The Rugby World Cup has come and gone. Jonathan (Chill Out and Work Hard), Tota (Bishopscourt and Bonteheuwel) , Sindile (Overcoming Barbs) and I talk about some of the issues that would be wonderful to put behind us...
My heart sank as the South African rugby team's World Cup campaign ended at the hands of the old foe, New Zealand. And, although the Boks gave a good account of themselves against a legendary All Blacks outfit, the final whistle of the semi-final signified an uncertain future for a team mired in political interference. I find myself torn on the subject. Yes, enforcing racial quotas can arguably contribute to the goal of transformation, but mucking with meritocracy in professional sport undermines performance and, ultimately, success. I certainly crave success for my beloved (and heavily mythologised) amaBokoboko, but, having been subjected to years of misery at the hands of a quite awesome and dynamic New Zealand team, I've concluded the only way to beat those damn Kiwis is through transformation. By sheer virtue of percentages, a transformed SA rugby institution should eventually result in a better national team. After all, more rugby players means more potential for world-class talent. But is the government's agenda the best way to go about things?
Becoming A Great Team
This conversation normally rears its head after World Cups. It is obvious that the team doesn't represent the demographics of the country. I would be cautious about the 'law of small numbers' though. A team of 23 can't be expected to represent demographics unless it is artificial. The people at the top also want to know they are there because of skill. Having said all that, it is a clear illustration of the difficulty of all, even non-rugby, transformation. If there were unequivocal examples of grassroots empowerment, then I don't think it would be an issue. The interaction between meritocracy and privilege is a complex one.
I absolutely agree that grassroots empowerment is essential if we are to produce quality players for our sports teams. But does this statement imply that the national team should be kept separate from transformation in the lower divisions? In my opinion the success and ethnic background of the national team is inextricably linked to grassroots development such that one cannot exist without the other. A young player must be able to identify with an elite player to develop ambition. I think this is why the government is so intent on including 'black (South) Africans' in the national team. Tendai Mtawarira (Zimbabwean) and Bryan Habana (mixed-race) are only half-solving the problem.
It's a sad day when we see transformation as a necessary evil to get back to the top of world rugby. Transformation should be ingrained in our DNA. The dichotomy of what constitutes a 'South African' or what is good for the nation is borne out in the skirmishes daily in SA. The attrition will continue until we get it right. And at that moment, the nation will be great. The continual ownership by the white population of 'meritocracy' is laughable. 400 years of slavery and apartheid have left a false sense of achievement and arrogance in the white population, which is being questioned daily. The entire Apartheid project was a means of empowering Afrikaners (transformation) at the expense of the majority black population as well as the white English speaking population.
The fact that a black player needs to 'pass the merit test', while ignoring privilege, is preposterous. The transformation of SA Rugby is a societal issue way before we add up the numbers on the field. To assume the current team doesn't have a skewed Afrikaans slant which lacks merit and credibility is absurd. It's without doubt a transformed team would take SA back to the top. That's a no brainer. You would think.
Sport is made up of 2 essential components. Competition and the ability to compete. Many black players are simply not given the ability to compete on a system wide level unlike their white counterparts. Rugby is a highly technical sport at school level (unlike soccer for example - my favourite sport by the way). Grassroots development is one key, but another is looking at the after-school development of talented black players and why they just don't get chances at unions. Broadening the appeal of rugby in formerly disadvantaged communities makes both sporting and economic sense. Sporting because more players with ever increasing skill levels means more competition which is healthy for excellence within the sport and economic sense because rugby in this country is a better value proposition than football, but football has more money due to the sheer number of people who watch it and have an emotional connection to it. An economies of scale thing. Rugby has to shed its elitist (white) image for it to become a truly lucrative enterprise and it seems to me that SA is uniquely place (if some business sense and acumen is applied) to globalise the sport, starting with spreading it throughout the continent. That can only be done if more excellent young black players are playing and more black SA's are being connected to the sport emotionally.
Rugby is competing for 'share of heart' with lots of other sports. England is a great example of where people are split between various things (despite a bigger population than South Africa). It also has issues with the elitist image of rugby. It also has issues with a deeply divided country. The difference is, you can't generalise confidently about how much money and privilege they have by looking at the colour of someone's skin. South Africa is not alone at looking to use sports as a means to heal divides. Rugby is not alone as a divided sport. The national teams represent just the tip of what is going on. Looking deeper is essential to see if we are winning or losing the transformation battle.
I watch rugby all the way down to schoolboy level (FNB Classic Clashes and Mutual and Federal Premier Interschools), which means that more than a lot of other people I watch rugby at all levels (school, varsity, club, Vodacom Cup, Currie Cup, Super Rugby and Test rugby). With that said, I think the main problems with rugby racially are the problems that bedevil South Africa generally, and to pick out rugby as an especially racist project (in the systemic and institutional sense) is both misleading and misguided. It tends to bring more heat than light.
Personally I think it is foolish enforcing quotas on the Springboks because you see it with players like Oupa Mohoje who was forced to defend his selection (a ghastly thing). Top level sport is both physical AND psychological (mental) and so we cannot expect black players, even those who are deserving and talented to perform at optimum level if they are put in a situation where they consistently question themselves.
This is a terrific point that illustrates why delicacy is required with quotas. I disagree that enforcing them is foolish per se, but I do think the way politicians are going about it is foolish. The fact that it is perennially in the news; that there must always be more, more, more 'representation' only serves to undermine those who are selected. All you need is one superstar to inspire a generation of kids. I believe Makhaya Ntini is a great example of a disadvantage person who excelled on the world stage. I don't recall too many complaints about under-representation in the Proteas when he was terrorising batsmen a few years ago. In short, I think quotas should de-emphasise representing demographics and rather focus on unearthing special individuals.
Makhaya Ntini joined the elite club of people taking 10 scalps at Lords
Took the 3rd most wickets for South Africa ever (390)
Schoolboy rugby is increasingly producing top quality players of colour. In fact, the SA Schools team of this year has 12 players of colour in the squad of 26 and 4 or the repeat SA Schools players were players of colour, one, Curwin Bosch of Grey PE was voted schools player of the year in 2014. The question then is where does all that black talent go after school? Are we looking closely enough at varsities? The unions who have a RESPONSIBILITY to bring through talented players? I am of the opinion that the nexus of pressure ought to be falling on the unions rather than the Springboks because to be honest, there simply aren't enough quality black players to choose from for the Bok side.
It is interesting looking at comparisons outside the border. Apartheid attempted to create nations within nations, and the goal of spreading Rugby in South Africa is no less difficult than spreading it to new countries. Argentina (mainly) and Japan (hopefully) provide hope. But it is hard (America, Italy) and sometimes goes backward (England). Sport is deeply passionate and cross generational (Dad was a Bok, I want to be a Bok). It is about storytelling. The All Blacks have successfully wound Maori culture deeply into rugby creating religion like passion. Or did it happen the other way around? Did the Maori embrace rugby? Tota is spot on that Meritocracy is a very fuzzy ('laughable') concept.
Meritocracy/Privilege = 1.
Quotas perhaps are necessary, but I feel they should be used with a lightness of touch because who says that transformation's main driver has to necessarily be quotas? Why has this view become common wisdom? Especially since it hasn't yielded grassroots results like more black coaches and more black academies in townships etc. To be frank and honest, I think a lot of white people that watch rugby are just plainly stupid for not realising the economic potential of transformation even when they are told about it. A lot of people, both black and white, don't actually care about the game, but care about racial one-uppance, and this does upset me as an avid rugby fan. It is frustrating watching ignorant and stupid people argue pointlessly about a sport they either care very little about or have limited technical understanding of.
I stopped watching Super Rugby about 3 years ago, and am purely focused on football now. Any football. It's quite apparent that team selection is largely based on race and on familiarity. According to the rugby powers that be, there's no benefit or need to seeing black players in the rugby teams. But it's okay for the white DA party to be led by a black person, cause now there will be benefit if other blacks see that it's okay and vote. This isn't a political conversation, but it's quite clear that our national life is led and designed along racial lines. South Africa is a deeply divided and racially polarised nation, and the quantity of denialists is epic. It there was a so called rainbow nation, we'd all speak at least 4 South African languages and have elements of true African culture in our rugby, not just players. See what the Haka represents? Foreign white settlers embracing local indigenous culture. They are open enough to even have All Black Maori teams. Very open and fair society. Maybe it's the white players that need grassroots development. I mean, they did lose to Japan. I don't think that we have endless time to transform. Patience is seriously running low, and fate will dictate. The chasm is so wide, and I have personally concluded that it's too wide to close, and I will rather watch football. A truly global sport with less nonsense (besides the diving!). I will always support the Boks with a lots of reservation though.
My concluding thoughts are simple.
Rugby gets a bad rap because it is an Afrikaner-dominated sport at the top-level and the perception of Afrikaners amongst black people is that they are the most resistant to change and the most racist people around. Whether this is true or not, I cannot comment because I don't know.
The sport needs transformation players as much as transformative systems. You simply cannot generate the emotional connection to cricket, for example, many people got from Makhaya Ntini. Rugby needs that and I don't mean 'quota positions' (Prop and Wing). I am literally hoping (almost praying) for a black Daniel Carter in this country (both ability and temperament).
Rugby has massive potential to bring this country together, more than cricket and football do. We need to have a longer-term view for the sport, both competitively and economically and that is only possible if we take transformation seriously. My hope is that we can have a system where every single union is competitive (like the NFL, where a small time Green Bay Packers has as much chance as the big time New York Giants of going to the Superbowl). We need both volume in money and talent for that to happen, for our administrators to institute a system that isn't just about the big unions.