IF YOU want to know why affirmative action will be with us for quite a while, look no further than our national cricket team.
It took no genius to work out that, amid the fingerpointing following our exit from the Cricket World Cup, the presence of seven black players in the squad would soon be blamed.
And so it has proved. The problem, white former players tell us, is that our team is not chosen on merit.
They are right. Racial bias does hobble our cricketing progress. But the problem is not the measures designed to give black players a chance. It is prejudice that assumes, instinctively, that competence is something whites have and blacks must prove they have.
Those who doubt that South African team selection is still heavily influenced by this prejudice need to consider these questions: Why was Makhaya Ntini, the third-highest international wickettaker in our history, dropped for our first World Cup match played on a pitch which suited his bowling? Why was Loots Bosman dropped after a game in which he did not bat and so could not have done anything wrong? Why, a while ago, was Alfonso Thomas dropped after a tour in which he also did not play a game? Why has discussion of our need for a quality spin bowler ignored Thandi Tshabalala, probably our most promising young spinner? Why, after 15 years of nonracial cricket, did our team in its last two matches have the same demographic make-up as England’s? And why are so many of the promising young black players who a few years back helped take us to the final of the Under-19 World Cup now languishing in provincial teams? The answer to all the questions is that the chief obstacle to selecting our best team is not quotas but deep-rooted attitudes that make it much harder for black players to establish themselves — and mean that they are usually the first to be blamed or discarded when things go wrong.
This does not mean, as some politicians imply, that a white clique is consciously plotting to keep blacks out. Discrimination stems, rather, from a deep-rooted and perhaps unconscious prejudice among those who shape cricketing attitudes, which ensures that promising white players are often given repeated opportunities to prove themselves, because it is assumed that deep down they are competent, while black players rarely receive this indulgence, because it is assumed that deep down they are not.
If further evidence is needed, listen carefully to many of our cricket commentators (one of whom is still blaming our defeat in the 1996 World Cup on the selection in a key match of a black player ahead of a white one, even though the man chosen, Paul Adams, was our second-best bowler on the day) or scan media debate among most cricket fans.
The prejudices are tenacious, born as they are of decades of conditioning — those who hold them may genuinely believe they hold no prejudice at all.
They are also strong enough to shape decisions even when the president and CE of the cricket board and its chair of selectors are all black.
Because those who hold this prejudice dominate media commentary and command respect as successful former players, they are often able to shape the bounds of what is considered a "reasonable" selection decision, whoever is formally in charge.
And the only counterweight is a policy insisting that at least some black players be selected — without it, our national team demographics would look like Australia’s (with its one black player).
The implication for our economy and professions is clear. Cricket is not the only sphere in which whites are assumed to be competent and blacks incompetent until the contrary is proven. Reluctance to entrust their health to a black doctor, safety to a black pilot or business to a black
Reluctance to entrust their health to a black doctor, safety to a black pilot or business to a black manager is also deeply ingrained among people who do not consider themselves prejudiced.
And so, just as cricket selection cannot be left to unconscious prejudices if black talent is to be acknowledged, neither can that in business or the professions.
That is partly why the continuous claims that affirmative action might go whenever a senior opinion-maker — such as Finance Minister Trevor Manuel — queries it, should not be taken seriously.
Not only is there a powerful political constituency behind the policy, our history of prejudice continues to ensure that conscious attempts to create openings for black people are essential if we are to roll back discrimination.
This does not mean that current policies aimed at redressing prejudice are appropriate — Manuel is hardly the only person to imply that they are deeply flawed. But the tenacity of prejudice here ensures that the mainstream policy debate on affirmative action will continue to centre not on whether to retain it, but on how to make it work.
Steven Friedman BDLive
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy
* This column was first published in Business Day on May 2 2007. In light of the current debate about rugby team selection and transformation, Steven Friedman's 2007 column for the Business Day is worth another read - Ed.