Allister Coetzee’s brief tenure at South African rugby hangs in the balance after a disgraceful year in which they won only four of their twelve tests. Their first home loss to Ireland in June followed with only two wins in the Rugby Championship. Over the Autumn series matters only worsened as they drew to a cobbled together Barbarians side (who seemed somehow to have more structure) and suffered a humiliating first defeat to Conor O’Shea’s Italy.
However, South Africa’s struggles are not limited to the field of play as political interference and the issue of race quotas causes constant unrest in the background. The old adage that sport and politics should not mix is simply not possible in post-apartheid South Africa. The 1995 World Cup and especially the image of Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela symbolised a unity of South Africans, irrespective of the colour of their skin. The Springbok jersey, once seen as a sign of oppression, transformed into a shared jewel of both communities.
However, transformation in sport has not taken place, something the ruling ANC party desires to change. Rugby Union and cricket are just some sports in which the sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, intends to introduce race quotas. Declarations from the sport’s ministry are demanding that sixty percent non-white players must take to the field by 2019. Positive discrimination aims to make rugby more inclusive under the illusion that two wrongs will make a right.
What if I was to say that Bryan Habana was dropped in order to make room for a lesser white player? This will soon be the case as white players might be overlooked to achieve political targets rather than win matches. Some may argue this is needed to make up for the apartheid era, but it isn’t even universally popular among black South Africans, of whom 74% felt it was unnecessary and unfair in a poll conducted by the Institute of Race Relations.
This will affect the players first and foremost. ‘Beast’ Mtawarira, as one of the world’s finest loose-head props, has been one of the first names on the team-sheet for years, whereas if race quotas are enforced any non-white players such as him could be suspected of being there to make up the numbers rather than chosen on merit.
Then there is the matter of what happens to white players being overlooked. The sheer lack of black players playing at Super Rugby level means certain positions will become cordoned off. For example, I can name no black tighthead-prop or lock. Among the backs, therefore, players such as Pat Lambie may have to join the already staggering 350 overseas players to make room for transformation. South Africa could produce the finest winger world rugby has ever seen, but if he is white, he may need to be side-lined in preference of an already growing number of good non-white wings.
These realities have not been discussed properly. Many suggest that such quotas are simply lip-service and that a more gradual change will occur. However, the South African Rugby Union is currently being stifled in their bid to host the 2023 World Cup due to the slow pace of transformation. This may be good news for Ireland but in South Africa it suggests an already struggling side may need to pay for political purposes.
The side may become transformed but what shape will it take? There are certainly more important things than sport, but race quotas will not achieve them. Quotas will deny opportunities to deserving players, cause undue questioning for those who deserve it and create divisions in an area that once symbolised the Rainbow Nation.
It would make sense to implement such quotas gradually at underage level and maybe in the Currie Cup or Super Rugby franchises. However, introducing quotas in the national side before 2019 will simply cause chaos and lead to many more dismal results unbecoming of the Springboks.