Springbok captain Siya Kolisi’s comment that Nelson Mandela would not have supported quotas in sport has stirred a predictable hornets’ nest of outrage on social media – but South Africa would do well to pay attention to what he had to say.
Some have argued that Kolisi thinks the way he does only because he is married to a white woman (meaning, presumably, that he is somehow not a real black person). A now-deleted Twitter profile belonging to someone calling himself Isaac Moselane even featured a call for Kolisi to be necklaced.
Yet, looking at the detail of what Kolisi said, there is nothing controversial in his statements – which point, instead, to where the real challenge lies.
The Springbok captain makes the point that if he hadn’t attended an ‘English’ school (presumably meaning a former Model C school) such as his alma mater, Grey High, in Port Elizabeth, he would not have made it as a professional rugby player. He would not have received the coaching he did, had the use of the facilities, or been given the nutrition necessary for any budding teenage sportsman to have a chance of succeeding at professional level.
But is Kolisi right in saying former president Nelson Mandela would have opposed quotas? We know that there were quotas during Mr Mandela’s single term as president, so he was evidently not opposed to the idea in principle. But would he have been opposed to quotas today? That is harder to say.
The real question to be asked is whether there is still a need for quotas at top level today? In the 1990s, there probably was. Having players of colour in the national cricket and rugby sides was an imperative in a rapidly transforming South Africa. That transformation drive saw resources put into communities where they previously had been lacking, and these efforts have borne fruit in the emergence of large numbers of black, coloured, and Indian players today.
It is quite possible that if a young goatherd from Ndingi called Makhaya Ntini had not been spotted and offered a bursary to go to Dale College in East London, there would be no Temba Bavuma or Kagiso Rabada plying their trade for the Proteas today.
But are quotas still necessary after the work done in the 1990s?
Not one player in the Proteas or Springboks side today is there simply because of the colour of his skin. All are there on merit. Racial bean-counting at the highest level is unnecessary.
An obsession with the racial make-up of our sports teams can also end in farce. When the Springbok squad was announced to play the 2015 Rugby World Cup, clarity was sought over whether Damian de Allende was coloured or white, until his father confirmed he was the latter. Something this demeaning has no place in modern South Africa, but it will remain for as long as we obsess over the racial make-up of our teams.
We should also remember that playing sport for South Africa – especially in codes with the large following enjoyed by soccer, rugby, and cricket – is competitive, and only a handful of people will ever have a chance of competing at the highest level.
In addition, especially in cricket and rugby, a handful of schools produce most of our top Proteas and Springboks. These are schools with good facilities, funds to pay coaches, and often a proud sporting tradition.
It is estimated that only about 40 schools produce the majority of South Africa’s first-class and international cricketers.
Unless one attends one of these schools or is blessed with natural sporting talent, one’s odds of playing sport at the top level are very slim indeed. And even if one does attend one of these schools, the chances of playing sport at elite level are miniscule .
This is central to Kolisi’s arguments but has been overlooked by many.
In sports, there will never be equality of outcome. Unfortunately, equality of opportunity is also difficult to achieve. We will never reach a point where every person who is interested in a sport receives the best coaching possible, or the best equipment available.
What can be done, as far as possible, however, is to provide the opportunity for everyone who wants to play a particular sport to do so.
We cannot guarantee that every little boy or girl who picks up a cricket bat will play for the Proteas one day, but we should be able to guarantee that they can play the game, with decent facilities.
And here is the rub. The vast majority of our schools do not have facilities for sport.
According to the Department of Basic Education, only about one-third of South Africa’s 24 000 schools had soccer facilities in 2016. Only 1 400 schools had facilities for pupils to play cricket, and less than 1 000 had a rugby field.
Quotas at the top level, like black economic empowerment and employment equity, have little effect on those locked out of opportunity. Having a quota in the Springbok or Proteas side in 2019 does not create opportunities for those who cannot afford a cricket bat or live 50 km from the closest rugby field.
The time for quotas has passed. Our teams are diverse (with all players selected on merit) and they are performing well (the Springboks and Proteas are both considered contenders for their respective World Cups later this year).
The government should not worry about the racial make-up of our national sides, but rather focus on giving as many children as possible the opportunity to play sport .
At the same time, we must also never forget that playing sport is an end itself; one does depend on an ambition to one day represent the country in a national squad in order to enjoy cricket, rugby, soccer, or any other game.
The sobering truth, however, is that for many South African children, playing a rugby, soccer or cricket match on a decent field is as much of a dream as playing for the Proteas or Springboks. And quotas for the national teams won’t change that.
It is not Siya Kolisi who deserves public ire, but the national government which cannot ensure a sports field for every school in the country.
* Marius Roodt is head of campaigns at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.