South African government under pressure to allow fans attend Lions series

Third wave of Covid-19 is expected to hit the country in the coming weeks

South Africa’s government has come under increasing pressure to allow fans to attend matches in the forthcoming British and Irish Lions series against the Springboks, despite the danger Covid-19 poses to public health.

SA Rugby and the department of sport, arts and culture officially asked the government’s national Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee on Saturday to consider filling venues to at least 50 per cent capacity for the eight matches scheduled from July 7th to August 7th.

An SA Rugby source confirmed to The Irish Times that sports minister Nathi Mthethwa had presented proposals to the Covid-19 committee, as well as to the ministers of finance and tourism respectively, for their consideration.

According to a study commissioned recently by SA Rugby, South Africa’s limping economy could lose up to 6.6 billion rand (€386 million) if the Lions tour goes ahead without local or international fans attending the games.

Indeed, the cash-strapped governing body has been examining all available options to get supporters into stadia to watch rugby’s current world champions take on the best players from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales.

Despite being world champions, the Springboks have not played a Test since beating England in Japan to lift the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019. As a result, the union has come under severe financial pressure, which has made the income the Lions tour will generate crucial to its financial health.

Last month SA Rugby president Mark Alexander told reporters the union was even looking into raising money to buy Covid-19 vaccines for ticket holders who still want to attend the games.

“We have pulled out all the stops and are lobbying the government,” online media outlet News24 reported Alexander as saying. “We have also proposed stringent controls around the stadium. We have testing [for Covid-19] before games and people coming to the game with their vaccine or health certificates,” he added.

South Africa’s African National Congress-led government now finds itself in the difficult position of having to decide whether it should allow a limited number of fans to attend the games that would normally attract over 80,000 supporters.

Local tourism has been decimated by the coronavirus, and the Lions tour would provide a much-needed boost for businesses in the sector, local employment as well as to the national morale of a rugby-mad nation.

However, a third wave of Covid-19 is expected to hit the country in the coming weeks, and the roll out of South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccine programme has been painfully slow to date, with official figures showing only 382,480 health workers had been inoculated by Sunday.

The second phase of the vaccine roll-out programme only begins on May 17th, so very few people in South Africa will have been vaccinated by the time the Lions tour begins in less than 10 weeks.

Furthermore, if a warning sign were needed of how large public events can rapidly spread Covid-19, a surge in cases last December that brought some provincial health systems to the brink of collapse was partially blamed on large end-of-year parties that were organised for students.

As of May 9th, Covid-19 had officially claimed the lives of 54,735 people in South Africa, but the real death toll is thought to be much higher. There is also mounting concern locally about two new variants of the disease from the UK and India that have been recorded here recently.

Despite the dangers posed by the virus, a majority of South Africans who spoke to The Irish Times said they were keen to see at least some fans at the games, as long as strict health and safety conditions were enforced.

Cape Town-based health and fitness coach David Yuill said he hoped to see fans at the games as aside from rugby enthusiasts, the wider tourism sector was in desperate need of the financial support that a Lions tour would generate.

“We are willing to cram 150 people into an airline for local two-hour flights in South Africa at the moment, which is a very confined space with limited ventilation, so we should be willing to have a half-full open-air stadium for the games.

Student architect Darren Shellar, who has tickets for the Lions versus the Stormers game in Cape Town, is also desperate to attend the game.

“Personally, I think it would be very sad to see the Lions come over to South Africa and then not to be allowed to attend the games. The series is the biggest rugby tour we will ever get to experience here, and it won’t be back for another 12 years,” he said.

Andrew Smith, who works for the V&A Waterfront, one of Cape Town's top tourist attractions, believes applying strict health and safety rules is key to getting fans into the matches. This should include a reduced stadium capacity, the wearing of masks, and a zero-alcohol approach to the event, he maintained.

“I have seen first-hand how devastating the pandemic has been for the local tourism and hospitality sectors. Tours like the Lions are great for these sectors financially, so if they don’t allow fans into the games, I don’t see why the tour is going ahead,” he stated.

Long-time rugby fan Alasdair Fraser, however, said even if fans were not allowed into the games they should still go ahead, as rugby had brought South Africans together in the past, and this type of nation-building was essential during the pandemic.

“Look, people really want this [Lions Tour] to happen. We have been hit hard by Covid-19 and we need something to cheer about. I’m keen to go to the games but even if we can’t, family and friends will gather in groups at people’s houses and enjoy the spectacle,” he concluded.

However, Zimbabwean draughtsman Nqobile Behane, who lives in South Africa, has some doubts about having spectators at the games. He believes people are underestimating Covid-19's potential to spread because the country's current caseload is relatively low.

“I think the tour should go ahead, but I’ve reservations about letting the stadium fill to 50 per cent of their capacity. Myself and my wife have both had Covid-19 and she was very sick. You don’t want to get this disease. The 50 per cent option is a stretch, I believe it would put people in danger,” he said.