MAX BENSON and MURRAY INGRAM, from the Cape Town-based Connect Sports Academy that deals with the reality of developing underprivileged rugby players on a daily basis, tackle the subject of whether the quota system still has a place in South African rugby in 2019.
South Africa’s transformation debate leaves two sides arguing with each other, especially when it comes to rugby. Springbok captain Siya Kolisi’s recent comments on quotas are perfectly understandable. More important is his belief that change must come from the grassroots level.
Springboks, past and present, have benefited from quotas, as have the young rugby players at Connect Sports Academy. It’s a fact that’s far from ideal, but we must reach beyond two entrenched sides of an argument that is less about South African rugby than it is about South African society.
Several of our school-age athletes have been capped at provincial level and went on to win national honours over the past two years. The work they have put in, the knowledge they have acquired, as well as their commitment to our programme, have allowed them to reach that level of performance – and it all started, as Siya Kolisi rightly said it must, at grassroots level.
Would they have broken through their biggest barrier yet and starred on the national stage without the implementation of quotas, however? In many cases, we believe not. That situation cannot be allowed to detract from their achievements, nor should it taint their sense of belonging. Transformation begins at the grassroots, but sporting and social ambitions should never be limited by that humble, inconsistent and neglected starting point.
We recognise Kolisi’s comments in a recent interview with a Japanese news publication, where he suggested quotas can lead to question marks about the merits of an athlete among their peers and in their own minds. However, why do we have such a societal closed-mindedness on the subject? It can’t be a subject that continues to be paid little more than lip-service by governing bodies, unions and international broadcasters. We must change the perception of what quotas are for – and why we need them.
Coaches and sports fans are human, and we usually tread a path of least resistance, preferring to trust what’s familiar to us. The historical domination of South African rugby at elite level by white men, both Afrikaans and English-speaking, has left a mental and institutional block that is more than a racial barrier – it directly inhibits overall progress at the highest levels of the domestic and international game.
When we as white people feel so threatened by transformation and interpret it to mean that things are being taken away from us, we lose sight of the fact that this is about creating fair opportunities for people previously – and still denied them – because of the colour of their skin.
Most of the issues our young people have faced, however, have been a product of institutional bias, rather than overt racial prejudice on a personal level. Our academy’s athletes have been consistently misnamed at provincial events, verbally and in writing. Their schools, as well as our academy, have been repeatedly bypassed in official communications, which has left our children missing vital trials and training sessions. Coaches have conducted large parts of contact time communicating in Afrikaans despite one or more of the young people being isiXhosa speakers and already working hard to learn English as a second language.
These snippets may not seem dramatic or particularly offensive in isolation, but place yourself in the boots of a young teenager who already feels anxious and uncertain in a completely alien environment. Imagine not understanding a new training drill and making a mess of it in front of your new teammates purely because of a language barrier. We’ve even had two boys hiding behind the car before a training session. The onus should not be on them to adapt. Quotas have become necessary because the environment has failed to evolve, directly inhibiting the participation, progress and welfare of young people across the country. We have the means to fight in our athletes’ corner while most do not.
For all its flaws, we felt our only realistic option was to continually evolve and adapt to work within the existing rugby structure. We can’t change it from the outside. 2018 was the fourth year of our academy’s rugby-focused work and it was our best yet, with seven athletes completing their first year on scholarships at leading high schools, our first Currie Cup champion and our first U16 Grant Khomo Week participant.
Our athletes have also been denied opportunities because of a shambolic, inattentive approach to development at grassroots level. The U15 Iqhawe Week competition is supposed to be a showcase for players at ‘non-traditional rugby schools’, which means almost every school in the country. Yet the farcical trial process we witnessed saw one of our athletes play one fixture in a team packed with over-age players, many of whom had seen little or no formal coaching, long after most had left the ground having arrived late. He was even listed in three separate positions on the official team sheet.
But if the clubs and schools in question don’t have the resources or facilities to deliver basic coaching, reliable transport and fundamental administration, what more can we expect? We have learned so much about the financial commitment required to take a child from zero rugby experience to the very top of the game at their age group. The money, time and emotional costs are huge – and entirely prohibitive for most South African parents.
If your child receives a congratulatory letter having made a provincial squad, expect it to be accompanied by a bill for clothing, transport, food, training camps and accommodation. Let alone having to attend up to a dozen training sessions, missing several hours of school to do so. Transformation will truly happen only once these economic and practical barriers to participation and development are taken down.
Kolisi is quite right in attributing much of his success to eating more, much more, than he was able to before securing a scholarship at Grey College in Port Elizabeth. We have provided food for our children at every single training session, fixture and outing in approaching five years of work. It is one of the reasons for us creating our own High Performance Centre, allowing us to better focus on and meet the individual needs of each athlete.
Is this a move away from grassroots development? No. Most of our current athletes remain from our first ramshackle intake on a township field several years ago. But the relationships we’ve built – and the successes our athletes have had – now mean that parents and coaches come to us to seek help. It’s a privilege to be able to provide it wherever we can. It’s also a natural progression from the grassroots and we want to take each of our players as far as we possibly can, in sport and in life.
We have bright, potentially brilliant young people coming out of our ears in South Africa. We have a national rugby side that now sings ‘Amagwijo’ before matches, and a Springbok captain that is a relatable role model to our athletes.
But can governing bodies, unions and the media truthfully say they care about transformation and what it takes to achieve it? From our corner of the country, the institutional resistance to change feels at times insurmountable. Is our academy and its work a threat to the established order? Are we a source of embarrassment to those tasked with, yet failing to engender transformation? Does the collective will to grow the game beyond the confines of the privileged few really exist?
The way our academy has worked over the past few years is entirely unsustainable. The effort required and daily challenges faced in doing this, even for just 40 or so children, on limited resources, is frightening. There are other individuals and small organisations around the country trying to make their mark using their own methods. They must be supported and allowed to flourish from the ground up, because change isn’t forthcoming from the top down.
We used to drive around the townships in a panel van with a bag of balls, running mass-participation sessions with anyone who jumped over the wall to join in. The titles, scholarships and overall development of many of those children since tell us it would be a disgrace if we stopped there, or if we limited our ambition to them being ‘off the streets’ for an hour a day.
Our off-season training was phenomenal this season, our best yet by far. This hinges on consistent access to quality resources and opportunities. It relies on understanding, compassion and humility, as well as a growing number of role models at the top of the sport.
‘There’s a bigger picture, especially for kids in the township. Now they can wake up and say: “I can be Springbok captain because he’s done it”,’ Kolisi said of his status in the interview.
As stakeholders, we should all commit to bridging that chasm between disadvantaged young people, and not just elite sport, but the professional adult world. We’ve chosen to do it one athlete at a time and we can’t wait for the day when their successes, as well as the achievements of those that blaze a trail before them, help to transform South African rugby for good.