By Federica Duca
Recent news of the redevelopment of the River Club in Cape Town, and a furore about the lease renewal of the Rondebosch golf course in the same city, have sparked a much-needed debate around urban golf courses in South Africa. What do they represent? Do we need them? Do golf courses and golf as a sport hold a transformative potential?
At the heart of the matter lies another question about the inherent nature of golf and its relationship to the stark inequality of access to land and food in contemporary South Africa, which Covid-19 has brought dramatically to the fore.
This is an opportunity to think in a propositive and imaginative way about the transformative potential of golf courses.
Golf in South Africa
Spread across the country are more than 500 golf courses, both public and private, with a high concentration in Gauteng. In Johannesburg’s old suburbs, for instance, within a very small radius, more than five 18-hole golf courses lie among the wealthy and already leafy suburbs of the city.
Golf courses have for a long time been taken for granted as “natural” spaces in urban, rural and coastal landscapes: they are entrenched in the daily life of the country, both for the players and the supporters of the sport and for those who work in the service economy that revolves around it — landscaping, caddies, food and beverages, and so on.
Golfing leisure, however, is not innocent. Sociologist Jackie Cock highlighted the social and spatial enclavisation of golf and how it facilitates the double concomitant process of exclusion of the majority and inclusion into a new power elite. Associations such as Ndifuna Ukwazi show how support of public golf courses by the municipalities in the form of nominal leases reproduces apartheid geography. Even in coastal areas where land is not scarce, the same questions arise around accessibility to land and development practices.
The sociologist Hugo Cerón-Anaya in his book Privilege at Play shows the dynamics of class, racial and gender exclusion that happens in the golf courses of Mexico City. In short, golf promotes what geographer David Harvey labelled “accumulation by dispossession” — a form of commodification and privatisation of land that necessitates the expulsion of populations.
From an environment perspective, golf uses up a vast amount of space and precious resources such as water and requires an excessive use of damaging pesticides. Although golfing associations might insist that efforts are made to render the sport more sustainable and inclusive, the arguments don’t hold up under closer interrogation. Brad Millington and Brian Wilson show that attempts to green golf globally so far have been very mild compared to the concerted efforts that would be needed to create an “organic golf”.