Transform sport ethically

2008-05-29 00:00

On May 22, The Witness reported that your chairman, Butana Komphela, has demanded that the South African men’s hockey team for the Olympics include at least 50% players of colour. As a sports lover who broke with apartheid sport, who is committed to genuine transformation and above all who believes that we must base our policies on the best ethical values, I believe that this demand and others like it are seriously mistaken.

National rugby and cricket selections are also imminent. Recent selection controversies mean that South Africa needs new transformation guidelines to normalise sport if we are really serious about eradicating the legacy of apartheid.

Using quotas to kick-start transformation in the early years of non-racial sport was understandable, but from now on it involves important mistakes when it uses demographic representivity to decide when a sport is normal.

The mistakes are of three kinds: logical, ethical and constitutional.

The errors of logic arise firstly when we fail to distinguish between activities where freedom of choice plays a key role and ones where it cannot; secondly, when we disregard the vital role of choice in sport, and thirdly, when we apply the logic of activities where choice cannot be the key factor to activities where it is, like sport.

Think of activities where choice is not a key factor, like anything required of us by law such as having identity documents. Since about 75% of our people are black Africans, it is logical to expect that around 75% of all ID documents should be held by them. This shows that demographic representivity can be expected of any activity that is necessitated by law for all members of the group concerned. Quotas can then be set both as an ultimate goal and as a way of moving towards it.

Things are different when we are dealing with voluntary activities such as religious affiliation or careers. There is no reason to demand that a certain percentage of Catholics must come from previously disadvantaged communities, because freedom of individual choice is unpredictable. Similarly with careers. Maybe most Indian South Africans will want to work in the professions, maybe not. Maybe most Jewish or Muslim South Africans will favour business, maybe not. And so on.

Sport is also a voluntary activity, so there is no advance way of stipulating what percentage of participants would count as normal. Yet this is exactly what some politicians and a few sports administrators seem to demand when they call for demographic representivity and quotas based on them. Their commitment to justice in sport is clear, but are they really thinking about it in the best way?

What about ethics? Demanding quotas based on demographic representivity for voluntary activities is ethically flawed because it results in unfair discrimination. If a particular profession finds itself short of coloured South Africans, for instance, and then, under threat of government punishment, recruits people with the required skin colour by means of salaries well above the norm for the job, that will be unfair to everybody.

If our sports codes need numbers as benchmarks of progress to normality, wouldn’t it be better to base them on statistics of club membership over the previous year or two? This will tell us something about the levels of participation from our various communities, region by region, especially if coupled with a major new investment in grass-roots, school and club-level transformation.

I am not a lawyer, but I suspect that setting sports quotas based on demographic representivity is unconstitutional. Our Bill of Rights gives us the freedom to choose with whom or with what we associate. This includes sport. A policy that treats voluntary pursuits like sport as if freedom of choice were not the key factor violates that right. I think our sports administrators need to check this out very carefully. It is essential that we think logically, act ethically and respect the Constitution as we rebuild sport after apartheid.

• Emeritus Professor Martin Prozesky is an independent applied ethics consultant with an interest in sports ethics, and author of Conscience: Ethical Intelligence for Global Well-Being, published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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