– South Africa is a society replete with ‘quota players’, just check your industry and you will hear apartheid benefactors talking about you as a ‘quota player’ –
Rosa Parks the black American civil rights leader who became famous for refusing to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus, which spurred on the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott that helped launch nationwide efforts to end segregation of public facilities, responded to this demand with the words “… my feets [sic] are tired…”
In the aftermath of Ashwin Willemse, former SA player and now Supersport rugby analyst sharing his views before he left the studio in full view and with the explicit intent of showing his disgust, as always South Africa is a flood with views and the social media runs wild articulating the binaries of black and white commentary. In a sense, Willemse emulated what American Rosa Parks stood for. We not sure if his revolt against a system of white rugby dictate will ever birth a true boycott that may realize true transformation.
I am not sure why we are all attempting to take refuge in a claimed Supersport investigation which apparently would give us all the facts which we are told will explain what happened on Saturday. As in the case of Parks, all we have are the words of Ashwin Willemse on the night in question.
Perhaps we should look at this and attempt to hear him. Willemse’s two statements cut through the reality of our endemic SA problem, a problem understood and stubbornly anchored in the demon of race. If we know of Parks today it’s for the massive bus revolt birthed and less for her grammatical error of the word feet. I wish to postulate we may just remember Willemse less for the brilliant and deserving wing he was, nor for his analysis often in broken English equal to his colleague Naas Botha, neither for the fact that he has made the Dean’s list to be a Masters student. A mean feat for someone from the backstreets of a Caledon apartheid Coloured Township that duped him into gangsterism. Willemse’s biggest contribution to rugby may just have been what he said on Saturday night.
Let us then hear Willemse in his own words: “I’ve played this game for a long time, like all of us here, you know. And as a player I was labeled a quota player for a long time … and I’ve worked hard to earn my own respect in this game.”
Willemse dovetailed this with: ‘I’m not going to be patronized by two individuals that have played in apartheid, segregated era and come and want to undermine’.
These two statements summarise the entire heart of the current public discourse in the divide. Depending on how apartheid race labels for an identity defines one, one is likely to either embrace, identify, concur or reject one of the two.
The ‘quota system’ phenomenon in rugby is often the manifestation of forced transformation in a space where transformation is not welcomed. Spaces that claim those who earn their places in either club or national colors do so purely by merit. In an ideal world, the assumption can be made that merit informs the choice of players in a squad representing a club or country. However South Africa is not a normal society, we had a saying years ago in SACOS, ‘no normal sport in an abnormal society’. The abnormality of society evidences a truculence to engage the apartheid bastions of race that have hitherto proven stubborn to let go.
Willemse’s emphatic claim that he has worked hard to earn his respect in the game of rugby is not a solitary one or exclusive to rugby, He made it clear his earning of that status is no different to his colleagues though in different epochs. He, therefore, wants to free not just himself but every black player that is necklaced with this label of being ‘quota player’ an identity that again is exacted by those who have always deemed it their right to decide and determine for those they have denied a common equal humanity. Thus, Willemse’s statement is, therefore, a cry for rightful recognition and a legacy devoid of the frame of being a quota player. It cannot be seen as a solitary moment but stands within a larger canvas of observations, personal experiences, and his personal journey.
He is supported by among others Thando Manana who in a radio interview shared similar sentiments being part of SA rugby, who argues it is time for a change. One may easily deduct that the experience is the same for an aggregate group of players of black designation, from the days of Errol Tobias, that over time joined the ranks of SA Rugby and more so in draping a Springbok emblem.
Yet, being cited as a ‘quota player’ is not exclusively limited to rugby, the South African corporate sector is replete with quota, senior executives and business players. The SA media world has its fair share of quota editors and journalists, the apartheid designed academic world that still holds sway of the essence of what makes for curriculum, study material and a professorship in democracy has its own share of quota player academics. The judiciary of SA has its own quota player portion and so we can go on. The reality is apartheid had at its core the flawed belief in a superior race of white identity not exclusively limited to the sport but permeating everything that defines societal life spaces where ordinary people attempts a meaningful life.
Willemse’s revolt is really a cry I to be unshackled from the burden of being tagged a quota player, he in proverbial sense of the Mary-Mary song with a controlled demeanor said, “Take the shackles off my feet so I can dance”. He told South Africa and the rugby world, I am no quota player if you who deem me one finds it repulsive for yourself. This is a cry to claim his rightful legacy no different to his fellow analysts in the studio, an equal humanity. This is a common burden of many who in transformation were extended opportunity to participate, learn, grow and ultimately show their mettle. This is not new since we who have always followed rugby and love the sport from childhood days from the seventies know the apartheid rugby teams were empowered players in every facet of the word, hardly an all star-studded player group as if told in a sanitised sense of the history of a definition of SA Springbok rugby teams. Truth be told they were the first to be empowered and had no problem with that empowerment because it was ringfenced and only served the interest of that apartheid advantaged informed by skin color and pigmentation. They were firstly privileged, extended opportunity and often from a space of mediocrity but with a guaranteed space continued to improve in an understanding of the game the same everyone if afforded should show after a while.
Willemse helps us to appreciate problematic and I conviction that informs white thinking on transformation. Transformation is never a welcomed reality, change is always demanded and it is considered discomforting for those who have always benefitted from the status quo. There are those who call for merits as if all players whoever made it into the SA Rugby Teams in what is called “Springboks” did so on pure merit. This is wishful thinking and a blatant lie. They therefore with the advent of a changed political dispensation that necessitated a new society and demanded transformation labeled every black player that made the cut a ‘quota player’. Transformation the necessary instrument and true means for equality are distorted and conveniently understood in the denigrated botched identity of a final product known as ‘quota player’, what an indictment.
Those who are at pains to accord others the designation of quota players often draws a direct correlation between the performance of the team and the presence of those they believe are not elected on merit but informed by the demands of quota systems. They do so without even realizing what they say, Botha about three years ago was talking about the golden era of rugby which refers to a pre-1994 epoch. It is clear there not many in the white world of SA rugby thinking that have regard for the post-1994 era because it remains the team that saw quota players.
When Willemse says he has worked hard to earn his place in this game, he does so because he knows the epithet of a ‘quota player’ came to define the black player in the National Rugby team. The problem with this deduction of what makes for quota player is the again the aspect of race. Willemse’s cry is not a solitary one, but one that many shares.
Unfortunately, rugby seeks to remain white for the wrong reasons, rugby resists all and any means for it wants to continue purporting the enclave of white thinking. Rugby though for public relations stints considered a South African society sport, has exclusively remained the control of a white identity that same identity that predetermined itself as merit players and those who came by way of democratic South Africa as mere quota players. Being a quota player therefore is and remains an albatross and insult if seen through the lens of those who control rugby, the merit claim and afford themselves the inalienable right to know rugby.
South African rugby then attests a microcosm and true reflection of the democratic society, it is as if rugby was discussed at CODESA and apartheid’s beneficiaries negotiated its right to remain the self-appointed custodians of a sport many of us from the Cape have played.
Willemse’s second statement irked the daylights of many apartheid beneficiaries who self-identify in white as the reference to two rugby players that played in the apartheid era. The aggregate comments from whites on this statement depicts a race informed group angered to always be reminded of apartheid. Particularly in a season when Afri-Forum’s Kallie Kriel is in business sanitizing our collective experience of apartheid. When Willemse, therefore, tags Mallet and Botha as apartheid rugby era players, he is not deceptive, they are from that era, it is a fact. They are from a time when South African rugby for the better part was entertaining rebel-teams, begging the world to come and play against it and was considered a pariah state.
Willemse then out of that claim of equal rights space in retributive sense response to those who label others quota players f, those who bask in the sunshine of knowing rugby in superiority. He reminds them you are from the apartheid era. He, therefore, spits on what they consider the holy grail since he says the opposite of what they have come to believe that era stood for. When they look at the pre- 1994 era they see the glory days of Springbok rugby, how dare Willemse, therefore, have the audacity to tell them they were not the best, when that era was in their minds remains the best of all? This response earned him the ire of the white rugby supporters and he is castigated in many ways for being defiant, arrogant and therefore they will now remind him of his gangster past, his challenging life he was raised in Caledon and his challenge with English in a public space context. They will drag him to the altar of ultimate sacrifice and say he is incompetent slothful and corrupt, for when white thinking wants to tell you what they really think of a’ quota player’ be it in rugby, academics, politics, business corporates executive society or anywhere, they eventually will tell you incompetent and corrupt.
In the end, Willemse forces us to engage the label quota player, if you opined because you thought what happened on Saturday night was about rugby exclusively, you have failed to the draw links, because if you look closer you will see your work, business, academic, media, executive space, that had branded you a quota player. For as long as you silent when they make the jokes, for as long as you feel special in white thinking’s company you must stay that – God forbid the day you say like Parks and Willemse … my feets [sic] are tired. That is the day they will come for you and obliterate you. For as long as you remain a quota player and don’t revolt you will accuse Willemse of indolence and attention seeking what till you really get tired and we may have to write about you.