There’s a row going on in South Africa between a black former rugby player, Ashwin Willemse, and two white former players Nick Mallett and Naas Botha. The video in the link shows Willemse objecting strongly to suggestions from the other two that he was a “quota player” during a post-match discussion on the South African Supersports channel. He then walks off the stage, saying he refuses to be criticised by people who played in the apartheid era. There was obviously a build-up to this which the public hasn’t yet seen, and without knowing what’s been said by whom it’s difficult to say if Willemse is overreacting or not.
Naturally, this being the modern South Africa, people have leaped in on both sides even if they couldn’t have named a single Springbok player before last weekend. Given this is all happening 23 years after Nelson Mandela famously handed the Webb Ellis trophy to Francois Pienaar while wearing the Springbok jersey, it’s rather depressing. Fans and pundits always have idiots among them, but I’d have hoped former players would have the sense not to bring race into any discussion on South African rugby, especially on television.
However, my main point is that this is a good demonstration of how damaging diversity quotas are. I don’t know if Ashwin Willemse was selected to the Springboks on merit (I never saw him play) but the fact that quotas for black players existed leaves the door wide open for people to accuse him of being a quota player. And no matter how good the player is, there will always be some who think they were only picked because they were black. I’m sure there are people out there insane enough to think Bryan Habana was only picked because he was black; the problem with quotas is nobody knows for sure who is there on merit and who is there to make up numbers, and it hands ammunition to the group’s enemies. As I said in this post:
The real losers from affirmative action policies aimed at helping minorities is not people who fall outside the designated groups but genuinely competent minorities who not only have to sit alongside less-capable colleagues of the same sex or skin colour, but now have their own competencies called into question.
As Ashwin Willemse is finding out, this question mark can hang over their heads for a long time indeed. I suspect we’re going to have a lot of highly capable women in the corporate world retiring in frustration after never having quite convinced everyone they were there on merit. This is what happens when you select some who aren’t.