Op-Ed

Op-Ed: Why Siya Kolisi's Comments on Racial Quotas Are Wrong

The Springboks captain has some fundamental misconceptions about what quotas mean

When I was in my final year of high school, my Afrikaans teacher told me that she was having trouble convincing the moderators that I had in fact attained the marks in my portfolio. At the time I didn't understand what she meant. Sure my marks were insanely high but they'd been consistently high, as with every subject I took. She told me that the doubt had been fueled because the moderators had said that "a Black child could not do so well at Afrikaans" - when their very own white Afrikaans learners were failing at their mother tongue. It was only when my distinction was withheld from me that I finally realized that I had been mistaken. I was operating from a place that asserted that academic merit was academic merit regardless of the fact that I was Black. However, they weren't.


Springboks Rugby Captain Siya Kolisi recently commented that he did not think that the late Nelson Mandela would agree quota systems used in rugby and that he wanted a better South Africa for all who live in it. Now, I'm going to explain why he's not fundamentally wrong but why he's also not right as well.


Roughly 24 years into our democracy, South Africa still has to enforce quota systems in the workplace, in sports and pretty much everywhere so that Black people can even get a foot in the door. Twenty-four years into our democracy, we're still having to force various institutions and corporate that when they're hiring competent new talent, that they don't conveniently 'forget' to consider and employ just as equally competent Black people. And so Kolisi is quite right in that regard. Nelson Mandela would not have been pleased that whilst we're still a relatively young democracy, the people for whom he fought are still facing the same barriers they did in Apartheid times.

However, to say that quota systems do more harm than good is something that must be answered two-fold. Firstly, if the understanding that Black people have of quota systems is incomplete and merely centers on them having access to opportunities solely because they are Black, it is understandable why they would feel unworthy of those very opportunities. However, and this is the second part to this two-fold answer, when one understands what structural racism is and how it operates, especially in a country such as South Africa, one can better understand what the quota systems under the umbrella of affirmative action and transformation are actually trying to do.

Remember when we were kids and played outdoors be it at school or home? Often we'd play games that required us to split into different teams or groups. There were always kids who were consistently not chosen by the other more popular or vocal kids, not because they were necessarily bad at the game that was to be played but because of arbitrary reasons such as them being different, 'weird', unpopular or simply because the other kids just wanted to exclude them from the fun.

We can use that analogy to understand how structural racism works. The more popular or vocal kids are White South Africans who although a minority, possess the majority of the country's wealth. The kids they want to be a part of their team are people who look like them, are relatable to them and people they actually like i.e. other White South Africans and perhaps the odd person here and there from other races that may benefit them somehow. And of course, all the weird and unpopular kids are Black South Africans who are then excluded from participating in the country's economy, accessing its wealth and resources, simply because they're Black. And so regardless of how brilliant and competent Black people are, how they compare to White people on all levels and may even excel far beyond them, they still can't be a part of the team because merit by itself is not enough to give them access to spaces that don't want them to begin with.

What Kolisi and so many other Black South Africans need to understand is that quota systems are not meant to be façades as is the sentiment of many white South Africans. It's not about having black faces for the sake of black faces. It's not about employing incompetent Black people for the sheer fact that quotas require we employ Black people. And whilst this is a system that can and has been abused in the past, as with any system or policy to be honest, it's about doing away with the underlying presumption that Black people aren't talented, worthwhile, valuable and competent to begin with and hence the need to continue keeping them out of spaces.

I used to think merit was enough, that simply being excellent was enough to place me on the same playing field as a White person because that's what our struggle veterans fought for and that's was our Constitution upholds. But as I learnt in my final year of high school, merit and excellence aren't enough when you're Black. Hard as it is to believe and accept, that is the sobering reality.

And so to Black South Africans who feel inadequate owing to quota systems, remember this: You're not there simply because you're Black. You're there in spite of being Black.

(Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for AFI)

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