Golfing and Politics: The Extraordinary Vision of South Africa’s Robert Gumede, and the Drive for Racial Change

11.09.17
Sunday Times
World News /09 Nov 2017
11.09.17

Golfing and Politics: The Extraordinary Vision of South Africa’s Robert Gumede, and the Drive for Racial Change

Walking within the Mpumulanga province of South Africa and the town of Mbombela (Nelspruit) is a deeply moving experience. Thorny bushveld tangles itself with an auburn African sunrise, which, just 45-minutes away, beats down on the iconic Kruger National Park, right out of ‘Big Five’ safari dreams. It’s hardly a place you would associate with the meticulously-groomed green lawns of golf, or the rearing of a young black caddie (who began at age 7), and who, born under Apartheid to a single parent, grew up to become a leading voice in South African and global business, and an icon for change across South Africa’s sporting landscape.

Robert Gumede is the founder and owner of Guma Group and a self-made billionaire. He is a business entrepreneur, industrialist and noted philanthropist. In 2012, Gumede surprised South Africa and the rugby fraternity which had long been a preserved symbol of Apartheid for white sports, when he bought shares in the then fallen from grace Golden Lions rugby team. Golden Lions rugby was a bastion of Afrikaner. Gumede pumped in tens of millions of dollars into the Club, awakening them, turning the Lions into a well-oiled, business-like mean machine. He did so by signing top Springbok rugby players, luring back foreign based Springbok players and in the process, brought along blacks who are soccer fanatical supporters to begin to support not just the transformed Golden Lions (today, much like the Yankees of baseball in brand awareness) but rugby across South Africa.

Gumede’s Lions’ magic completed Mandela’s dream of the winning Springbok team in 1995 that ushered in racial reconciliation and the birth of the Rainbow Nation. The Lions today are world beaters thanks to Gumede’s vision and beliefs in breaking down all barriers towards understanding and achievement.

The Rainbow Nation itself is no stranger to producing world-class golfers like icons Gary Player and Ernie Els but in a country still working through the scars of apartheid, these golfers are mostly white. Robert Gumede, our young black caddie of the early 70s, is intimately aware of why this is – a consequence of a once racially-segregated South Africa – and deeply understands how its legacy deters the development of young black golfers across the country, from beneath the iconic shadow of Table Mountain of Cape Town to here, the brilliant bushveld, ‘Big Five’ khaki province of South Africa’s beautiful north-east corner.

Barely a year ago, a young home grown, budding, professional black golfer, Jubulani Mabilane, age 18, was assaulted by four adult white men while playing a round on the Mbombela Golf Course, a slice of green wonder that lies just west of Mpumalanga’s safari capital. It was a coincidence that it was here where Gumede also first acquired his love for golf years earlier as the young black caddie in frame and it was here, decades later where he would pull his significant annual sponsorship of R1.2 million (US$ 87000) from the golf course that had reared him, and demand his name be removed by association – on the grounds of racism.

Gumede had previously, over the years, donated several millions of Rands to the upgrade o the golf club facilities and still today, the back nine holes are named after him. When the racial incident and assault of the young black golfer occurred, Gumede took on the golf club management head-on and demanded that action be taken against the perpetrators who soiled the Club’s name and what it represents to its membership. Gumede was vehemently supported by the community in demanding immediate transformation of his beloved golf club.

A public outcry indeed followed in support of and driven by Gumede’s relentless push for non-racialism and equality, and golf countrywide was forced to introspectively look at ways of rebuilding the sport in South Africa so that it allows for greater inclusion and hope for all who wish to enjoy the beloved, swinging game. Mandela-like in his approach, Gumede did what he does best, uses a bad situation to transform it to good for all, and barely a year later, was present when the Mbombela Golf Club held its inaugural Anti-Racism Awareness Golf Day, that Gumede himself described as a huge step forward towards inclusion; a day when the club moved “…from a story of hate, to a story of happiness.”

Its ramifications will act as a model for change across a country where sport still deeply struggles to include those who were previously excluded. The Mbombela Golf Club now boasts an eight person committee dedicated to racial transformation, with four black members now permanent fixtures (the four white golfers who assaulted the younger pro golfer were dismissed by the golf club).

The club also dropped membership fees for low-income earners, to make it as inclusive as possible and attract new black golfers who Gumede hopes will see take their rightful place among South Africa’s best. Further, caddies are now permanently employed and receive medical aid. The golf club and Gumede together launched a R400,000 ‘Caddies scholarship,’ financed equally.

But, it is not only ideology that drives Gumede. With a massively successful business career that spans over 25 years, which has seen him emerge from the black poverty of late 60s Apartheid to become an influential business leader, his drive for change is no doubt economical too, and buried in a love for South African sporting success. In a country that is over 80% black, it makes financial and sporting sense to include as many South Africans as possible as the country braces itself for the economic explosion that accompanies a new era of growth and
achievement. This will no doubt be built on the backs of visionary businessmen like Gumede who understand how inclusion can stimulate growth and perpetuate it and in the right areas can feed into success and enrich the South African and global golfing.

His business expertise in helping the South African government rebuild since the fall of the Apartheid Government in the early 90s, has given him an insatiable appetite for helping those who need it. South Africa is a complex place and it seems the complexity of it requires the nuance and approach of unifying figures to tap into its potential.

As such, it was no coincidence, barely a year after the horrific assault of Mabilane, that Gumede reinstated the club’s annual sponsorship, forged new friendships and narratives, and forced not only skin-deep apologies, but structural changes that would benefit black golfers like Mabilane in future.

Much of South Africa’s recent and positive history has been built around sport and how it racially united a nation, specifically after South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. But, admits Gumede, South Africa still has a long way to go: “As a South African, as a sport lover, as a golf lover, we must never forget what sport can do for us. In every aspect of our being, sport can rip us apart or it can unite us as a country. I choose the latter. I choose unification. I choose a country where anybody, no matter where they come from or the colour of their skin, can pick up a Golf club and change their destiny, Nelspruit’s Mbombela Golf Club (MCG) has embraced change and not paid lip service; it is now a challenge for the South African Golf Union and its membership golf clubs to emulate MGC in ushering in transformation and breaking racial division on the fairways.”

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