The South African cricket team defeated India 2-1 and 3-0 in the recently concluded Test and ODI series respectively. India were heavy favourites going into the series, being the number 1 ranked Test side in the world and having taken a 1-0 lead after a convincing win in the first test against a relatively inexperienced Proteas side. But South Africa bounced back exceptionally to win 5 games in a row to secure a historic victory on home soil.
After losing the first game, South Africa faced criticism for issues outside the field, mainly one that's frequently been a topic of contention - quotas. Since they lost to India, a country that itself has a complicated relationship with affirmative action, several Indians were quick to pin the blame on quotas. As South Africa's hopes were fading, they pulled an inspiring comeback to level and eventually win the Test series and subsequently whitewash India in the ODIs. The players whose merit was questioned for being in the team to fill a quota would ultimately go on to lead the Rainbow nation to a famous victory.
In the test series, Keegan Petersen with 272 runs was the highest run-scorer, with Temba Bavuma scoring 221 at an average of 73.66. Kagiso Rabada with 20 had the most wickets, while Lungi Ngidi took another 15. What all these players had in common apart from cricketing talent was their skin colour, and the tag of being a quota player that ensued, something that made them an easy target for critics whenever the team failed.
To understand why quotas exist in South Africa, it is essential to study the Apartheid era and the implications it had, and still has, in South Africa. In 1948, the white supremacist National Party introduced a set of new Apartheid laws that would divide the nation based on race placing white players at the top and Black players at the bottom. However, the Black majority had been exploited by the white minority in South Africa for centuries prior to Apartheid.
In 1913, the South African government made it illegal for Black people to buy land, unless they were servants of a white owner. Post-1948, hundreds of race laws were passed that would dictate every aspect of a Black South African's life, including where they would live, study and work. Only white people were given voting rights, and interracial relationships were banned. Between 1960 and 1963, 3.5 million Black people were forcibly ousted from their homes and put into segregated neighbourhoods. Countless Black South Africans were jailed and killed for peacefully protesting Apartheid laws.
Apartheid had a dictatorial impact on all facets of South Africa, and sports was not immune. In 1956, the first sports policy declared only whites could represent South Africa's national team. The Apartheid laws were so stringently racist that in 1960, New Zealand's Maori players were not allowed to play in South Africa. It was due to this rampant institutionalised racism that South Africa was banned from major sporting events such as the Olympics, Rugby, FIFA and Cricket World Cup.
After Apartheid ended in 1994, the sporting boycott was subsequently lifted. Yet the South African teams remained white. Years of socio-economic oppression under Apartheid resulted in Black players being at a disadvantage. Although Apartheid was outlawed, it survived in sports that were still predominantly white. Therefore while South Africa had been freed politically, the old guard of Apartheid remained socially and culturally dominant.
South Africa's first Black cricketer Mkhaya Ntini faced the same racism as pre-Apartheid. He recalls in an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, "I was forever lonely at the time. Nobody knocked on my door to go for dinner. Teammates used to make plans right in front of me, skipping me out. When walking into the breakfast room, nobody came to sit with me." Ntini felt so isolated being the only Black player that he would run to the ground rather than travel in the team bus. He further adds, “People never understood why I did that, I never told them what I was trying to avoid. It became my best thing, I didn’t have to face any of it.”
Ntini's teammate Ashwell Prince speaking at South Africa's Social Justice and Nation-Building Hearings said, "It was a lonely place. You can get a sense of whether people want you here or don't want you here. You saw it happening to a new player if he was white but it wasn't happening if the player wasn't white." The likes of Ntini, Amla, Duminy, Prince, and others had been tagged as the "quota players" before they could even prove themselves. Ntini became the 3rd highest wicket-taker for South Africa across all formats. Amla became the 3rd highest run-scorer across all formats. JP Duminy is the highest run-scorer in T20Is for South Africa. Prince became the first non-white cricketer to captain South Africa. All these players undoubtedly deserved to represent South Africa regardless of quotas, but without them, they probably wouldn't have.
On-field achievements did not help the players lose their off-field names. The quota insults were only the tip of the iceberg as they had to face derogatory racial slurs from the crowd and even their teammates. During the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, 30 Black former South African cricketers claimed they were victims of racism in the team, including Ntini, Adams, Prince and Duminy. In 2021, Adams described how current South African head coach Mark Boucher racially abused him. The non-white players went on to achieve great feats for South Africa despite the racism and insults, yet their legacy is reduced to a quota tag.
The quotas are frequently accused as the reason for South Africa's World Cup failures. In 2015 when South Africa lost to New Zealand in the semi-final, the blame was unanimously pointed at Vernon Philander. However, Philander was the second most economical bowler in a high scoring game. Unfortunately, Philander became the scapegoat because of the colour of his skin.
In 2007, Graeme Smith dropped Ntini in another World Cup semi-final. South Africa lost the semi-final comfortably to Australia anyway. After the game, the white players nevertheless blamed their loss on non-white players. Prince recalls standing up to the white players and saying, "Guys if I wasn't supposed to play, then tell me. Look me in the face and say I was not supposed to play. Don't say the quota system is the problem.” When things went wrong it was the quota players' fault. When things went right, the others were the heroes. As long as I played for the national team, that was not a team. We were never one." Ntini was dropped after his 100th test, without a farewell and lost his contract within a month. He adds, “Whenever we won, it was joyful but I was the first to be blamed whenever we lost.”
To blame the loss of a team on a select few individuals because of their skin colour is illogical at best and maliciously racist at worst. There have certainly been moments when non-white players have underperformed, but so have white players. Yet white players have always had immunity from being reduced to their immediate identity. South Africa may have never won a cricket world cup but quotas are hardly responsible for that. The quota was extended to six non-white players in 2016, before which South Africa was a predominantly white side. These primarily white teams failed to win the World Cup, but none of them had to face the racist overtones of questioning like Ntini, Prince and Philander.
A better method to test the merit of the quota system would be to take the example of South Africa's rugby team, also called the Springboks. In 1995, South Africa hosted and eventually won their first Rugby World Cup, and added a second World Cup in 2007. However, the teams remained largely white with just 1 and 2 black players respectively. The far-reaching aftermath of Apartheid meant Black athletes would still be underrepresented. For a country whose Black population was over 80%, the white glass ceiling in sports had still prevented them from representing their country. The implementation of quotas, first at the grassroots followed by the national level, along with encouraging more underrepresented groups to take an interest in sports helped South Africa ultimately reach its goal of a diverse national team.
Finally, in 2019, South Africa, led by their first-ever Black captain Siya Kolisi won the Rugby World Cup in Tokyo. The team consisted of 11 non-white players, a testament to how far the team had come in terms of diversity and transformation. The new South African team reflected the entirety of the rainbow nation, not the few. Most players of the squad were born in an Apartheid South Africa, where they never would've had the chance to represent their country. Today, they are world champions, proving representation does not diminish merit.
The obsession with merit won't die down despite South Africa defeating the number 1 ranked team, India, which has an identical love for merit. Similar to South Africa's predominantly white teams in the 90s, India too would primarily consist of Brahmins, who are 4% of the Indian population. Unlike South Africa which understood the need to make the sport accessible to everyone, India's cricketing body BCCI never intended to make cricket more diverse.
According to a report in the EPW, only four of 303 India's test cricketers have been SC/ST, who are over 25% of the population. Cricket has always been a white man's game and Indian cricket has always been a Brahmin's game. The very few lower-caste players who managed to represent India faced widespread casteism, from Palwankar Baloo to Vinod Kambli. Kambli, who possesses the record of the highest average in Tests by an Indian, faced abuse from his own Indian fans. Vandana Katariya became the first Indian woman to score a hat-trick in hockey at the Tokyo Olympics last year, but faced casteist attacks back home because she was a Dalit. It is no secret that the Indian cricketers, past and present, take great pride in being upper-castes. There is systemic casteism in Indian society which has inevitably affected sports, requiring lower-castes to overcome the glass ceiling. The solution to diversifying the Indian team would not be introducing quotas abruptly but an intent from BCCI to encourage youngsters from underrepresented backgrounds to participate in grassroots programs, as South Africa did.
As for merit, the upper-castes who repeatedly make the unfunny joke of how bad India's cricket team would be if they introduce reservation need to accept the fact that their meritorious Indian team lost convincingly to a "quota" side in South Africa.
As Nelson Mandela once said, "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair."
And for sports to inspire and unite people, it first needs to include all people.
Sankul Sonawane is an 18-year-old student-activist based in Pune, India. His work focuses on social justice through an anti-caste lens. He has previously written for The Times of India, The Quint and more.