Sport is a serious matter. If you have any doubts on that score, shed them now, because this is to be a South African year. The South African cricket team comes to England in the summer to play four Test matches, three one-day internationals and three Twenty20 games, and as they do so they will ask a million questions — not only about cover drives and reverse swing, but also about the way to make a society, about the way to redeem a society, about idealism versus practicality, about short-term advantage versus long-term goals and about the nature of justice.
There is an argument doing the rounds. It goes like this: South Africa should be banned from participation in international sport because of the government-level discrimination against white athletes. And while this is an obvious piece of mischief-making, it raises legitimate questions about the nature of sport. What is it for? And what’s it got to do with national and international politics?
These questions go back to the quota system, under which the South African government insists that at each level of representative sport there must be a certain number of non-white players, including a smaller number of ‘African black’ athletes. The exact specifications have varied across time and from sport to sport. In 2007 they were done away with altogether, only to be brought back.
Cricket South Africa currently insists that teams should have six non-white players, including two black Africans. The Test team already has that, including the brilliant Hashim Amla and the vastly promising Kagiso Rabada. Domestic franchise teams should offer six and three. Sports that fail to meet the quota are banned from bidding for international events, which has prompted many cries of woe from white sporty types.
The counter-argument to the quota is that sport is supposed to be the one unadulterated 100 per cent meritocracy in the world, and to sully it with selection criteria based on race is a crime against sport, natural justice and humanity. The counter-counter-argument is that during 50 years of apartheid, South African operated a quota of 11 whites, zero non-whites and zero black Africans, and it’s time to redress the balance.
The quest for sporting excellence is the first casualty of the quota system — not that anyone English has cause for complaint. England’s glorious victory in the Ashes series of 2005 was delivered after an afternoon of brilliance from Kevin Pietersen, a South African who came to England to escape the quota. Jonathan Trott and Keaton Jennings are more recent England-qualified South Africans.
Every question about South African sport goes back to that curious experiment in government called apartheid — and not the least curious part is the vivid and central part played by sport. The history of South Africa can never be told without sport and can never be understood without a grasp of sport’s power and meaning.
The policy of apartheid eventually led to South Africa’s international isolation. This was led by sport and was most conspicuously and dramatically demonstrated by sport. All sports — some with great reluctance — refused to play with apartheid South Africa, creating a hunger for international sport in that country. The country was banned from the summer Olympics from 1964 to 1988.
When Basil D’Oliveira was selected to play for England on the South African tour of 1969, he was — again with reluctance — chosen on merit. He was a South African (‘Cape Coloured’ and so ineligible for the South African team) who came to England. The South African president, B.J. Vorster, declared that his selection was based on politics rather than sporting meritocracy and refused to let him into the country. The tour was cancelled; South Africa were banned from international cricket until 1991. These years were marked by a series of unofficial ‘rebel’ cricket tours. Sport reflected these times in its usual simple and vivid terms.
The ending of the apartheid years was also acted out in sport, most vividly at the final of the 1995 Rugby Union World Cup, in which South Africa played New Zealand. Rugby is the heartland sport of the Afrikaners, but the new president Nelson Mandela declined to outlaw the game out of vindictiveness. Instead he turned up to the final wearing a Springboks shirt that bore the name of the team’s Afrikaner captain, Francois Pienaar. Was this the finest political stunt in history? Its sporting context made it unforgettable.
It was inevitable that the attempt to move on from apartheid would also be expressed in sport, and the unfair quota system is the result. The intended subtext is that it is more important to build a just society than win every sporting encounter: in short, to create fairness by way of unfairness.
All the same, it’s important to recognise that top-level athletes aren’t the products of natural talent alone. They represent the section of the population that has chances to play, to train, to be coached, to get match experience and to improve. The quota system is an attempt to take a system that was created to promote excellence among the few and turn it into one that promotes excellence universally.
But is the quota the best way to achieve this? Some bits of South African sport are growing weaker, and the quota usually gets the blame. The South Africa rugby team has gone downhill, with defeats last autumn to Wales, England and Argentina, two hammerings from New Zealand and a dangerously narrow win over Italy. The country is losing players fast: it’s reckoned that there are 350 South Africans playing professionally in Europe. They may be running away from the quota: they are certainly running towards better salaries than they could hope for at home. They are perhaps more economic migrants than political émigrés.
The one unassailable truth of South African history is that sport has immense power and meaning. Many individuals and organisations traded with South Africa during the apartheid years without finding much trouble, but sporting people who played in South Africa met ferocious criticism. This is because sport matters on a level that business can never aspire to.
Keep politics out of sport! We celebrate this maxim most piously at the Olympic Games, in which every competitor wears national colours, the national flag is raised for every medal-winner and the national anthem played for everyone who wins gold. All arguments based on sport pure and simple founder, because sport is never pure and rarely simple. This rule counts double for South Africa — and has done for more than half a century.