Elma Smit has always believed that, in South Africa, rugby is more than just a sport. Given her schooling at Paarl Gim – the same attended by legends Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers – it’s not surprising that she now stands out as one of the country’s first female rugby anchors.
That’s notwithstanding the fact that, in the Smit house, it was the ‘tannies’ who gathered to watch the big match on Saturdays, while the ‘ooms’ read a book. Added to this, although Elma always dreamed of being a broadcaster, she had few female role models to look up to. “At the time, women were represented mainly on brands like 5FM or Top Billing. As an investigative reporter on Carte Blanche, I think Ruda Landman was the closest thing I had to an idol,” she recalls.
So how did she go from wannabe to rock star? It all started with a love of the sport – as Elma points out, Paarl Gim is not the kind of school where rugby takes a back seat. The super-fandom continued at Maties, where she studied law, political science and languages. “I’ve always been a fan, almost by default. Rugby was simply part of the culture I grew up in.”
That stood in her favour when she entered a reality talent search show to find a woman presenter, hosted by Supersport in 2011. Initially, Elma wasn’t going to enter. “I thought the channel was looking for an analyst, someone like Naas Botha or Nick Mallett who could give a specialist’s perspective. But, after watching a few rounds of auditions, I realised the search was for an anchor – someone who would ask the right questions and make the sport more accessible.” Having already spent several years as a host for 5FM and music channel MK, Elma had the right skills – and the channel judges (Darren Scott, Naas Botha, Ashley Haden and Elana Afrika) thought so, too.
Did Elma encounter many challenges as a woman in a very male sphere? “I think my experiences are very similar to those of any other woman who works in an industry dominated by men, whether they’re politicians, pilots or engineers,” she answers. “A man who makes a mistake is given the benefit of the doubt. When a woman makes a mistake, it’s treated as proof that she doesn’t belong – even if it’s a small one. If Nick Mallett forgets a player’s name, he’s just made a silly error. If I do the same thing, it’s often read as a confirmation of that pre-existing bias against women: they don’t belong in this industry.”
Elma admits that this being the case, her position carries a lot of pressure. “You simply have to be prepared to work twice as hard. The fact that a mechanism like a reality TV show talent search, aimed at building the clout or rugby integrity of the women who participated in the eyes of rugby viewers was necessary at all is probably also proof of this double standard. But how else was SuperSport to convince viewers that any woman had ‘earned’ this job? Until then, the perception was simply ‘what does she know?’, and the show created a way to answer this question upfront.
“No one asks men who work as anchors in rugby, cricket or football which professional teams they played for,” she points out, adding that it’s “fascinating” to see that people who pay no attention to what men wear in front of the camera are often interested in women’s appearances. “My male colleagues can get away with wearing the same outfit for several months, but I have been the target of disparaging remarks just because I wore a pair of pants twice in a row!”
She admits that she also received some less than kind comments when she was made an anchor, many insinuating that she had earned the position thanks only to her looks. “Sadly, this is still a standard for women, which is not equally applied to men. Have you ever heard anyone comment on how Xola Ntshinga or Matthew Pearce look? These people are judged according to their skill, and it would be great if the same could be said for women.”
Elma says that handling these double standards requires a delicate balance: on the one hand, you need to take a stand against the bias, but it’s also important to remain within hearing distance. Her approach is to point out the double standard calmly: “If you grab people by the nose, their ears tend to slam shut. Loads of empathy is needed.”
This is a lesson she’s learned the hard way. “Often you have to decide: do you want to be right, or do you want to win?” It’s a complicated trade-off to make, she says, but it’s ultimately a fail-safe test to apply when you’re seeking the best way to handle sticky situations.
She urges other women to adopt the same insight. The best way to get ahead, she maintains, is by asking yourself precisely what it is you would like to do if your options were limitless. Then, find a way to get there. “Don’t get tripped up or paralysed by the immediate challenges,” she says. “Get hooked on the goal first, and work your way back from there.”
Obviously, the fight is easier for some than for others. Elma says that she is painfully aware of the privilege she has enjoyed as a white woman, and staring this fact in the face has helped her recognise and appreciate the struggle of people facing and conquering even greater odds.
This is a fight she finds very inspiring. It’s also completely worthwhile; she insists: “I think that we have such a great opportunity to be part of a generation who gets to push open new doors for the young girls of today. I’m inspired by stories of women fighting for the right to vote, the right to basic human rights and access to education. I’m not doing any of those lofty things myself, but I think that we all have chances to change and challenge perceptions where we are, with what we have, right now.”
Text:Lisa Witepski Images: © Kevin Mark Pass