Affirmative Action in South African Sport
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The political administration realized that many of those involved in sport would be slow to reach out to non-white players, due to both deep-seated racial prejudice and a natural desire to hang on to their power. And yet, there was a strong moral and political basis for ensuring racial assimilation. The quota system was therefore implemented to hasten the process. National and provincial sports teams were required to have a specified number of non-white players in each match. Reluctant coaches and selectors would now have to open the dressing room doors to the garden-boys.
Several fine players like Chester Williams have benefited from the quota system in rugby, which changes from year to year, and according to competition level. For the Super 14, involving provincial teams from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, South African teams need to include at least four non-white players in each starting fifteen. In cricket, too, quotas exist at lower provincial and junior levels. Despite the history of South African sport and signs that the quota system is not being implemented as a permanent feature, many argue that quotas should be scrapped en masse because they result in a lowering of standards and “reverse discrimination.” Yet these arguments are, in my opinion, superseded by the moral and pragmatic grounds for implementing quotas in South Africa.
The former Springboks coach Nick Mallett has made the argument that when quotas are instituted, a team’s standard is lowered. This is a specious argument. Mallett has stated that teams will be weakened by the loss of white players who emigrate since they feel they cannot compete with new non-white quota players. In response, the perceived unfair lack of opportunity is not due to quotas, but due to the opening of doors to players of color. Two or three players coming in will only compete with two or three existing players, but 90.4% extra potential sportspersons compete with the entire status quo of South African sport. The competition is not the fault of quotas, but of demographics, and ultimately, of democracy. And the stream of white emigrants is also seen in other professions; in many cases, some say, not because of a rather lazy dislike of fair competition, but because of an aversion to sharing the space with the garden-boys.
Still, the hardliners carp, blacks who come in as quota players are inferior. The non-white players themselves have proved this wrong by breaking international records and achieving high rankings. As an example, consider the two regular non-white cricketers, Makhaya Ntini and Herschelle Gibbs. Both have consistently placed high in international cricket rankings, often ranking above any other South African player in, respectively, bowling and batting. In fact, this year Ntini was ranked second in the world among Test bowlers, far ahead of the next South African on the list at rank number thirteen. Not only are these non-white players equaling the performances of their white counterparts: they are surpassing them.