This House supports racial quotas in South African rugby

Even following the collapse of white minority rule, South Africa is still a country with many racial divides in society. Sport is no exception.

Rugby union[1] was, and still is, a sport associated with white groups, particularly Afrikaans speakers, in South Africa. Before fully democratic rule in 1994, the national team, the Springboks[2], were considered poster boys for apartheid. They were met with opposition after the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement between Commonwealth nations, which signalled the strong support for a sporting boycott of South Africa. South Africa did not compete in a Rugby World Cup until the 1995 tournament, held in South Africa shortly after the end of apartheid. The home team famously won, but the abiding image of the final was Nelson Mandela, political prisoner turned President, presenting the William Webb Ellis trophy to captain Francois Pienaar.

Despite the increase in non-white participation (the national team only contained one non-white player in 1995, Chester Arthur, but there were nine non-white players in the national first team for two major matches in 2013[3]), even after the end of apartheid, rugby union is a sport largely comprised of the white minority, in particular Afrikaans speakers. While South Africa is one of the most competitive nations in international rugby, the sport is not the most popular in the country (that is football). Rugby union has been seen as, to some extent, a sport for social “elites” in many, but not all of the countries it has been played.

Effective for the 2014 season, the South African Rugby Union has created a system of racial quotas in the third tier Vodacom Cup competition (below the Super Rugby competition run with Australia and New Zealand, and the Currie Cup, the flagship domestic competition[4]). Each side, which represents all or part of a South African province (except for a Kenyan team), will have to have a minimum number of black players: seven in each match-day 22 player squad, two of which forwards, five of which in the starting fifteen[5]. No penalties for violation of these quotas have been outlined by SARU.

No such quota system is used for the national team, or the Currie Cup and Super Rugby. A quota system was introduced in 1999, but dropped in 2004[6]. In South Africa, Cricket (another sport historically far more popular in white communities) has used quotas too, with the domestic professional franchises required to field one black player with cash bonuses available for those who play more than one[7].

AfriForum, an organization linked to the largely white Afrikaans speaking trade union Solidariteit, has criticized the measure and has suggested it might be against the rules of the world governing body[8], the International Rugby Board, whose by-law 3 prohibits racial discrimination[9].

[1] All references to “rugby” in this debate refer to the union form of the sport, which is more popular worldwide and in South Africa. There is another form of the sport, rugby league, which has popularity primarily in Australia, parts of England and New Zealand, which arose from a division in the sport in 1895, which has a number of key differences in its rules. The author had tried to phrase this debate in terms that don’t require much, if any, knowledge of the rules of rugby.

[2] “Springboks” was the typical nickname for South African sports teams, after the animal that was a national symbol of the country under white minority rule. Following the transition to democratic government, most sports teams have dropped it

[3] Asrons, Ed, ‘South Africa bring back racial quotas for teams’, The Independent, 14 August 2013,

[4] The Vodacom Cup runs during the same dates as Super Rugby. The Currie Cup runs after the Super Rugby season, featuring players that have been involved in Super Rugby, but not those called up to the national team.

[5] Ray, Craig, ‘Saru confirms new racial quota system’, Business Day, 15 August 2013,

[6] Sky Sports, ‘South African rugby to reintroduce race quotas next season’, 14 August 2013,

[7] Njanji, Susan, ‘Tackling race issues in qhite dominated cricket, rugby’, Mail & Guardian, 29 October 2013,

[8], ‘Saru quotas ‘breach IRP rules’’, 3 December 2013,

[9] IRB, ‘International Rugby Board Handbook’, 1 December 2013, By-Law 3.


Radical action needed for racial equality in South Africa

It is plain for all to see how unrepresentative rugby union in South Africa is. While there is not necessarily a deliberate policy of racism, it is very easy for biases to creep in. Across the division where the quotas will come in only about 6% of players are black, a number that should increase to 33%.[1] Quotas could help concentrate the mind to ensure that the best team is picked.

At grass roots level, there have been some cases of flat-out racial abuse of non-white players, including using racial terms that are particularly offensive in a South African context.

[1] Peacock, James, ‘Peter de Villiers says racial quotas are ‘waste of time’, BBC Sport, 15 August 2013,


Even if action is needed to create racial equality, are quotas the solution? There is no doubt that rugby is a sport where South Africa could be stronger if it was popular in all racial groups, but they are a blunt instrument: the way to pick the best team is to simply pick the best team. Racial equality comes when no one is picked as a result of race whether that is through negative or positive discrimination.

Broadening participation

The talent pool in South African rugby is not as racially diverse as one would expect from the “Rainbow Nation” – some commentators have argued that England and France produce more top level black players than South Africa[1]. This is because top level players are a result of development from the grassroots up.

Targets or quotas could not only improve the talent pool of today, but could broaden it for the future. A new generation of youth across all races in South Africa would be able to see that rugby union is a sport that accepts people from their backgrounds, making them more likely to participate in rugby union, either as players, coaches, referees or as a general part of the rugby fraternity.

[1] Blackwell, James, ‘South African Rugby Quotas – Right or Wrong?’, Sporting Mad, 16 September 2013,


Changing the demographics on the field will not be likely to change the demographics in the stands. Economic equality is still an issue – which means the change that is needed are changes in matters such as ticket prices, in order to bring in a broader base of spectators.

The way to broaden the talent pool is through policies to make it larger, not to distribute positions within it. In other words, what’s needed is resources, and a commitment to take the game in to communities where it is not so popular currently – the best players will rise to the top no matter their ethnicity.

Most South Africans support quotas

In 2006, the South African Social Attitudes Survey revealed that most South Africans (56%) support a quota system[1]. This support remained roughly the same over a four year period. Sport should reflect the will of the population of the country, if the population wants quotas then there should be quotas. There is particularly strong support from quotas among black people (63%) implying they feel that something needs to be done in order to let them into the sport. Doing nothing will simply ensure the status quo with very few non-white rugby players remains indefinitely.

[1] Struwig, Jare, and Roberts, Ben, ‘The numbers game Public support for sports quotas’, South African Social Attitudes Survey, p.13,


2006 was a while ago, at a time when quotas were in force. Even so, popular support does not mean that something is a good idea. Sport should be distanced from the popular will. Most rugby fans are white, a group that had in the survey only 14% of people in favour of a quotas. Among the people that might be considered the electorate of the sport, the fans, quotas are not wanted


It is a value of sport in general that it should be outside the sphere of social ills like racial, religious and political tensions. Sport should be based on merit only; those who play best get onto the team.

Racial quotas will lead to any non-white player in a team in a competition where quotas are being employed to being under a suspicion that they are not good enough and were only selected due to their race. As Peter de Villiers, the first black coach of the Springboks, says “Everybody will believe that these players will be picked because people are looking out for them.”[1] The result could be more racial abuse of players, not less.

[1] Peacock, James, ‘Peter de Villiers says racial quotas are ‘waste of time’, BBC Sport, 15 August 2013,


In a society where race affects everything, can there ever be such a thing as a legitimate meritocracy? Not everyone will get the same opportunities in life. You cannot pretend factors are not there when they are. Positive discrimination such as racial quotas helps to counter act some of these factors that are weighed heavily against non-whites in playing rugby helping to create a much truer meritocracy.

IRB rules

Racial quotas are a breach of the views of the world governing body of Rugby Union, the International Rugby Board[1]. If this were found to be the case then it would have a large negative impact on South African rugby.

An IRB intervention would lead to at least interference by the governing body, which would be highly embarrassing for the SARU (as well as difficult for a sport which has had major political rows before), or even worse, some form of sanction or expulsion – things that could lead to long term instability in the sport, which should be avoided.

[1], ‘Saru quotas ‘breach IRP rules’’, 3 December 2013,


The IRB did not take action against the previous system of quotas: why would they be likely to take action against a new system?

Also, there is a clear difference between the sort of racial discrimination that occurred in the sport during the apartheid era, and affirmative action policies. Positive discrimination does not prevent anyone from having a chance at playing; it simply gives those who are less fortunate a leg up.

Quotas can drive players away.

Policies of racial quotas can have the effect of driving players abroad. Such policies have had similar affects in cricket. Kevin Pietersen stated that racial quotas in domestic competition, requiring four non-white players per team, were a key reason for his decision to leave South Africa and move to England. Eligible due to playing in England for four years and an English parent, he successfully had an England career. In rugby union, Brian Mujati left South Africa to play in England as he did not want to be selected to fill a racial quota[1].

[1] Foy, Chris, ‘Last orders at the bar for master brewer – prop Mujati calls time on Saints career’, MailOnline, 19 April 2013,


Kevin Pietersen isn’t anything too unusual: English sporting teams have always had a number of South African and New Zealand rejects. It is natural for players to move to where they think they will be most likely to have the best prospects.

Racial quotas don’t develop new players

The quota system could lead to moving players from the regional teams who generally have less non-white players pilfering them from other unions, rather “Home growing” them[1].

Former Springboks coach Peter de Villiers, the first non-white person in that role, has described quotas as a “waste of time[2]”.

Depending on the exact phraseology of the rules, this could even allow black players from outside South Africa (from, for example, England) to be used to fill the quota.

[1] McGregor, Liz, ‘New Year, new model for SA Rugby? Here’s hoping’, Books Live, 30 December 2013,

[2] Peacock, James, ‘Peter de Villiers says racial quotas are ‘waste of time’, BBC Sport, 15 August 2013,


Even if it doesn’t increase the numbers at the grass roots and youth levels, it will create more players who can be selected by the provinces for Currie Cup competition. This, in turn, could give more non-white players the development and the experience they need to make it in to the national team.


Asrons, Ed, ‘South Africa bring back racial quotas for teams’, The Independent, 14 August 2013,

Blackwell, James, ‘South African Rugby Quotas – Right or Wrong?’, Sporting Mad, 16 September 2013,

Foy, Chris, ‘Last orders at the bar for master brewer – prop Mujati calls time on Saints career’, MailOnline, 19 April 2013,

IRB, ‘International Rugby Board Handbook’, 1 December 2013, By-Law 3.

McGregor, Liz, ‘New Year, new model for SA Rugby? Here’s hoping’, Books Live, 30 December 2013,

Njanji, Susan, ‘Tackling race issues in white dominated cricket, rugby’, Mail & Guardian, 29 October 2013,

Peacock, James, ‘Peter de Villiers says racial quotas are ‘waste of time’, BBC Sport, 15 August 2013,

Ray, Craig, ‘Saru confirms new racial quota system’, Business Day, 15 August 2013,, ‘Saru quotas ‘breach IRP rules’’, 3 December 2013,

Sky Sports, ‘South African rugby to reintroduce race quotas next season’, 14 August 2013,

Struwig, Jare, and Roberts, Ben, ‘The numbers game Public support for sports quotas’, South African Social Attitudes Survey, p.13,