Colour barrier: Sport and the quota system in South Africa

The transformation policies - simply called the quota system- are aimed at righting the wrongs of the apartheid era and for nation building purposes.

Written by Sriram Veera | Updated: September 8, 2016 11:58 am
50 percent of the Springboks are supposed to be players of colour by 2019. 50 percent of the Springboks are supposed to be players of colour by 2019.

Last week, Cricket South Africa (CSA) put in place racial quotas for the national team – average minimum of six black players of which two must be black African, across all three formats of the game in an effort to increase the number of black players in a sport still dominated by whites. The transformation policies – simply called the quota system- are aimed at righting the wrongs of the apartheid era and for nation building purposes, but it has run into a lot of criticism. Sriram Veera looks at the sport and quota system in South Africa

What does it mean?

In theory, it’s simple – reserve a percentage of spots in various sporting teams for non-whites but it has faced problem in its execution. The main criticism can be framed thus: Should an sportsperson’s skin colour be the deciding authority in selection, and shouldn’t sports be all about merit?

In 2005, the minister for sports and recreation Fikile Mbalula spoke out on the argument over ‘tranformation versus merit’ : “You can’t use merit because merit assumes that all people have equal opportunities”.

When was the transformation policy started?

The implementation of race-based quotas was started as early as 1995 at the level of school and sport policy. The slow process of bottom-up sport development in the grassroots level translated into the current scenario -of top-down tactics with racial quota in high-profile sports such as rugby, cricket and netball from school to national levels.

Has anyone lost medals or disqualified because of reservation policy?

During the South African Games in March 2004, a young white tennis player Adele van Niekerk was stripped of her medal because her team didn’t meet the required 50% black quota as prescribed. In the same year, white athlete Erna Wedemeyer’s team was also disqualified from Life Saving Championships for same reason. In 2010, not one white player played for South Africa in the FIFA World Cup. In April this year, the sports ministry announced that cricket, rugby, netball and athletics federations would be banned from bidding for any international tournaments until their numbers of black players improved.

Do teams that follow quota rewarded in some way?

Yes, at times. For example, in 2007, Netball South Africa announced that any team which enforces the five to two ratio on court (five black players, two white) would be awarded additional six goals. In cricket, in October 2013, the sports ministry said that those franchises who have more than one black African in 70% of their matches will be reimbursed an amount equivalent to the average contract cost of the qualified players.

What were the prescribed racial quotas in the past?

For cricket, it was advised that at least 4 of the 11 to be ‘players of colour’ and for rugby it is 50% of the squad by 2019, but it has not been complied with.

How has it played out in cricket?

A recent report presented to CSA noted that most black African players give up the game between U-19 and provincial level, as they need to find proper jobs if they are not contracted by the franchises. The report also observed that those black African players who get into the system are often sidelined. Only two black African players got a chance to play in matches in more than 80% of the franchises’ games last season. They also bowled less overs and batted lower down than players belonging to other races.

How have the white sportsmen reacted to the quotas?

When he learned of the diktat not to bid for any tournaments until the given quotas were implemented, Jacques Kallis, the retired cricketer, tweeted that he was “embarrassed” to be called a South African. Immediately came the riposte from the sports minister Mbalula. “”It means he was fake the whole time when we looked at him as a hero,” he is reported to have said.