For white sport fanatics, true merit means whites-only teams

By Dougie Oakes

Just a week after the notion of “quotas” in rugby was hotly debated following rugby analyst Ashwin Willemse’s walkout of the Supersport studios, new national team coach Rassie Erasmus has appointed Siya Kolisi as captain of the Springboks.

Some will see it as a masterstroke. Others will adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

No doubt, Kolisi’s appointment will be warmly welcomed by large numbers of supporters of the game. But it will pose some awkward questions too.

For instance, how will those who do not believe enough has been done to make rugby a truly national game respond? Will those who believe rugby is a white man’s sport welcome an African South African to be the face of their beloved Springboks? And will the South African Government start working quickly to narrow the massive gap between rich and poor in this country, to level the playing fields in sporting codes such as rugby?

The reaction on social media to Willemse’s disagreement with fellow analysts Naas Botha and Nick Mallett showed there is a chasm between black and white in South Africa.

An overwhelming majority of black people supported Willemse’s contention that he had been patronised by Botha and Mallett. They were also sharply critical of a know-all attitude among white followers of the game.

Whites, on the other hand, criticised Willemse for being petulant and for bringing up the “race-card” when racism did not seem to be immediately apparent.

Whites often claim, erroneously, that rugby is “not a black man’s sport”.

Let’s be clear about this: Rugby has a large following among African and coloured South Africans, especially in the Western Cape, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape, where there are clubs that are more than 100 years old.

Few will disagree that Kolisi’s appointment will spark even greater interest in the game among these communities.

But is the South African Rugby Union (Saru) ready and able to cater for an influx of new young hopefuls wanting to play the game?

If Saru’s current plan for developing more black players, and preparing them for higher honours is anything to go by, the answer is ‘No!’

Black South Africans have just one way of getting into the national side. It is via a narrow pipeline provided by “traditional”, exclusively white, rugby playing schools. It’s a simple and in many ways, an effective method: talent scouts are charged with spotting future black stars. Once this is done, rugby bursaries are organised for this select band of handpicked players to attend schools such as Bishops, SACS and Paul Roos Gymnasium in the Western Cape and Grey College in the Free State.

But the weakness of this system is that very few black players will be introduced to the higher levels of the game – and that an even small number will make it to the top.

This has – perhaps deliberately – turned rugby into an elitist sport, one which for the foreseeable future will be run by whites.

Another consequence of this pipeline approach – and again perhaps deliberately – is often seen outside the game itself: the views many black players gain of life in South Africa is from a white perspective.

Thus, if Saru’s system were to be compared with a political system, it would be the qualified franchise of the old Progressive Party during the apartheid system, where blacks would be given the vote only if they had acquired a certain level of education and if they owned property worth a minimum number of Rands.

A major problem in South Africa’s rugby system has been the retention of the Springbok symbol….

It started off as a whites-only symbol in 1906, and it stayed that way for many decades. It is the key reason for so many white supporters, and even some administrators, dismissing black players as “quotas”. In their eyes, true merit means whites-only teams.

And yet, they have either failed to see – or have refused to accept – that before democracy the Springbok teams that represented South Africa both at home and abroad were quotas in the truest sense of the word.

They represented only white South Africans – and if they didn’t know, they didn’t care that perhaps they were not the best players in the country

The Springbok teams, backed by various political authorities of that time (not only the National Party), stubbornly insisted on selecting only white players, and playing against whites-only teams.

When the first mixed teams were allowed into the country, it contributed towards a split in the National Party.

The South African government will no doubt join in the joy of Kolisi’s elevation to the Springbok captaincy. But it has little to be proud of. In the run-up to democracy in South Africa, it connived with some of the apartheid sports structures to destroy their non-racial counterparts by forcing unification at little cost to the apartheid bodies.

The reward – Olympic Games, cricket and rugby World Cups, and overseas tours – benefited only those who had reaped the racist benefits of apartheid.

Government has much to do to level the playing fields – by ensuring the Springbok is ditched and by narrowing the massive gap between rich and poor, so that every child can enjoy equal access to sport.

More stories in Issue 99

Contributors

Dougie Oakes

Dougie Oakes is in his fourth decade as a journalist and writer, having written extensively in South Africa for the then Argus Printing and Publishing Company and Independent Media. He has specialised in sport politics, and features and leader writing. He was also commissioned by Reader’s Digest to conceptualise, edit and, to a large extent, […]

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