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Too poor to play




The South African delegation has grown from just 19 participants at the 2nd Maccabiah in 1935 to a sizable 360 players at the last Games in 2013. That figure set the record for the largest team from the Diaspora relative to the community’s size. The numbers representing South Africa is even more of an achievement when one considers the gloomy decline in the value of the rand.

Interestingly the dollar-based cost of land arrangements for Maccabi which includes food, accommodation and attendance at the opening ceremony has remained a steady $3 950 for the last three games. Thus for North American players, the cost of participating has not increased at all.

For South Africans, however, the cost of land arrangements in 2009 was R30 000 when the rand was at R8 to the dollar but will total about R60 000 in 2017 (at best). In 2017, the total cost for Maccabi including flights, will amount to a whopping R90 000! It has more than doubled since 2009. Even if a South African player can afford to go, it is still a dilemma for most whether it is worth the money.

The same has occurred with the much-loved Ulpan programme. In the 1980s it was about R7 000 or R8 000 to spend three months touring the country and studying Hebrew intensively along with fellow classmates.

It also inculcated a deep patriotism for Israel and sizeable numbers of Jewish day school pupils who went on the programme later settled in Israel. Today Ulpan no longer exists. It is simply unaffordable, and while programmes like Birthright Israel, funded by philanthropists from North America, are available to almost any young person wanting to visit Israel for 10 days, it cannot replicate the Ulpan experience that many of my generation remember.  

According to economic data analysed by South African economist Mike Schussler, on a ranking of the average per capita income of South Africans, we were 50th in the world in 1990. By 2014 we had dropped to 86th place. Today the average citizen of China, Azerbaijan; Turkmenistan; Belarus and Bulgaria are all richer than the average South African and we now fall into the bottom half of the world in terms of income.

Unsurprisingly Cliff Garrun, chairman of Maccabi South Africa, says that the upcoming 2017 Games is unlikely to see a team of the size of the 2013 Games. Smaller numbers of players are trying out for the various sports because the price tag is perceived as just too hefty.

For the 2013 Games, Maccabi South Africa went on a big fundraising frenzy and raised an impressive R1,3 million (mostly from one donor) which was allotted to about 60 of the 360 players. Amazingly no-one who was selected was left behind and the subsidies were given out based on players’ assessed financial needs.

Now, with the cost of the Games being double that of the last one, Maccabi is expecting to take a team of half the size compared to last time and is still going to need a lot of luck and generosity from donors to send their well-deserving athletes to Israel.

It is indeed a pity. Any athlete who has participated will tell you that it was the highlight of their sporting careers.

And what does the weak rand mean for our community more broadly? What will it mean for our ability to see the wider world and for our children whose dreams are to backpack through Europe or study abroad?

Will it mean grandparents cannot visit their children who have emigrated? Is this indeed the beginning of a much dreaded isolation? Only time will tell…

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