African Football Association are said to be vicious. There is no women’s soccer representative at executive level. Safa’s women’s football committee is accused of failing to promote women footballers and ensure they get a slice of the development cake There is no reference to Banyana Banyana or women’s soccer on the official Safa website, except to list the two sponsors of the under-19 and senior women’s games” [13].

Many respondents are of the opinion that the business sector is not injecting enough capital in women sport and as a result, many women are discouraged. That is why women are not active in sport. Some argue that we are still living in patriachal societies where men dominate on a daily basis in terms of decision making. These patriarchal societies are biased against women and therefore, it will take a long time to develop women sport.

The former University of Port Elizabeth, now known as the Neslon Mandela Metropolitan University because of higher institution mergers, is engaged in a well-structured Community Outreach Programme incorporating the Walmer Township Sport Development Project. A major concern of the former University Port Elizabeth sports program is to provide opportunity for previously disadvantaged scholars and students to enjoy and participate in various sports. This is an effort to increase their general well-being and provide opportunity through sporting ability.

The main aim of the Eastern Cape Academy of Sport is to provide a professional system to assist athletes, coaches, officials, and administrators at all levels of the sports development continuum, but particularly to those with elite potential within the province. Further, it has the responsibility of assisting the regional Academies to achieve the same level of support within each region.

Nonetheless, having the above-mentioned structures in place does not seem to address the problem faced by women. Although these structures exist, they lack financial muscle to carry forward the advancement of sport particularly with regard to women’s participation.

Exclusion of women in sport in South Africa

Sexism has been a major obstacle in South African sport. Women are still perceived as unequal partners in sport. One of the best hockey players in South Africa was quoted saying “South African sportswomen are getting a raw deal”[12]. She further expressed concern that the treatment of women in sport is not up to standard. She stated that women’s sport does not get sound sponsorship and media coverage: “So many times we play and nobody in South Africa knows we’re playing.” Additionally she alluded that her team had only three days to prepare for an international game to match the flair of New Zealand displayed. In her view, it was a pipe dream to think they could beat other countries at the Commonwealth Games in 1998 in Malaysia..

Media coverage, both electronic and print, has long ignored women’s sport in South Africa, and even doing so beyond the country’s boundaries. The South African Women Soccer National team took part in World Cup qualifying games held in Nigeria; yet, there was no television coverage. This soccer match in question was only covered by print media in the form of a small article in the middle of the sport pages in one of the national newspapers [2].

Talbot [14] reminds us that women have traditionally been excluded from club houses, golf courses, and other fields largely because these sporting venues were previously considered male preserves. While the author’s concern is with South Africa, the exclusion is not limited to there.

Mumford [9] reports on a research effort conducted on college athletics in the United States. The main purpose of this research was to uncover the degree of participation and opportunity for female students and coaches at two-year colleges within the state of Maryland. With 18 institutions reporting participation data, results of this study showed that female students participate in far fewer numbers in Maryland than do male students. It also showed that relatively few women hold administrative or coaching positions within existing sport programs. Additionally, it indicated that little research exists that examines women’s participation in two-year institutions athletic programs

The idea of excluding women is based on the medical myth that women will become sterile if they become involve in vigorous sport. Further, there is another myth that women have limited energy resources; if energy is used in sport, it will leave them helpless when they must endure the demands of childbearing. In many cultures, women find themselves playing the recessive roles, and adhering to the values and norms that are male dominant. Such cultural practises are prevalent in the South Africa context. These cultural practises are only to the advantage of men.

According to Henry [6], physical education and women’s sport often conflict with their interest and attitudes not simply because they are experiencing biological changes of puberty, but also because of cultural expectations. Women are expected to watch instead of participating.

In 2010, South Africa is going to host a major soccer event. It is evident when one looks at the Local Organizing Committee that there is a lack of women members on the committee. They will be denied the opportunity to make crucial decision. Women can make a meaningful contribution in organizing the event, but they are not being given a fair chance to participate in a most important sporting event that will be in Africa for the first time.

Improvements in women’s sport

Recently, women in South Africa have begun to participate in some sporting activities – for example, cricket, soccer, boxing, and rugby. Women are also making strides in television as sport commentators as well as ring announcers and referees in boxing.

Women are also taking up coaching positions in soccer, previously available only to men.

On the 18th November 2002, women officials exclusively call the shots in the first all-female Invitation Boxing Show in Mdantsane, South Africa presented by The Eastern Cape Amateur Boxing Organization. The main organizer was quoted saying that “Its all systems go now and the ladies are ready to explode the myth that they are the weaker sex” [15].

In 2000, the whole of African continent witnessed a women soccer tournament engaged in Women African Cup of Nations, which was held in South Africa. In this tournament, the African masses were entertained with brilliant soccer; the women were really committed; and they displayed competent skills. There were women coaches as well as women soccer officials and Nigerian team emerged victors of the tournament.

A few years ago, an insurance company in South Africa, known as Sanlam, has injected considerable money to establish a women’s soccer league in the future. Sanlam insurance company started by sponsoring women soccer at the amateur level in all nine provinces with the view that teams will establish themselves and will graduated or be promoted to professional ranks at the later stage. Currently, women soccer teams are competing in various regions. The teams that work hard and succeed will be promoted to professional level in the near future. Nonetheless, despite this positive initiative, the sponsorship was discontinued in 2007. Women’s soccer in South Africa is still without a sponsorship today.

As a consequence, South African Football Association has planned a first national women’s league for next year. All 25 regions have been instructed to establish women’s leagues – already in place in at least the Western Cape and Gauteng provinces. Nine teams, plus one representing the host, will proceed to the national competition after a series of play-offs [16].

It is interesting and hopeful to note that the South African Broadcasting Corporation has taken a major step to address the issue of gender inequalities when it comes to sport presenters and commentators. Currently, South African soccer and cricket viewers have witness female commentators and presenters though the number is still low. In soccer, particularly, women touchlines experts are seen on a weekly basis. That is a positive step and one in the right direction.

On the 23rd April 2007, a woman soccer official was seen handling a man’s soccer match. The match was shown live on South African television. The woman official in question handled the match very well and there were praises from all quarters of South Africa about her capabilities [12].

Possible Resolutions to the problem of excluding women

There is a great challenge facing communities, governments, sport policy makers, and other stakeholders involved in sport matters. Perhaps the first and most difficult is to change the mind-set of decision-makers to accommodate women in sport cycles. Arguments that sporting activities such as rugby and cricket are dangerous for women must be countered with contrary evidence and rejected at all cost. There needs to be a way and means to work on the rules and accommodate women. The general public also needs to change their perceptions and start treating women with dignity and respect. Female role models will help if fully represented in the media. This responsibility also lies with the government. It is up to the government to look at these issues in a positive way. The government must ensure that the rights of women are integrated into policy-making decisions and that their interests are advanced in an all-inclusive manner [5].

Publicly and privately sponsored programs are some of the mechanisms that can be used to improve sport for the women. For example, in Kansas City, a private foundation donated a grant to the Public Recreation Division to finance a pilot recreation program. In addition, health and welfare agencies and others are all source of obtaining funds to operate recreation programs [5]. This is a prototype that South Africa can adapt and utilize.

According to Heinla [5], sport, particularly with reference to Olympic ideology, has as one of its fundamental functions the promotion of international understanding and good will among the nations. Sport is seen as one of the most influential movements of peace. The history of international sport and that of Olympic Games give numerous examples and ample evidence of the function of sport for building friendship ties between and among nations.

Promoting national understanding through sport in South Africa might also help. South Africa has an alarming rate of women abuse where cases are reported in the media everyday. Organizing sport for leisure where men and women will play alongside each other as fellow human beings might be part of the answer to the problem of women abuse.

Culture is not supposed to be static. Any culture that still relegates women to the homes to look after children while men go to sporting fields needs to re-think this issue. Women must also be given opportunities to further their careers in sport, be it at the participatory level or at administration level.

Another possible solution is the day-camping, which Pomeroy [11] has recognized as having a unique place in the community recreation program. Where it is developed for its own merits, rather than as a substitute for resident camping, it can provide many of the values of long term camping. In addition, it has is own special contributions, which are particularly suited to the need and aspiration of women.

This brief list of possible solutions to the problem of excluding women in sport is only a glimpse of the many available. Policy makers should try by all means to be accommodative in developing sport policies that are gender sensitive. All people must be involved in policy decision making regardless of age, sex, creed, and religion. Sport can only improve if this is done.


Any form of exclusion based on gender, race, religion, sex and other aspects is violation of human rights. Therefore, many countries including South Africa must start to address the gender imbalances in terms of sport. Sport development programs must be also be extended to women sport so that they can also take part without any problem. It must be genuine development program that also include women from the initial stage up to the final decision making process. All women from both rural and urban settings must enjoy the benefits of playing sport in South Africa.

There are women within the South African sport circles that have demonstrated that women are capable of participating in sport. For example, a woman was seen on South African television handling a boxing match. Further, a woman was shown on television officiating a match between two professional soccer giants in South Africa. Thirdly, there is a woman in South Africa who is a cricket commentator. All these women have proved that there is no longer any reason for denying women a place in sports. Women are equally capable.


[1]Alegi, P. (2004) Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa. Durban. University of KwaZulu/Natal Press. p.144 & 146.

[2]Bogopa, D. L. (2001) Sport Development: Obstacles and Solutions in South Africa. The African Anthropologist, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 85-95.

[3] DeCorse, C.R. & Scupin, R. (1998) Anthropology: A Global Perspective. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, p. 392.

[4] Dewar, A (1993) Would All the Generic Women in Sport Please Stand Up? Challenges Facing Feminist Sport Sociology. Champaign Vol (45) 2, p. 219-220.

[5]Heinila, K. (1966) Notes in Inter-Group Conflict in International Sport. (International Review of Sport Sociology, p. 31.

[6]Henry, L. (1992) in Coleman, J. C. & Warren-Adams, C. Youth Policy in the 1990’s: The Way Forward, London and New York: Routledge, p. 73.

[7]Kunene, M. (2006) In State of the Nation. Winning the Cup but losing the plot? The Troubled State of South African Soccer. Cape Town. Human Sciences Research Council Press, p. 371.

[8]Mertem, M. (2001) Cinderella want to get to the ball Retrieved 14 August 2006.

[9] Mumford, V.E (2005) A Look at Women’s Participation in Sports in Maryland Two-Year Colleges. The Sport Journal, Vol 8 (1).

[10]Ortner, S,B (1974) Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture in Haralambos, M. & Holton, M. Sociology: Themes and Perspective. London: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 538-539.

[11]Pomeroy, J. (1966) Recreation for the Physically Handicapped. New York: The Macmillan Company, p. 98-99.

[12]Sport Editor (2007) Mitchell makes South African soccer history. Retrieved 02 May 2007.

[13]Sowetan, 5 December, 2001: p. 47.

[14]Talbot, M. J. (1981) Women and Sport: A Leisure Studies Perspective. Switzerland: Karger, p. 30.

[15]The Star, 19 November 2002: p. 28.

[16]The Sunday Times, 20 September 1998: p. 25.


David Bogopa Bio

David Bogopa is based at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan UniversityHe is teaching Anthropology and Sociology courses and he is currently working on his Phd project entitled “Sport Development: The Evaluation of Sport Development Programmes and Transformation in South Africa” focusing mainly on three Gauteng, KwaZulu/Natal and the Eastern Cape provinces.

Contact David Bogopa


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