The South African Rugby Union (SARU) said on Wednesday it is reintroducing contentious racial quotas in one of its domestic competitions next year. Teams in the Vodacom Cup will have to pick at least seven black players in their matchday squads and at least five in the starting 15.
Two of the seven black players would have to be forwards, SARU said, in a statement that effectively conceded South Africa has not made enough progress in changing a sport that was historically reserved for whites and closely connected to the apartheid regime.
SARU announced that the initiative had been passed by its decisionmaking Executive Council on Monday and discussed with South Africa’s 14 provincial teams on Tuesday.
SARU president Oregan Hoskins said it was “a critical step” in helping transformation in a country where rugby’s progress 19 years after apartheid ended is still often gauged by the racial makeup of teams.
“This decision to introduce measurable targets underlines SARU’s commitment to transformation,” Hoskins said.
Unofficial racial quotas were initially tried in rugby and cricket, once all-white sports in South Africa, following the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, but were considered a failure and caused deep discontent among some players.
SARU also said on Wednesday that it had not decided on punishments for teams that did not meet the quotas next year in the Vodacom Cup, a domestic competition below South Africa’s main Currie Cup tournament and the southern hemisphere’s three-country Super Rugby competition. That admission suggested difficulties in dealing with rugby teams that could not immediately field seven black players.
It was also unclear how SARU would classify players. SARU specifically referred to “black players” and seemingly not world-class internationals like Bryan Habana, who is considered mixed race and not black in South Africa.
No official racial quotas exist for South African Super Rugby teams or the national team, the Springboks, but it is accepted that the ’Boks will never field a team that is all white.
Still, in the Springbok team announced earlier on Wednesday for Saturday’s Test against Argentina, only one black player was included in the starting 15 and two in the matchday squad of 23. The starting player, prop Tendai Mtawarira, was born in Zimbabwe and is a naturalized South African. Five of the 23 are non-white players, however, but SARU maintained that was not enough and said the move to quotas stemmed from a meeting with government representatives last year.
SARU insisted it was a necessary step that was also, crucially, accepted by the teams.
“All the 14 provinces recognized that fact and that we needed to address it [racial transformation],” Hoskins said. “This is rugby’s tangible step on delivering on that pledge. The intended outcome is an increased pool of black talent from which Currie Cup and Super Rugby coaches can select and — in due course — more options for the Springbok coach.
“The mood of the organization is that we needed to intervene and this was coming from the provinces as well to see the graph of black player representation begin to rise,” he said.
SARU’s move was criticized later on Wednesday by the Freedom Front Plus, a political party that claims to look out for the interests of South Africa’s minority whites.
“Just as previously, it will unnecessarily again place sportspeople of color under suspicion and undermine their confidence as the stigma of a so-called quota-player will be created through this,” party spokesman Anton Alberts said in a statement, according to the South African Press Association.