Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Should SA scrap racial quotas in sport? The issue has arisen again following rugby pundit Ashwin Willemse’s falling out with fellow SuperSport panellists on live television.

The precise circumstances of the spat are opaque. Although SuperSport has subsequently claimed there was no racism involved, Willemse has implied that he was described as a "quota player", or at least treated as such.

In the broadest sense, there is no satisfactory answer to this difficult question. Most South Africans want teams that reflect the country’s demographics, because that would be fair and just. On the other hand, they want people to be chosen on merit, because that would be fair and just too. Between these poles lies a mass of problems, contradictions, justifications and face-saving devices.

Both of these goals are difficult to ascertain. To take one example, some players are slow to develop and need administrators to provide them with the space to hone their skills. They are essentially being chosen on their potential merit. How does that factor into the quota issue? The short answer is, with difficulty.

What is becoming clear, however, is that black players in historically 'white' sports hate quotas, and for good reason

There are also contradictory motivations for different actors. Political actors feel they may be vulnerable in the political sphere if teams are racially skewed, particularly towards white players. Hence, they have a big incentive to make insistent demands on sports administrators since the risk of demanding specific racial quotas is less risky for them than the team underperforming.

The fact that a team has quota requirements does not necessarily mean it is more likely to underperform, but since politicians are not directly accountable for team performance, the balance of incentives lies with requiring hard-line quotas, which will demonstrate they are making tough demands that they think will satisfy their political constituency.

The people accountable for team performance are the sports administrators and they are under enormous pressure to produce teams that will win.

The difficulty for them is that their ability to nurture players of any race is always going to be a tricky task. If they try to nurture a black player in a sport like rugby that has a traditional minority following, and the player fails, it may seem that quotas are the problem and the player failed because he or she was a "quota player". For nonquota players, they fail simply because they fail. For administrators, the balance of incentives lies, ironically, in sticking with the status quo as much as possible.

What is becoming clear, however, is that black players in historically "white" sports hate quotas, and for good reason. They never know whether they are in the team based on the need to achieve a quota or whether they were chosen despite the quota system being in place. A good example is former Springbok wing Breyton Paulse, who said in 2005 that "people should not use us as tokens. It is so discriminating. It is against our integrity."

The motivation of those in favour of quotas is theoretically unimpeachable. For many trying to break into a sport, or a business environment for that matter, where most of the existing structure is culturally different for one reason or another, it is a demanding and difficult task. The slights, innuendos and outright prejudices are relentless. Overlay on that SA’s apartheid past and the complexity becomes immense.

Is there a solution? The short answer is there is not. Politicians demand transformation, as is their right and political responsibility. Players are always going to hate quotas. And sports administrators are always going to be caught in the middle.

What could and should change is attitudes. The issue should be approached with sensitivity and respect. As in so much else, former president Nelson Mandela showed the way; donning a Springbok jersey does not mean you do not want transformation, but being in favour of transformation does not mean you should not support the team.

We are all, ultimately, individuals and that demands its own special kind of respect even as we strive for change.