Sport in South Africa is like a lightening rod for racism. No matter how many people trot out the age-old argument about sport being a unifying element in the South Africa, the truth is South Africans are just as divided in sport as they are in the rest of their lives, perhaps more so. If you want proof of this do a google news search on race quotas in South African rugby.
You see in August this year the South African Rugby Union (Saru) announced that it was introducing race quotas in the Vodacom Cup, the developmental rugby competition that runs parallel to the Super Rugby competition in the first half of the year in South Africa. Teams will be forced to field seven black players in their 22-man squads, with at least five players in the starting team. At least two of the seven will also have to be among the forwards.
Naturally this announcement caused a fair amount of controversy and the comment and opinion pieces started hitting the newsstands. Race quotas are not new in South African rugby; they were introduced in 1999 and done away with in 2004. You’d think that they were no longer needed back in 2004 and that is the reason they were done away with, so naturally you have to ask yourself why are they coming back in 2013?
The answers lie on the rugby field, week in and week out. Take a look at the Springbok side that trounced Australia last weekend, two black South Africans and One Zimbabwean. Heyneke Meyer announced an unchanged team to face the All Blacks today. But it’s not like the lack of transformation is at national level, take a look at the Vodacom Cup, Currie Cup and Super League, they are all still very white.
The reason, plain and simple, is that the rugby fraternity in South Africa has not transformed and black players are not being given the kind of opportunities they deserve, by the mostly white male coaches and administrators. If you want to read some recent writing on these issues, you can read these two pieces below that were published in the Mail & Guardian. In November last year I wrote an article titled “Why are the Boks so White?” where I argued that black players were being picked in the Springbok squad but were not being empowered to play a role in the starting fifteen. Then the following week I followed it up with a piece asking the questions “Is South African rugby racist?”
But let’s get back to quotas. I am a fairly thick-skinned individual. I feel I can handle most things, but a recent piece I read on the new race quotas made my blood boil. In a published column debate in various Independent Newspapers Afriforum’s CEO Kallie Kriel and Pretoria News Sport Editor Vata Ngobeni took on the race quota issue. You see what really made me angry, was the way that Kriel attempted to frame his argument. “Under a quota system, the presence of every black rugby player in a team is, by default, suspect – and black players have to work harder than their white peers to validate their inclusion,” argued Kriel. “This is tragic, as many of these players are hugely talented and committed individuals, and they deserve to be selected.” “They definitely do not deserve to have their credibility undermined by Saru,” added Kriel.
This argument had been made recently by former Springbok coach (2008-2011), Peter De Villers, a black man who knows all too well how racist the rugby fraternity in South Africa can be. “It’s the worst decision they could make,” he told the BBC of Saru’s decision. “I don’t think Saru understands its purpose in life. “ “Everybody will believe that these players will be picked because people are looking out for them,” he added. “It will only ever work if there is a transformation period in people’s hearts,” said De Villiers. “If there isn’t, I think they are wasting their time.”
Similar arguments you see. However the one is coming from a black South African rugby coach, who has given his life to the sport and development of young black talent, the other is coming from an NGO that represents “minority rights” read Afrikaner rights. Obviously the fact that rugby has to be shared with all South Africans and it can’t be Afrikaans dominated terrain no more, riles the members of Afriforum up. Which is their opinion and they are entitled to it. It’s not like we are not well versed as a country in reactionary anti-transformation arguments. But to pretend that Afriforum is protesting the decision to reintroduce race quotas in rugby, because it cares about the careers of black rugby players is disingenuous and bloody infuriating to say the least. Where has Afriforum been all this time as young black rugby players struggled against a loaded racist system? Was it just me? Because I didn’t see any published missives on the failings of transformation in the rugby fraternity from Afriforum. No they don’t exist, which is why Afriforum’s argument should be dismissed with contempt.
Vata Ngobeni meanwhile in the responding column made some good points. He argues that although a lot of the criticism of race quotas is “overflowing with racial overtones” fuelled mainly by the “right-wing thinking” of its authors, he doesn’t think quotas are ideal. Who does? “But the truth is rugby in this country has always been used as one of the weapons to defend apartheid while, post-democracy, some of our compatriots are using it to hold on to the ideals of a past utopia that almost sunk our country into a civil war,” says Ngobeni. “Rugby should first stop denying that it is still entrenched in the principles that kept apartheid going in this country for decades and it must also admit that a change of administrators and coaches is needed for the game to be transformed.” Amen.
“The truth of the matter is that most of our school teams are transformed as coaches at that level almost have an equal number of black players to select from as white players and within a small community of players it is rather easy to see the best from the rest.” “Unfortunately this is not the case at junior interprovincial and national level with many of the black stars from schools rugby bought but never given opportunities to flourish by the unions, especially the big four, Western Province, KwaZulu-Natal (Sharks), Blue Bulls and the Golden Lions.” “Until rugby shows meaningful change the quota system will have to be enforced. The time for change has come and all of us need to embrace it, whether we think it is right or wrong,” argued Ngobeni.
A few days later in the Cape Times, Western Province’s Vodacom Cup coach John Dobson insisted the quotas were introduced because South Africa’s rugby unions had tested the government and Saru’s patience with the lack of transformation. Western Province is the only union that currently meets the requirements of the new race quotas. In 2013 Western Province fielded nine black players in their quarter-final team. The Bulls and Eastern Province each had six. The worst offenders were Pumas, Golden Lions and Griquas, often only having two black players in their squads. “I’m sorry that we have to count to show that we have the high ground,” said Dobson. “The other unions are testing everyone’s patience” Dobson argued that the Vodacom Cup was about “tomorrow’s Springboks today” and unions that were fielding one or two black players were failing the sport.
In the same article Saru President Oregan Hoskins argued that the claim that there was no black talent good enough was just no true. “Ninety percent of the black players in the Craven Week are out of the system,” said Hoskins referring to the schools provincial competition. Hoskins argued these players need to get back into the system and the quotas for the Vodacom Cup will assist this. “If you look at the all the black players who are now being given a chance at Currie Cup level who have come from the Varsity cup, said Hoskins. “They shouldn’t just be coming out of the Varsity Cup, they should be coming out of the Vodacom Cup.”
Hoskins is talking about giving young black players developmental opportunities to see if they can make the jump to professional rugby. What we are talking about here with race quotas is real transformation, no matter what the reactionaries say, because soon some of these players will make the jump to Currie Cup or Super Rugby squads and perhaps then we wont need quotas to make that a reality. But if we do, then that is what must happen.
It’s interesting that one of the least transformed unions is The Lions, who are replacing The Southern Kings in Super Rugby next year. Considering the Kings showed a real commitment to transformation in the last few years, bringing through some potential future Springboks and that their support base is probably the most racially integrated in the country, this seems like a blow to real transformation in South African rugby. To take it back to De Villiers comments earlier, we need a transformation of the heart of rugby, the culture of rugby and the Kings represent that in a significant way. For more on The Kings and whether Saru cares about transformation you can read this article I wrote here. But let’s get back to Afriforum again.
To add insult to injury Afriforum have written to Saru insisting that it revoke its decision or it will call for a boycott of the Vodacom Cup. To be honest, the attendance at Vodacom Cup games is very small and the television audience is also tiny compared to Currie Cup, Super Rugby and International Rugby. Afriforum’s grandstanding is not in the interest of the sport and all players as it claims, but is about maintaining the status quo and ensuring that rugby remains a minority sport. Rugby lovers the country over should stand up and say not in our name.