Quotas are not right, and in this case, it reeks of correcting an old wrong with another wrong, in the hope that two negatives make a positive.

The biggest positive at the moment is that people in South Africa are talking about the issue plainly – albeit sometimes ignorantly.

There’s been a long history of, call it “friendly favouritism” (discrimination) in SA rugby. Obviously, when a player is world class they will get picked, but when a player is good (in form) and needs some development – that’s a different story. The latter is where the equal-opportunity issue comes in.

Equal opportunity

An old example is Thinus Linee (R.I.P.) – a man Robbie Fleck saw as a mentor to himself and all the young centres coming through. He played over 100 games for WP and earned an eventual Springbok call-up on a tour to Australia in the mid-90s. He only played in one midweek game to “earn his Springbok colours”, and was never used again – and never afforded the same opportunity at top level as his peers in the same position.

There was a consensus among his peers that he was a “hard tackling merit selection” because one needs to add the words merit selection to a player of colour. Linee came up through the youth ranks alongside Chester Williams – who himself faced his own struggles and was even called a “quota player” by the then Springbok coach in his final Bok tour to Argentina. In context, Williams’ inclusion in that 2000 tour was a surprise, but there was little integrity or respect on display at that time.

Simply put, it’s always been easier for white players to attain springbok colours. Another issue, as Pieter De Viliiers alluded to was the culture change. A black player has to learn a new language and often move to a new town (for schooling) and adapt to a new way of life. He becomes a foreigner in his own country and ‘wears’ the culture of wherever he finds himself, just to fit in. This gave rise to the term “coconut” – a black person who has adopted the white culture.

Pieter De Viliiers.
Photo: warrenski, via Flickr

In some cases, it’s a new city and playing under coaches who speak a language that’s not your first. So overcoming the alienation aspect is the first major hurdle for young players. Here there are hidden mental aspects that many fail to take into account, whereas a young white player who grew up in the suburbs and goes onto to study and play in Stellenbosch for example, always on pristine fields, slips very easily into the rugby culture.

Another reflection of the ingrained sluggish pace of change is the fact that of all the top franchises/unions in SA, only one has a non-white coach. Incidentally, I saw a recent story on a German News channel about the lack and difficulties faced by black football coaches in Europe. “African soccer players are good enough to play in the leagues and earn big money, but they’re not good enough to be in charge” – Stephen Keshi who passed away in 2015, a former player who won the African Nations Cup with Nigeria, lamented the number of additional hoops he had to jump through in applying for jobs in Europe.

The odd thing I found, in reading up on why African soccer Nations consistently hire white Europeans to coach their national sides, was that they neutralise the politics within the nation. This is because they carry no prior player bias and cannot be said to be favouring players coming from a certain tribe or region within the country.

In that context, South Africa rugby has always chosen certain players from a particular race/culture (if not Afrikaner, then at least ‘white’). And the challenge is to neutralise this aspect about how people in a divided (demographically and socioeconomically, as well as culturally) country sees sport. The unification is a long process, and we do want to see prompt results.

It is about accepting all races and no matter what team runs out, whether all-white or all-non-white, to support them because they’re our team and countrymen. But understandably, many feel offended when seeing a Springbok team playing opposition like NZ or AUS who have greater diversity in representation in their line-up than us, considering the make-up of this country.

With the wisdom of our past, I believe it’s insensitive to ignore the ills of history – we are still in the stage of rebuilding. Historically, international non-white players always received great support – anything to put one over the all-white Springbok team (guys like Serge Blanco; Bryan Williams – granted “honorary white” status for the 1971 tour to SA; and George Nepia were all hero-worshipped, especially in the coloured community in SA). In retrospect, it carried a similar flavour to Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics.

The hero-worshipped George Nepia.

Yes, the current generation of players never really experienced apartheid, but the scars in society are still there, and we must be mindful of them when stepping forward. This doesn’t mean picking players that cannot do the job… It has to be said again though that if you’re good, you’re good and you should get picked.

However we’re dealing with humans here, and humans have prejudices and make mistakes. The struggle for a long time for non-white players has been simply to be recognised as equals and accepted into what was a very exclusive “club” of white players. The battle has always been for integration. But a stumbling block in many South African’s minds is that black players are judged with a different standard, or scrutinized more intensely than their white counterparts.

“We had no say in politics. We didn’t even have a vote, so all I knew at that stage was to play rugby. My goal was to show the country and the rest of the world that we had black players who were equally as good, if not better, than the whites, and that if you are good enough you should play.” – Errol Tobias thinking back on his historic selection for the Springboks in 1981 [article: “A black Bok in a white team”]

More recent selections

I remember Francois Hougaard in the Rugby championship in 2015, just prior to the World Cup, was included in the starting team at wing (even though he was selected in the squad as a scrumhalf), he played while the form winger of the season, Lwazi Mvovo, sat on the bench. Hougaard said he felt embarrassed by the situation.

It’s these sort of decisions that lack wisdom and hurt the game further, lending no thought to the bigger picture. And it’s prevalent at provincial level as well. A few unions contract non-white players simply to fill quotas for window dressing – players that are actually genuinely talented and give their all, and then have to go through the whole culture change, but don’t receive equal treatment and are not allowed to develop. Toward the end of Heyneke Meyer’s tenure, it was said (by one writer at least) that “there was the general perception that Meyer didn’t trust his players of colour.

Quota system

So the regrettable quota system is a byproduct of the ingrained discrimination that’s infected the sport since rugby was introduced in SA in the 1800’s, a forced bitter knee-jerk reaction that actually has good and positive intentions and will be beneficial in the long run – in inspiring the younger generations and illustrating that positive change and integration is possible, even if it’s only on some field on the other side of the world.

In terms of true unification, SA still has a long way to go, but the powers that be are hoping that a diverse and unified Bok team can inspire the same elsewhere.

As mentioned elsewhere, the biggest irony of it all is that the problems with SA Rugby are not the same as the problems with the Springboks. The poor showings on the field are actually purely rugby related – tactics, form, cohesion, leadership, mentality, coaching etc. and are not race related.

From problems at (previously disadvantaged) grassroots level (getting rugby into more schools), to internal union rugby politics, to ingrained discrimination, junior level skills development, the weak Rand prompting the overseas player exodus, the modern professional (tighter) game at test level (with ever diminishing margins for error), the Springboks amidst a renewal and rebuilding phase after saying farewell to its most decorated generation of players (the proverbial golden generation) – having to start a new era.

All of this contrasts starkly against the ‘proud and dominant rugby history and reputation’ spanning over a century. This is the chicken coming home to roost for SA rugby and the Springboks.

A contorted mess

Inside the black box of Springbok rugby, you’ll find a contorted mess. Knot upon knot, that just so happens to play itself out in the form of genuine Transformation, with quotas as its unfortunate misunderstood face. Now this controversial emblem of the Springbok has been given to all and is meant to be inclusive and representative of all, but it clearly does not and hence still feels (to many) like an exclusive institution.

To put it another way; even if the Springboks were winning 95% of their games, there would still be those questioning why certain players were not picked. Win or lose, this is sport, and every fan is a coach in his own mind.

Things have changed, but we have a long way to go. Transformation is actually the solution and not the problem; it’s not about taking away from anyone but adding to what is already there and including everyone.

There is so much pressure put on players of colour… I feel players of colour constantly have to prove themselves worthy of their places and that’s really unfair. I really feel for players of colour when they have a bad game because they are held to a totally different standard. A number of talented players of colour have been lost in the system and haven’t gone all the way to the top. I’m not suggesting the players should be babied, but they have to be given every opportunity to succeed, and we must close the gap between Craven Week and U/19 and U/21 levels.
For me, the message of inspiration and raising hope is most important. Playing for the Springboks was akin to climbing Mount Everest owing to where I came from. It was an incredible honour to have worn the Bok jersey.
” – Tonderai Chavanga [interview for Sport24]

There is a dire need to transform South Africa in all spheres of life and society so that, one day, sport becomes a natural representation of our oneness. This should not be a cheap movie script with a sequel every four years at World Cup time but a daily effort by all South Africans to create a fertile environment in which our children have genuinely equal opportunities, ” he said.

Malotana said that South Africans make emotional decisions rather than developing principled systems of management to guide our people into becoming a nation of winners.
We have become so addicted to the drama of bedevilling one another that we miss fundamental opportunities to foster love, honesty, trust, accountability, peace and a prosperous coexistence that calls on us to serve each other with respect, commitment and excellence. ” – Kaya Molotana – extract from an article on businesstch.co.za

I’ll end with an extract from an article “The History of rugby in non-white South Africa

Video recordings of iconic matches such as the 1974 series against the British Lions sit opposite one of an interesting and little-known attempt by the SACRFB to tour New Zealand in the early 1900s. Dr Snyders explained that the coloured board had written to New Zealand’s administrators asking if they could visit but New Zealand officials wrote back to the SARB asking for information about the SACRFB was. The SARB’s response was that they “do not know those players and have no jurisdiction over them“, and New Zealand, therefore, declined the request.

The face of South African rugby could have been completely different if New Zealand had accepted and the team had toured,” Dr Snyders said. “Who knows what would have happened?

Some added optional but useful links:
Judge TX15June2014 Sport Quota’s Seg3
A Political game: Story of Rugby and apartheid” – NZ documentary
The Secret Life of a Black Springbok

Steven Benjamin

Author: Steven Benjamin

4 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Steven
    Holding a mirror to oneself is always a difficult task, but only by talking about things and bringing things to the fore can we actually move forward.
    I have always felt that transformation is the greatest opportunity for South African Rugby. I cant think of any one thing that could radically change the Rugby Landscape of South Africa.

    I just cant see the logic in not expanding our player base and making the barriers to entry into our structures so difficult. It is like setting a goal to run the Comrades while scheduling a leg amputation.

    In the professional era it can be such a great vehicle to change, of all the Sports on offer in South Africa I feel Rugby has the greatest opportunity for professional sport growth and personal wealth creation. Not only playing locally but around the world.

    I want a strong Springbok team, but not some temporary fix or a strong team every now and again. I want something that is sustained year on year and this can only be achieved with inclusion. I dont think it is an easy fix and we all come with historical “baggage” and this needs to be addressed.

    I know the Springboks just need decent direction and a vision they can believe in to turn themselves around right now, transformation is a generational process and maybe by 2030 maybe even 2040 if we can get it right we will be consistently competing for the top spot.

    Thanks for taking the time to write these detailed and researched articles.

    • Thanks Donovan,
      and for the positive comment as well… SA and Springbok rugby could definitely use some positive forward thinking. I think the ills in the game are oddly very reminiscent/ mirroring the ill’s in the country as a whole.

      In terms of success, unity and prosperity etc… I think Thomas Payne said it: “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly”
      not an easy fix, but the challenge is a good tool for unification and inclusion.

      God Bless

  2. Thanks so much for this detailed window into SA Rugby. As an outsider it is often difficult to separate the issues and come to an informed view point. These articles have gone a long way to help with that. Best Wishes from a Scot in England.

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