Quota conundra

Andrew Donaldson says under ANC policy govt teams must have quotas, but no quota players


THE sport and recreation minister, Tokozile Xasa, is predictably standing by her demand that TV rugby pundits Naas Botha and Nick Mallett be suspended for their allegedly racist behaviour towards fellow SuperSport panellist Ashwin Willemse.

While the three presenters have now been pulled off air — but not suspended — pending a review of the incident by a senior advocate, Vincent Maleka, it does appear that racism played no part in the events which led to Willemse’s dramatic walk off last Saturday.

This, at least, according to MultiChoice and SuperSport management following interviews earlier this week all parties concerned.

However, should the minister now change her mind it would indeed be a setback for the national obsession and, in the parlance of the present mania, not exactly helpful with the crucial conversation we must have going forward.

Like many, many South Africans, Xasa was quick to pronounce on the matter and, along with her compatriots, quite sure of what happened behind the scenes at the studio.

In fact, judging by the tone of her statement, she may have known what was happening even before it happened, what with her charges of “whiteness” and “entitlement” flying about the place. 

“It is clear,” Xasa had said, “that Ashwin Willemse was referred to as a quota player by his fellow panellists, despite his many successes in the field of play. I call upon SuperSport to suspend the two panellists while they are busy with a full investigation.

“The continued appearance of Mallet and Botha [on SuperSport] will be seen as an endorsement of their alleged racist behaviour.”

But no volte-face in the light of their alleged non-racist behaviour. “My statement still stands,” Xasa has said.

Again, this is a good thing, for this is the part of her statement that we find telling: 

“If it was not for a barbaric nonsensical apartheid system that privileged [some white South Africans], we could not have implemented the quota system to normalise an otherwise abnormal system.”

In other words, if anyone had referred to Willemse as a quota player it was his own government. Nothing personal, you understand; his Springbok teammates were also deemed quota players.

This gets a bit Philosophy 101, but here’s how the thinking goes at the Mahogany Ridge: once a side fields one or more quota players — that is, players chosen on the basis of race rather than merit — then the entire team is a quota team. It follows therefore that in a quota team, all players, black or white and regardless of the basis of their selection, are quota players.

It is not surprising that Willemse, a prodigiously talented Springbok, should have been upset by all this. He is not alone. 

In December last year, former England and British Lions centre Jeremy Guscott blamed quotas for the Springboks’ appalling form in recent years, and expressed concerns about their ability to compete against the likes of New Zealand, England, Ireland, Australia, Wales and Scotland in future.

Writing in The Rugby Paper, Guscott said the system was “always going to throw up tough challenges” in terms of putting together a competitive squad.

“Those difficulties were highlighted this autumn when the Springboks were overwhelmed by Ireland and then lost to Wales,” he said. “In some ways I feel sorry for the South Africans, but going down the quota route was always a mistake. They have to get rid of quotas and pick people on ability.”

Thanks, Jeremy, nice of you to say so. But that’s not happening anytime soon.

In April 2016, the small and shouty Fikile Mbalula, then the sports minister, announced “radical transformation” quota targets for SA’s sporting codes — and the harsh penalties that would be imposed for non-compliance.

Federations stood to lose millions in government funding, and would be barred from bidding to host international events, like the Rugby World Cup. As a result, both SA Rugby and Cricket SA duly expressed confidence in meeting these targets. 

In fact, in September that year CSA announced that henceforth the Proteas would be fielding an average minimum of 54% black cricketers and an average minimum of 18% black African cricketers over a season. 

This did little to dispel visions among the cynical of selectors armed with slide rules and umpires beavering away with pencils in players’ hair during the drinks breaks.

This is not to decry affirmative action, but government, which has had a quarter-century to do something about it, has been rubbish in transforming sport.

It make no sense that national sides should be threatened with a big stick, when in fact the country’s possible future sporting talent is squandered and frittered away for want of proper facilities and training in township schools. It is here they have literally failed to level the playing fields.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.