JOHANNESBURG – South Africa start a home series against England on the weekend with a new coach, new captain and old questions about not doing enough to address the politically sensitive issue of the racial composition of the team.
Former President Nelson Mandela helped turn the Springboks – once the sporting symbols of the white-minority apartheid regime – into models of racial reconciliation when South Africa hosted, and won, the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Since then, the governing body of South African rugby has made the transformation of the racial composition of its teams a top priority but the overwhelming majority of the Springbok squad new coach Heyneke Meyer named for the England series is white.
His predecessor, Peter de Villiers, said it should not be this way.
“There are more black players who are capable of playing for South Africa than most people think,” former Springbok coach De Villiers said in a book released in the past few weeks.
“But before then, many talented young players have fallen through the cracks in the system.”
South Africans often speak of a racial divide in sports, with whites playing rugby and blacks playing soccer. But that breaks down in the southern part of the country where blacks have played rugby for decades and outnumber whites in organised rugby by more than a five to one margin.
Black players from the region face numerous hurdles in climbing the ranks due to a lack of sponsorship for black-majority clubs, white coaches who favour white players and resistance from upper levels of rugby for putting blacks on the field, critics said.
The South African Rugby Union (SARU) has spent heavily to promote the game among the black majority and develop talent. While critics acknowledge progress has been made, they add institutional racism is holding back talented black players who could boost the overall level of play in the country.
SARU officials were not immediately available for comment.
At the level of the Springboks, about 70 to 80 percent of its members of the past several years have been white. The team has won two World Cups and been ranked consistently as one of the strongest international sides.
At junior levels, the percentage of non-whites is higher, with the under-21 team winning two world titles and under-19s also taking two.
Blacks make up about 80 percent of the population and whites nearly 10 percent.
De Villiers, the first black head coach for the Springboks, said a few rugby officials were angry when he placed nine black players among the starting 15 when he coached South Africa for the under 21 championships in 2005. That team won the world title, silencing his critics.
His Springbok team for last year’s World Cup was mostly white, with De Villiers saying there were not enough blacks who had risen to be in the talent pool for World Cup rugby.
As with many issues that touch on race in the country still scarred by apartheid, the debate about transformation in rugby has been political.
Gwede Mantashe, a former rugby player and now secretary general of the ruling African National Congress, said De Villiers was too timid and SARU too slow in pushing transformation.
“There is progress in terms of the coloured composition. But it is not enough. There is not a shortage of talent. There is not a shortage of skill,” he told Reuters in a recent interview.
A coach for one of the top black rugby teams in the Eastern Cape province has called for establishing quotas, which he feels will make upper level teams stronger.
“This is about merit. There are blacks as talented or more talented as any white, but they are not given a chance,” said Bantwini Matika.