Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
30 October 2007

What is wrong with the debate about transformation in rugby

Ok, let me be brave and write about something I am not supposed to know much about, namely rugby. (After all, I supported the Springboks because of JP Pietersen’s sexy legs – gratuitous picture of him included.)

These are the facts: Only two of the regular players in the world cup winning Springbok rugby team are not lily white. At the same time, more than 90% of South Africans are actually black. Moreover, rugby in the apartheid years acquired an Afrikaner Nationalist character and was viewed by many (including most Afrikaners voting for the National Party) as a symbol of white supremacy.

It is no surprise then that even before the euphoria of the Springbok win has faded away, loud voices are being raised to urge the selection of a more representative Springbok rugby team in future.

Botana Komphela, chairman of the Portfolio Committee on Sport in the National Assembly, has been particularly vicious in criticising the lack of transformation in rugby. This is usually expressed by pointing to the Springboks and explicitly or implicitly arguing for the imposition of quotas in the Springbok team: 5 coloureds and four Africans per game, say, that would show those racist bastards.

Shortly before the start of the world cup, Komphela even suggested the players should have their passports impounded if the team did not become more representative of the country’s ethnic mix.

This kind of argument is of course daft and counter productive because it allows opponents of transformation to shout about “political interference” in sport and to point out that we never would have won the world cup if rigid quotas had been implemented.

The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it avoids the real problem around a lily white rugby team and go for a perceived quick fix instead. This is not unlike the attitude in South Africa towards transformation in general. Instead of acknowledging that transformation is a difficult if urgent process, transformation is presented as an all or nothing once of “switch”.

By demanding the imposition of quotas for the Springbok team, those who are serious about the real needs of transformation in rugby cede the moral high ground to the other side who then do not have to answer real questions about racism in the sport.

It would be far wiser to agree that only the best players should be chosen to represent the Springboks, but to demand that steps be taken to ensure the pool of black players from which Springboks may be selected is dramatically and urgently increased.

Two or three years ago I watched the under 19 Springboks win the world cup and was astonished by how “transformed” that team was. More than half of the players were African or “coloured”. Surely the right question to ask is not why are there no black quotas for the Springbok team. No, we should ask what happened to all those black players who were good enough to represent their country when they were 18 but then did not get a contract to play for one of the big teams.

We cannot fix rugby if we do not address the reasons for the drifting away of black players from the game. Rugby is still very white in terms of its culture and I can well imagine that a talented black player would not easily be offered a contract merely because of a perception that he would not “fit in” with the team.

Even when such a player would be given a contract but then reveals at practice that he likes Bob Marley and does not really care for Steve Hofmeyer, the alienation begins. Even if he does fit in (like Bryan Habana, say) he might come from a poor family with strong financial pressures to get a “real” job and therefore might need more nurturing than the average white player.

That is why I strongly believe that significant quotas should be enforced on provincial rugby to ensure a critical mass of black players in each team. As long as most teams are essentially mono-cultural and mono-racial, real and deep transformation of rugby is not going to take place. (Of course, some fans want things to stay the same because they think of rugby as “their” sport, but that is another story.)

Real quotas lower down in the system would prevent black players from drifting away from the game and would begin to address the real problems of transformation in rugby – namely the inherent if subliminal racism of many (but not all) players and administrators. But this will take time and it will require struggle, so it is unlikely that either Mr Komphela or the rugby bosses would support this.

Far easier just to go for the window dressing. Meanwhile talented black players stop playing rugby to do who knows what, instead of forming part of a much larger pool to choose an even better Springbok rugby team from. It is idiotic but hey, why do the wise thing when just carrying on like before is an option?

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