Committed to the betterment of sports players in Africa

It is always a learning experience, in business, to have the opportunity to speak with a member of the business community who is not only a leader in a professional organization, but also a leader in a professional sport—and a star in both worlds.

This month TABJ was pleased to have the opportunity to speak with John Allan, CEO of South African Rugby Legends Association (SARLA), who not only has had a long and successful rugby career, but also leads the direction of SARLA and its initiatives. Born in 1963 in Glasgow, Scotland, Allan grew up in South Africa and has played the sport since the early 1980s.

Allan has helped SARLA achieve major milestones in the past six years, including coaching about 45,000 previously disadvantaged players, holding more than 60 development clinics and raising millions of rand for charitable causes. The SARLA website states that the organization has raised “in excess of R5 billion through various charity fundraising events, as well as over R30 billion in sponsorship and this money has been used for the development of sport at grassroots level.”

The SARLA team has launched a series of rugby/sport social development programs that “are sustainable within the sporting circles and communities and are for the benefit of all sports and can be manipulated accordingly.”

Today, SARLA uses sport as the catalyst to bring people together and evolve their sport aspirations as well as educating them about health, wealth and social characteristics. SARLA says that they have “embarked on a sustainable Legacy Park project which has become our flagship, whereby over a 10-year period we are raising one billion rands to build 400 multi-purpose facilities in the economically disadvantaged communities to help our country solve its sport and social challenges and as a consequence will feed 500,000 street kids per day.”

TABJ: Can you tell us a bit about the history of SARLA?

John Allan: The organization goes back 10 years. When we started, I did a survey with schools in KwaZulu-Natal and of the top schools whose students played rugby, of those 4,500 kids that were finishing, only 121 carried on in sports playing rugby. It was a small percentage that carried on playing, and the reason the others didn’t is because they believed they weren’t able to play professionally, so they would give up the game.

We have to educate kids that the reason you play sports is for fun. A major reason we started the organization was that, up until the late 1990s, rugby was considered a white-dominated sport. As you know in South Africa, predominantly we have a black community, and we hadn’t often given opportunity to that community. So we decided the only way to balance this disproportion was to actually go out in the rural areas and coach kids in the disadvantaged communities, giving them that opportunity to come through the system and eventually play rugby and maybe professional rugby. Ultimately going around in the rural areas we realized that trying to coach kids in their facilities was just not good enough, because of the conditions of those facilities, the potential of injury was high risk, so we went one step further and looked at building facilities [as well as coaching the kids].

Once you do both, you have to make those efforts sustainable, putting in projects and programs so that they carry on day-in and day-out.

TABJ: What are your programs and how are they helping communities?

JA: We have a program called Legends Iqhawe, which means “champion” or “hero”, and predominantly, most of the time on this program is not about coaching kids, that is a major portion of it, but doing life skills training, teaching them about AIDS, drugs, etc., so they are able to stand up and pass that knowledge on to their peers; giving them motivational talks so they can be successful and can be a beacon of information and an ambassador for us in their communities. Generally, a top athlete is looked up to by his peers, so if he can come across as a well-rounded, responsible human being, it will help create this further.

The Legacy Parks and Street Kids project is a program through which we use sports for our country as catalyst to bring communities together. For us, the sustainability of the parks in the Legacy program is our core business.

TABJ: How do you decipher community needs?

JA: We do strategy sessions with top business professors in the country and they help us look at our initiatives from a business perspective, helping us figure out our core competencies, what the community needs are, who can help them, identify those people and form a relationship that way.

We have come back into our core needs, and through our charitable pillars, like Legacy Park, we have decided to link back with people who celebrate life, like cancer prevention and awareness associations. We support those organizations when they do events to fundraise. For instance, we can supply celebrity sportsmen to make sure they attract attention.

TABJ: What drives you to do this work?

JA: For us, we experience joy just out of seeing kids play sports. Rugby is the predominant sport, but really I’m quite happy as long as they are picking up any ball and running and playing, because we know by doing that, it keeps them out of mischief, and helps them gain the characteristics you get from playing sports, whether it is a team game, or an individual game.

The problem in South Africa, when the African National Congress took over, they made one foolish mistake—they took sport out of school, and focused students on the other side of education. But it is stupid to take sports out—any child needs to be active and have a release. So now we are helping the government try to reintroduce sport into schools.

TABJ: What palpable affects do sports have on the national community?

JA: The World Cup that just happened showed that everyone supported the nation. It had a remarkable effect on bringing this country together. No politician in the world could do that. By using sport as a vehicle, clever politicians can use sport as a catalyst to draw people together, and then from there, you uplift them through education, health, welfare, and whatever else is necessary.

The new national minister of sport who has been appointed in the last six months, Fikile Mbalula, his prime objective for sport in this country is at the grassroots level, so that’s where the budget will be spent. That’s exactly where our programs fit, and it means that sport will now become official in all the schools throughout the country.

Now, they have to put sustainable programs in place, with our program being the frontrunner and being really the only one that is working in this country. We will work with them to actually make it happen, so we are excited about that. The corporations are excited because they know exactly where every single rand is spent, so they know it is going to the right places. People get a bad perception about Africa, being that you put money into the pot and it disappears. For us, it will all be transparent.

TABJ: Final question and completely new angle: who is your favourite to win the Rugby World Cup this year?

JA: The favourite is obviously New Zealand because they are playing at home. However, there are probably three teams that will be able to beat New Zealand in New Zealand: France, Australia, and South Africa. South Africa has the more experienced team, and New Zealand has the young team.

As for my favourite, I’m saying South Africa.
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Legacy Parks

This program is a facilitation process combining all the SARLA initiatives and associations to create self-sustaining sport precincts, called Legacy Parks. The effectiveness of this program is measured in terms of the community involvement in both the sports offered and the social and personal development initiatives. We aim to combine the construction of two TigerTurf venues, with a clubhouse classroom structure and a SAPS Contact Point. The facility will employ a league manager to control the franchised “Soccer 5’s” and “Tag Rugby” models that create a revenue stream to maintain the facility and its resources. The classroom is the centre of skills development of multiple disciplines, including, HIV AIDS awareness, drug awareness, crime prevention, adult literacy etc.

SARLA Speaks

“I had worked with Gerald early on in my career and knew him to be passionate and dedicated with a desire to achieve. From our first meeting we realised we shared the same character traits, and that the vision Gerald had was similar to the one I had for rugby. We reminisced about his dad Doc Sweidan, who was the Bok and Natal doctor for three decades, and through our memories and dreams for the future, Legends was born.”