Much has been said lately in the international rugby community about the appointment of Allister Coetzee. He has made a commitment to fifty percent of players being non-white by 2019. Much of the conversation has been around how the South African Rugby Union (SARU), the South African government, and the national team coach can support these policies. Critics have argued that it is reverse racism, outright racism, and that it violates World Rugby regulations on racial discrimination.
As far as racial politics are concerned, for the outside world looking into South African affairs, it must seem crazy that a government and national coaching staff would include any kind of racial quota or selection system for a team. Surely anything involving race in this way has to be considered racist, yes? Unfortunately, the answer is not so clear cut. It’s different in South Africa, and the comparison is not the same for any other country. Rugby has been the prized sport of Afrikaners (Afrikaans speaking) South Africans well before the end of apartheid. It’s a huge part of their culture. So much so that non-Afrikaner, white South Africans (what Afrikaners would refer to as English) such as James Small were discriminated against in provincial, school, national sides. Even though they were white, even though they still played good rugby, they were traditionally looked down upon by Afrikaners because they were outside of the culture. Afrikaner history itself is unique. Due to a history of international migration, originally from Western Europe to escape religious persecution, and internal migrations across Southern Africa, their culture as a whole is quite insular and resistant to outside change. This includes rugby.
That being said, particularly in the Western and Eastern Cape, there are historically plenty of non-white South Africans that have played rugby – albeit at community levels. They do so without the same opportunities that formerly all-white rugby schools that white South Africans can afford have had. That’s why, even after the fall of apartheid, you still have a team that is not only Afrikaner and white dominated on the national level, but on many of the provincial and professional levels as well.
Of course it takes time to change a national demographic in sport and extending opportunities to nonwhites to play rugby is a very complicated issue. You need to consider access, resources, poverty, grassroots development, and a host of other factors. Transformation of the national team will not solve problems overnight, but one argument in favour of transformation is that there are still long held biases in a lot of South African teams and coaches where they select white players over black players. Even if they aren’t conscious biases, not all black players get the same playing opportunities for the teams that they are picked for, or the same retention rates, as white players. It is well remarked by SARU and rugby officials that, at the school level, there are a lot more players of colour than there are in other levels of the game. However, there’s a dropoff at some point due to there not being enough opportunities, access, players being picked, etc. before they reach the provincial and professional level.
The main idea behind transformation is to show that if you expand the pool of players in South Africa with grassroots development, access, and more opportunities for nonwhites, you won’t need to pick someone over someone else based on their skin colour. The size of the talent pool (compared to much smaller countries like New Zealand, Wales, etc.) suggests that those high level players are out there. They’re just being missed because they’re not in the groups favoured by selectors and scouts and that the national team should better reflect the country it is playing for.
Picking only on merit would be great, and no one would argue against that IF South Africa was a post-racial society and no greater good couldn’t be achieved by creating a more representative squad that overcomes long-standing historical injustice. The fact is, South Africa is not a post-racial society and may not be for a long time. The quota is a sacrifice that people with historical privilege (white/Afrikaner) will need to accept to improve the game in the long term. What is grass roots development for if not to help more people achieve that top level transformation?
Non-white South Africans need to see that efforts are being made to include them at the top level as well as be offered the opportunity to participate in grass roots development. There is much more access than there was immediately following the end of apartheid and it’s a completely different world now that non-white South Africans can wear the Springbok jersey at all. But if you look at what the national team looks like, how professional and top level players are still a white majority when about ninety percent of the country is not white, there needs to be more to be done to drive home the idea of transformation at all levels of play. This is going to affect players, it is going to affect dreams, and it is going to challenge rugby fans around the world. This is not something that will be easy, and in the short run it may feel like the end of the world for some aspiring Springbok players, but we must look at the long term picture. Considering the horrors of apartheid and systematic racial discrimination in South Africa, losing a few white spots on the national rugby team is not such an issue. And if the majority of players are coming from ten percent of the population and South Africa is still one of the best rugby nations in the world, imagine how much better the quality and selection of players will be if ninety percent of the population had the same drive and desire that the white South Africans have for rugby.
I’m not sure that World Rugby will step regarding the quota. The South African government could argue that this is not racial discrimination but part of a longer term process to change access and opportunities for previously marginalized nonwhite Africans. Therefore I do expect the quote will be around for a while.
Hopefully this is just part of the growing pains for decades-long development of rugby in South Africa that will, in the end, make them a much stronger and better rugby nation, perhaps one that will become more dominant of the global game than even New Zealand. As others looking in from the outside have said, it does seem extraordinarily strange; but the issue is not a clear cut case of racial discrimination against white South Africans. Look at the quota as part of a much more complex, historical and contemporary perspective that touches on and is indicative of South Africa’s economics, society, poverty, health. It stands for improving access for all South Africans, regardless of their race or where they began in life in life.#
Article by J Kiel