The last year South Africa wins the rugby?

Springboks win the World Cup, 2007What’s the best way to go about integrating a rugby team traditionally the preserve of a privileged minority that represents 13% of a population?

My South African next door neighbour was hanging out his family’s washing when I came out with ours this morning. “No gloating”, I ordered. “Certainly not”, he replied. And then “Well anyway, it will be the last year”. “Oh?” I said.

He told me that as from next year there will be a quota of 8 black members of the South African rugby team. “Not people of colour” he emphasised, “but black”. First I’d heard of it.

He was very indignant. How can you select for a national sports team like that? How will Bryan Habana feel next year, wondering whether he’s on the team through merit or discrimination? I came out with some platitude along the lines of “Well, if they win, nobody will be asking those kinds of questions”. “They won’t win” he said flatly, and went back inside.

I thought about all the South Africans in my carriage on the Central Line last night wrapped in flags and alighting at Leyton – almost all were white, a couple would have been something else in South Africa’s baroque caste system, and none were black. A voice behind me in the Market Porter complaining about the racial make-up of both teams had turned out to belong to South African of colour.

South African rugby, criticised for a lack of ‘transformation’, has started to think of itself with this kind of racial self-consciousness. Quotas were brought in by the South African Rugby Football Union (SARU, a post-apartheid body formed of four racially segregated associations) in 1999 in a move which, it was hoped, would accelerate change. The BBC reported:

A special meeting of the union’s executive committee decided that from next year all provincial teams entering a prestigious competition must have a minimum of three black members, with at least two on the field at any time.

But black talent continues to be lost to a sport that is still widely perceived as a white game.

That was eight years ago and since then things have changed. This year the BBC noted that SARU does not operate a quota system but adheres to an unwritten rule that they won’t field an all-white team).

The renewed quota system – it looks as if the first Boks squad of 2008 will have 10 black players on it – aren’t necessarily viewed positively by players. Chiliboy Ralepelle is against them, for example. In SA cricket here’s a similar situation with a requirement that teams field a minimum of four non-white players. Ashwell Prince, who initially struggled to justify his place but scored more runs in the 2006 India series than any other batsman, is ambivalent:

“In the beginning, you never knew whether you were there in the side because of the quota system or you were really good enough to play. But But when I grew older and became mature, I realised I did not have to prove anything to anyone.”

White members feel discriminated against. Kevin Pietersen:

“To me, every single person in this world needs to be treated exactly the same and that should have included me, as a promising 20-year-old cricketer. If you do well you should play on merit. That goes for any person of any colour. It was heartbreaking.”

So this year’s winning team rugby had very few black members – as in fact did all of the Super 14 teams. What does this mean? That black people don’t want to play rugby (SA cricket also has quotas)? That black people aren’t good enough to make the teams on merit alone? That there is still active discrimination as well as a legacy of exclusion?

Change has been very slow in South Africa, prompting the ANC to renew their demands for a quota system. But people like Yossi Schwartzman would attribute lack of change to structural factors which can’t be addressed by measures like quota systems – he blames the post-apartheid counter-revolution which prevented the workers movement which had overturned apartheid developing further. It doesn’t help either that Komphela, a vocal ANC member on this subject, has such bad arguments (that sports teams should be vetted by government committees as representative, that racial quotas should be universal, that the value sport gives to merit is just an excuse).

Change is needed badly, and I’ve not found much evidence of SARU going out of its way to attract and support non-white players. It probably is dragging its feet and that must inflame the ANC. But ‘Africanising’ the Boks by insisting on 10 black players is very different from the US approach to affirmative action whereby only if two candidates are of equal ability should the place should be offered to the one from the disadvantaged group. It’s a serious point my neighbour makes when he says that black players need to feel like they got there on merit. And it’s a serious point that discrimination entrenches racist ways of thinking. And what about sport? National sports teams are selected to win, not just to play. The idea of suddenly deciding that certain players are good enough because it creates a racial balance is anathema. It’s the playing field that needs to be levelled, not the team.


One thought on “The last year South Africa wins the rugby?

  1. I reckon SARU should be aiming to attract and support non-white players from a young age. If they’re not doing it already then shame on them. If they are then it’s going to be a while before we begin to see results. In the meantime reverse discrimination seems like a good idea here as well, applied to give players from disadvantaged groups a leg up in cases where there are two players of equal ability. But the quota system seems wrong to me in the case of rugby.

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