Quotas are necessary until everyone has opportunities to show their worth

Cape Town - One of the highlights for me about watching cricket at Newlands last Saturday, day 3 of the Test match between South Africa and Pakistan, had nothing to do with what was happening on the field of play.

It involved injured Proteas fast bowler Lungi Ngidi, who was mobbed by young boys, probably between 10 and 12 years old, as he walked past the north stand, where we were sitting. He patiently signed their cricket bats, books and T-shirts, and took selfies with them, while a burly security guard was desperately trying to get him to move on.

I am not sure who the security guard was more concerned about, Ngidi or the boys, because they all seemed to be enjoying themselves.

I thought about this as I read the articles this week about Springbok rugby captain Siya Kolisi’s reported comments about transformation.

Replying to a question from a Japanese journalist, Kolisi is reported to have said that Nelson Mandela would not have supported transformation quotas in sport.

Kolisi said that he would not want to be picked for the Springbok team because of his skin colour. “Surely, that would not be good for the team.”

He reportedly said that transformation should start at grass-roots level in township schools.

“Imagine if I did not go to an English school. I wouldn’t have been eating properly, I wouldn’t have grown properly, and I wouldn’t have had the preparation that the other boys did.”

While Kolisi should never have presumed to have an insight into the mind of the late Nelson Mandela, his comments about transformation are important and reflect what black sports people in South Africa have to deal with on a daily basis.

I doubt whether the media would have asked Proteas captain Faf du Plessis, or any other prominent white sportsman, what Mandela thought about transformation quotas.

But often, when many white sports lovers see black players who excel, they only see quota appointees. Black players often have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as their white counterparts.

This is why the scene that played out in front of me, involving Ngidi and the little boys, was so special. Ngidi is black. Most of the boys were white. They were not idolising a quota player. They were idolising a good player, one of South Africa’s cricketers of the year for 2018.

But the reality is that Ngidi and many other talented individuals like him might not have received the opportunities to excel if the cricket bosses had not imposed quotas on the Proteas selectors.

I thought about the Ngidi scene also when I saw the pictures on social media of white and black children being separated at a primary school in Schweizer-Reneke.

The teachers of those children are probably among the people who oppose quotas in sport, but they don’t realise that their actions are perpetuating the need for quotas.

No one can dispute the need to transform South African society - at all levels and in all areas - from one in which whites had access to opportunities denied to blacks. Transforming society requires us to create opportunities for blacks, sometimes to the detriment of whites who are used to having such opportunities.

The denial of opportunities starts when children are young. It starts off with seating children in the same class at different tables.

As we celebrate 25 years of democracy this year, we need to remember that we come from a divided past. It is in the interests of all South Africans for more people in our society to have access to opportunities, whether this is in sport, business or arts and culture.

Those who oppose quotas talk about choosing teams on merit, but before you can do this you must create an environment in which everyone will have opportunities to show their worth. This is the role of quotas, nothing more, nothing less.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 12 January 2019)