The F-word: Pass blacks the baton not free passes

2011-11-26 10:11

It’s good that Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula did not take too long to recognise the folly of his announcement that quotas in sport would be a thing of the past.

Let’s agree that it would be preferable if there was never a need for quotas in sport. From time immemorial, sport has been the ultimate meritocracy.

Only those who jump the highest, run the fastest and shoot the straightest get the gong. Not even the greatest proponents of perfect equality bemoan the idea that only the best get the gong. And so it should be.

Unfortunately, in sport, as in life, there are some who attribute to themselves alone the potential to spot excellence. They decide who will get an opportunity and once they have made the decision, they give their identified protégés everything they need to fulfil their potential.

On the flip-side, they do everything they can to frustrate the efforts of those they have decreed will never succeed. Ultimately, they beat their chests in self-congratulation once their “prediction” has come to pass.

Quotas in sport are as necessary an inconvenience as employment equity or economic empowerment. They are also a reflection of societies that have had institutionalised exclusionary policies. In a fair society, they should not exist.

That is why Mbalula’s call was as premature as political economist Moeletsi Mbeki’s that it is time to scrap empowerment equity.

Mbalula and Mbeki argue that the plans have not worked. They are right.

Quotas have been ignored. That is why Absa CEO Maria Ramos took the rugby establishment to task for the absence of black players in the Currie Cup.

In some cases, talented black players like Solly Tyibilika have lacked the right discipline required to stay the course as a professional athlete.

Employment equity has also suffered because there have been occasions when either through political cronyism, old-fashioned nepotism or window-dressing, black people lacking the required skills have found themselves in jobs they should rightfully not have been given.

Stories of individuals bringing nothing but their political connectedness or names – and thus benefiting from big BEE deals – are legendary.

We cannot pretend that these things have not happened. But scrapping these measures will be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

We need a plan that recognises that the economy is still terribly skewed against the black majority, that corporate South Africa is still not reflecting the talents of all South Africans and that there are still some sporting codes hostile to black talent.

Mbeki and Mbalula (until he saw the error of his ways) were taking the easy route out of a historic challenge to their generation. They ignored the very heart of the matter.

There is no doubt that radical changes must happen if South Africa has to be returned to the path of economic prosperity and sporting glory.

Wishing these obstacles away is short-sighted. It is easy to dish out positions to people for simply being black or female, but it should be about giving the historically excluded a fair chance.

Sporting quotas and employment equity were never meant to prioritise race over ability. Economic empowerment was never aimed at enriching a politically connected elite, but rather at correcting the structure of our economy and the division of wealth along racial lines.

To do away with these measures simply because someone has found a way to abuse them is to postpone solving the problem.

Nobody said it was going to be easy redressing hundreds of years of systematic exclusions. However, we have no business throwing our hands up in despair.

One of the lessons of our struggle was that just because a desired outcome will not happen in our lifetime does not mean we have to give up trying.

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