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The Darkside of Quota-based Selection
In sports such as cricket and rugby, traditionally white sports in South Africa, the quota system has been introduced in an effort to introduce black players to both sports. While this may seem like a positive more this quota system has another side to it.
The tentacles of Apartheid had a far reaching impact on all facets of every day life including on the sports field. White players refused to play for national teams, and nation teams were excluded from international competitions because of the policy. Nineteen ninety four saw the abolishment of the apartheid regime and the beginning of a new era for the South African nation. The subsequent thirteen years have been a period of transformation with an emphasis on reconciling a divided society.
A part of the transformation taking place in South Africa also includes the sport arena where ensuring the inclusion of players from black backgrounds has been high on the government agenda. In general this has been done by the implementation of a quota system where the playing squad must have a fixed number of black players in the playing squad. The number of black players varies from sport to sport.
Cricket and rugby, sports where South Africa have traditionally been very strong, have been affected by the quotas. Whereas South African soccer has been dominated by black players, white players remained dominate in both cricket and rugby. The initiation of the quotas has seen the introduction of new, black players into the national teams of both codes. While the introduction of black player into a traditionally white game is a good development, there is also a dark side to the quota system implemented.
A classic example of the failure of the quota-based system is that of current England batsman Kevin Pietersen. As promising cricketer in his early twenties he was dropped from the Natal team for what he describes as political reasons. In his autobiography, Crossing the Boundary, Pietersen puts it very succinctly: "I was dropped because of the quota system that had been brought into South African cricket to positively discriminate in favour of players of colour". As a result South Africa lost one of the biggest batting talents in world cricket to England.
Pietersen was also highly critical of the appointment of Ashwell Prince as captain of the national cricket team after captain Graeme Smith was injured. The criticism had nothing to do with the colour of his skin but was due to the fact that "better players are being left out for political reasons." Former cricket and legend Jonty Rhodes agrees. His assessment of the recent world cup efforts that they were pathetic, but that South Africa were the 'only team who didn't pick their best players" due to the quota system enforcing the inclusion of black players who did not really merit selection. Pietersen sums it up beautifully: "To me, every single person in this world needs to be treated exactly the same and that should have included me".
While cricket has apparently learnt from its mistakes, abandoning quota-based selection for a selection based entirely on merit in 2000, Rugby Union is still has issues with quota-based selection. A recent example is the intervention by South African Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins in squad selection process to ensure the inclusion of a white player Luke Watson. Watson, son of a famous anti-apartheid activist (Cheeky Watson), should be considered a black player and given selection preference according to South African politicians. This is an interesting decision considering Watson is not black, and that many coaches and critics in South Africa ranked him below a number of other players playing in a similar position. This kind of intervention by management, behind the backs of coaching and selection staff, weakens the position of merit-based selection.
Recently came the statement from the South African government that will ban the Springboks from attending the World Cup unless coach Jake White selects an acceptable number of black players in his squad. In addition there is a push for a black coach and a minimum of ten black players in the squad after the world cup. While this may seem like a positive move it does appear to be heavy handed. Former Australian international winger Jim Boyce agrees stating that you want to encourage black players but at the end of the day you should be selecting your best side regardless of colour. According to Boyce "there should be a natural progression (of black players) if possible." Lloyd McDermott, the first Aborigine to play for Australia is a guarded supporter of transformation. His main concern is that the process needs to be fine-tuned and that "if they are not up to it (black players), it can do more damage to black athletes."
There is no doubt that rules need to be put into place in order to start the ball of racial change rolling. However, with the implementation of the quota system South Africa has missed the boat. The system puts too little emphasis on selection based upon merit. As a result it runs the risk of becoming a scapegoat for players, and indeed coaches, who miss selection or are dropped from teams. Players of colour who make selection also need to make good their selection so as to prove that they were worthy of selection. Moreover with the introduction of the quota system the emphasis again switches to racial division rather than racial unity, where selection is based on a fair system where skills influence selection. A selection based purely on merit where white, black or skin of any colour makes no difference to selection chances. Lastly, giving one player a selection berth above another simply based upon the colour of his skin is not going to heal the racial divide that still plagues South Africa some seventeen years after the official end to the atrocity that was apartheid.