There has been a predictable outcry about Siya Kolisi’s comments about quotas and transformation in rugby to Japanese media.
Black Twitter has castigated him for supposedly “being against” the above policies, while the “establishment” – many of whom have criticised Kolisi’s selection as the Springbok captain and a player, mind you – are now applauding his views as that of a “true leader”.
Both camps may have valid points, but here’s the deal…
Kolisi, and many other black players, might never have worn the Springbok jersey if it wasn’t for quotas, which he said he thinks Nelson Mandela would not have supported.
Yet, it was Madiba’s first democratic government who introduced quotas in SA sports teams under then-Sports Minister Steve Tshwete.
Of course, all stakeholders would want the utopia of there being no quotas, targets or an actual policy of transformation, but the reality is that sports federations – especially rugby – have just not played along.
In the 1995 World Cup, Chester Williams was the only black player in the team. In 1999, Deon Kayser was again the only black player in the match-day squad for the semi-final loss to Australia.
Things remained the same in 2003, with Ashwin Willemse at wing in the 29-9 quarter-final defeat to the All Blacks.
The 2007 World Cup-winning side had Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen, while the two wings were joined by prop Gurthro Steenkamp in the starting XV for the 2011 quarter-final against the Wallabies, with Gio Aplon on the bench.
In 2015, Steenkamp was replaced by Tendai Mtawarira, with Trevor Nyakane on the bench.
So, has there been real transformation in South African rugby over the years? Absolutely not.
Rassie Erasmus took a huge step forward by appointing Kolisi as the first black captain, but that significant milestone shouldn’t be allowed to paper over the cracks.
There were still only three black players in the starting line-up for the two big Tests of 2018 – against the All Blacks.
One would like to think that everybody fully agrees with Kolisi’s comments about transforming society and environments, like his was when offered a bursary to attend Grey High in Port Elizabeth, so that all rugby players get the best possible chance of becoming a Springbok.
“If you want to talk transformation, you’ve gotta start there (at the lower levels). Imagine if I didn’t go to the English school – I wouldn’t have eaten properly. I wouldn’t have grown properly,” he told Kyodo News.
“I wouldn’t have the preparation like the other boys did, because when I went to the English school, I had to compete against boys who had been eating six meals a day, each and every single day of their lives.”
But that is a long-term project that all concerned, such as schools, government, corporates and sports federations need to work together to change.
However, there has been enough progress at lower levels to ensure that there shouldn’t just be three black players in the Bok side to face the All Blacks, or no black Super Rugby head coaches.
“And now, if you want to force someone into the Springbok team, and maybe they are not good enough – they have one bad game, you will probably never see them again.
“We need to be prepared. Like Currie Cup, you can push people in and see how they do. But you can’t just…” said Kolisi.
Siya Kolisi himself was a victim of not receiving equal opportunities, having been initially ignored by Heyneke Meyer in 2012 against England. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix
The problem with those two paragraphs is that black players would never have gotten those opportunities if it wasn’t for quotas and “targets” under the policy of transformation.
History has shown that most white coaches just haven’t judged black players in the same way as they do white players.
All black players want is an equal opportunity to prove themselves. Kolisi himself was a victim, having been initially ignored by Heyneke Meyer in 2012 against England.
Kolisi has the right to the opinion that he “wouldn’t want to be picked because of my skin colour”, which he said makes black players question whether they are good enough.
And it is great that he, as the Springbok captain, was prepared to speak publicly on such a sensitive matter. It is easy to sympathise with him, given the position he is in, as he has to tread a fine line between supporting transformation and not upsetting certain quarters of the rugby spectrum.
He has also been through the toughest of circumstances to rise up from Zwide township to become Bok skipper.
But unfortunately in South African rugby, if there weren’t targets in rugby, you would never have seen the likes of Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am, Cheslin Kolbe, Embrose Papier and others come through at the highest level.
The Bok target of 45 percent representation of black players was actually not achieved in 2018, which is why actual quotas – and not just targets – are still needed in SA rugby if Saru are serious about achieving true transformation.