It was only a single SMS, just one simple line, but for a few days it stoked up the dying embers of one of South African rugby’s most bitter debates – racially based quotas in team selections. A sober analysis by SIPHO HLONGWANE.
“Regan, I think you should write to the major unions on black players - judging from today's games Lions 2, Bulls 1, Cheetahs 2 -- they are not respecting the spirit and goals of transformation. Louis.”
The SMS, sent by Louis van Zeuner, the deputy chief executive officer of Absa, to Oregan Hoskins, the president of the South African Rugby Union after the Currie Cup matches on 11 September, may have been swept into the enormous pile of the sometimes vitriolic opinions on transformation in South African rugby, except for two things: Hoskins acted on it, and AfriForum got its hands on the SMS.
Previously, reports had surfaced, claiming that Absa had threatened to withdraw its title sponsorship in the Currie Cup if quotas were not instituted to boost the number of black players in the participating teams. AfriForum launched its “Stop Absa quotas” campaign on 17 September, before Van Zeuner’s SMS had been “uncovered”. The “comprehensive campaign”, as AfriForum called it, was spread via email, SMS and a Facebook page. Petition signatures were also being collected, which the organisation planned to hand to Absa at a later stage.
On 18 September, Rapport ran a story in which Van Zeuner denied Absa had demanded quotas be reinstated. "We have never said a team should include a certain number of players of colour," Van Zeuner said. The momentum of transformation should be kept up, and players who showed potential should be given the chance to develop their talent.
On Monday 21 September, AfriForum released a statement, saying it had proof Absa had lied when it had said it did not want to prescribe how Currie Cup teams should be formulated. “AfriForum uncovered an SMS in which Absa insists that the South African Rugby Union include more black players and consequently fewer white players in the Currie Cup series,” the statement read. “The SMS shows Absa was dishonest when it stated in the media and in a meeting with AfriForum that it does not prescribe racial quotas for the selection of rugby teams and does not put pressure on Saru to select fewer white players for Currie Cup teams.
“Thousands of members of the public have already showed their support for the campaign against Absa on AfriForum’s Facebook page 'Stop Absa quotas' and the petition that can be signed on the website,” Kallie Kriel, AfriForum’s executive director said. The statement on AfriForum’s Facebook page says that collected signatures would be presented to Absa, along with a demand that it cease with its “discrimination against whites”. AfriForum promised to launch a boycott against the bank if its demands were not met.
Saru and Absa responded in a joint statement on 21 September, in which they denied Absa had threatened to withdraw sponsorship or suggested quotas be instituted in the Currie Cup. Hoskins was quoted as saying, “SA Rugby confirms that at no time did Absa threaten to withdraw sponsorship money or suggested that quotas be instituted or was in any way prescriptive about the composition of the teams,” Hoskins was quoted as saying. “Quotas no longer apply to the Currie Cup competition, however, it is expected of each province to take serious cognisance of the issue of representivity(sic) of players on the field of play, to support our broader transformation objectives.”
However, a letter that Hoskins allegedly sent to the provincial unions would beg otherwise. In it, the Saru boss urged the unions to give cognisance to the fact that the tournament’s main sponsor was unhappy with representation in the Currie Cup matches. According to keo.co.za, the letter states, “Up until now I have only had politicians complaining about the lack of black representivity(sic) on the field of play,’ wrote Hoskins. “This time, and for the first time, I have heard from the sponsor of the Currie Cup competition itself about the serious lack of commitment towards transformation.” Hoskins urged the provinces to speak to all concerned, before it impacted negatively on them.
Although AfriForum was criticised for launching its “Stop Absa quotas” campaign prematurely, it seems as if it wasn’t very far off in its fears. Van Zeuner’s SMS got a reaction out of Saru’s boss. Hoskins couldn’t but be aware that he was getting this SMS from the deputy CEO of the Currie Cup’s main sponsor.
The Daily Maverick spoke to AfriForum executive director Kallie Kriel, who said that even though Van Zeuner’s SMS did not directly mention the q-word, that is exactly what he meant to say. “The fact is that they are demanding that racial criteria should be used to team selection,” Kriel said. “AfriForum would like to see a strong drive to create facilities in rural areas and townships. Coaches should be trained and brought into these areas to drive development.”
AfriForum views government as being the main culprit in the inertia of rugby development. Kriel said that Absa was barking up the wrong tree, and pressure should be applied on government, which is ideally positioned at the municipal and local level to drive rugby development.
“What we want is to see input-based development, rather than output-based quota systems,” Kriel said. “We want bottom-up development, rather than top-down imposition.”
Andy Colquhoun, Saru’s strategic communications manager, said to The Daily Maverick that there are no quota systems currently in place at any level of the game. He said all the provincial unions had ownership of Saru’s Transformation Charter, which prescribes equitable access to infrastructure and the development and extension of skills capability base “at all levels”.
The Charter does also say that it seeks to ensure “that the demographic profiles of all rugby’s structures in all areas and levels approach applicable local, regional and national population and rugby playing demographic profiles.”
There is the little matter, raised by AfriForum in its press statement that has remained completely unanswered by Absa. “Absa, as a sponsor of Bafana Bafana, did not object when Bafana participated in the Fifa World Cup with only black players, but, as a rugby sponsor, is trying to be prescriptive about the racial composition of rugby teams,” the organisation said. Indeed, is there an assumption that in sports where blacks are poorly represented, it’s because of entry barriers, whereas if the opposite is observed, the assumption is that it’s because whites are simply disinterested?
The provincial unions have apparently not been shaken by Van Zeuner’s SMS as Hoskins was. The top five sides fielded a total of 12 black players on the weekend of 11 September, and 11 on the weekend of 17 September. If they were to panic, and start introducing underdeveloped black players at the Currie Cup level to satisfy political imperatives, it could have seriously negative ramifications for the players themselves. The whispers in the corridors are that the injuries that plague Chiliboy Ralapele are a result of him being rushed to the top-level game before he was ready.
Breyton Paulse, a former Springbok wing, told Sport24 that South Africa had moved beyond quotas. “It’s not good when things are forced. Quotas are out as far as I’m concerned. We have progressed well beyond that point. Coaches should create opportunities for players that show potential,” he said.
May that be the last word on this tired and rather pointless debate. DM