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Transformation in SA rugby: Kolisi is right, 'you shouldn't put a number on' quotas

2019-01-13 08:45
Siya Kolisi (Gallo Images)

Siya Kolisi (Gallo Images)

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Phiwe Ndinisa 

In an interview conducted a few weeks ago Springbok captain Siya Kolisi spoke about his feelings on quotas in South African rugby.

His statements have drawn a varied response with some strongly criticising his utterances. Those who see fit to crucify Kolisi for his recent comments on quotas in rugby are failing to fully engage with the hard truth that sports quotas (across sporting codes) are a lazy and uncreative way of dealing with transformation in sport.

Numbers do not guarantee transformation, especially when you are just playing switch-a-roo with what continues to remain a small pool of black players. Kolisi is right when he says: "You shouldn't put a number on stuff like that."

Reducing transformation to a question of numbers implies that it is a finite endeavour – once you reach the set number you can consider the task complete. This reduction of a complex, important and meaningful task to debates about numbers also oversimplifies the meritocracy argument.

Those opposed to quotas argue that players should be chosen on the basis of their skill, not their skin colour. This is an argument that resonates with many but it assumes that skill is enough, regardless of what colour your skin is or what your social context is.

It is a well-known fact that this is not necessarily the case and Kolisi's own journey is a testament to this. Had he not obtained a scholarship to a well-resourced school his may have been a very different story in spite of his raw talent.

Of course, those who are in favour of quotas will argue that it is precisely because merit alone is not enough that we need quotas. It is the additional leg up that players with the skills and talent deserve. It is a mechanism to even the playing field, so to speak.

This argument can, however, only take you so far. Quotas are not always the leg up that they profess to be. For starters, they place players chosen on the basis of a quota system in an invidious position. Hanging over their heads are these questions about whether they are on the team because they are good or because they have darker skin. The players on our national teams deserve better than that.

Aside from the ever present cloud that quotas bring, they also end up only benefitting the pool of black sportsmen and women who manage to access well-resourced schools or receive elite training (and put in the additional work like the Kolisi's of the world).

The testament to this is that while we have had a quota system for about as long as South Africa has had been a democracy, there are still talented sportsmen and women of colour for whom playing on the national team is still just a dream. This is the real problem that needs addressing in a manner that is continuous and sustainable. 

Quotas also do nothing to address the "institutional culture" that surrounds many of these sporting codes, but in this case rugby specifically.

Transformation requires that there be a shift in the culture that surrounds rugby in the minds of players, coaches, administrators and supporters alike. A system that is about making sure there are black faces on the team for the sake of political correctness or political expediency can end up re-enforcing some of these problematic cultures.

Debates about quotas in rugby and other sporting codes are not going to go anywhere any time soon, which is why the conversation needs to move away from the less helpful binary of pro- or anti- quotas. What passionate players, supporters and agents of change need to be pushing for is for sporting bodies to show more creativity in how they address these transformation questions.

Of course, not every single black, talented rugby-playing boy or girl will have the opportunity to play at national level, there are after all only so many places on a team. But as many of them as possible should have the real possibility of actually getting there.

Transformation in sport is an absolutely critical priority for South Africa and should remain so for as long as it takes for all of our sporting codes to reflect the demographics of our country. The transformation of South African rugby must be about being in it for the long hard creative slog.

Rugby development and the continued provision of access to equal opportunity needs to be prioritised. It is not about whether or not former president Nelson Mandela would or would not be in favour of quotas. It is about the fact that he would have been appalled that there are still children who, like Siya Kolisi, grow up not knowing where their next meal will come from and doing their school work under street lamps. Honouring him means that we cannot get stuck tinkering at the top but that we must get stuck in building from the bottom.

Phiwe Ndinisa is the secretary general of the Ubumbo Rugby Club.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    siya kolisi  |  phiwe ndinisa  |  rugby  |  sport  |  quotas
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