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.)

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.

Butana Komphela, chairperson 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: five 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 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 goes 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 one-off “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 also 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 there are 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 revealed at practice that he liked Bob Marley and did not really care for Steve Hofmeyr, the alienation would begin. Even if he did 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 monocultural and monoracial, 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 would take time and require effort, so it is unlikely that either Komphela or the rugby bosses would support this.

It’s 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 from which to choose an even better Springbok rugby team. It is idiotic, but hey, why do the wise thing when just carrying on like before is an option?


  • Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics, including gay rights, the right to equality, social and economic rights, and affirmative action. Since October 2006 he also publishes a blog, Constitutionally Speaking.


Pierre de Vos

Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics,...

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