South Africa: rugby’s race problem | The Economist

South Africa’s national rugby squad has ‘‘quotas’’ to ensure more black players are selected. 25 years after the end of apartheid, can the controversial practice redress the race imbalance in the sport? And at what cost?

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It was a win that unified a divided country. We were united as a rainbow nation. In 1995, one year after the country’s first ever multi-racial elections South Africa hosted—and won—the Rugby World Cup.

When the final whistle went and I looked around the stadium all different creeds and colour of people, they were hugging each other. It adds impetus to our nation-building effort. But 25 years later South African rugby is still embroiled in the politics of race. Politics can never be separated from sport. I think we are more divided at this stage than we were then.

Almost 90% of South Africans are black or mixed-race yet they remain the minority in the Springboks, the national rugby team. In an attempt to get more black players into the top tier of the game South Africa’s government introduced quotas to force coaches to pick black players. But it’s a controversial strategy.

Chester Williams was one of the first black players to ever represent the Springboks. Definitely, quota means to me opportunity. Peter de Villiers was South Africa’s first black coach. I don’t think quotas is your solution. Both grew up in the black township of Paarl but they feel very differently about quotas. Historically rugby is supposed to be played only by white people. Because of apartheid only the white people are selected for the Springbok team. I always wanted to be a Springbok myself.

Chester Williams was the only black player in the famous Mandela 1995 World Cup winning side. He inspired millions of South Africans. All I wanted was that opportunity so I can prove to the world that black people can also play rugby. I represent not only myself but I represent my community, I represent black people in South Africa.

After retiring in 2000 Chester became a coach at the University of Western Cape. Being a so-called black or coloured player in South Africa
was challenging at times. I remember vividly they stopped me from going to have dinner because I was the only black guy in the team and at that time we were not allowed to dine with the white people. Securing a spot on the Springboks side wasn’t easy. You had to train twice as hard as the privileged guy because you have to prove every single time why you need to be in the team even though you’re scoring more tries than anyone else.

That’s why Chester believes that quotas are still needed to ensure black players get into the national sport. If you don’t have the quota system then people won’t change and players won’t come through the system. And in doing that we are seeing a lot of black kids getting opportunities to play for the Springboks.

Since the 1995 win the Springboks team has incrementally become more balanced. And the Springboks selected more black and mixed-race players
than ever before in 2018. But quotas not always popular. In a recent poll 82% of black South Africans said that players should be picked solely on merit. And the perception that so-called quota players don’t deserve to be selected is damaging. While I was playing I mean people would call me a quota player. It was almost like a smack in the face that you’re not good enough to play there but you’re selected only because of the colour of your skin. I can assure you we will carry 50m people in our hearts.

Rugby’s struggle to transform is seen by some as a metaphor for disillusionment among black people who gained political, but not economic, freedom after apartheid. I am still surprised because to see that people are still talking about quotas because it’s 25 years since unification you know and in sport we should have gone long past that. There was no repentance for apartheid. So those who tried to forgive, what did they forgive? Who did they forgive? So this conversation, for another 25 years, will still go on

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