Affirmative action has been used in many parts of the world as a means of bridging the gap between those who have and those who do not have equal opportunities. The absence of a level playing field among competitors often makes a mockery of the call for meritocracy. The call for merit would then, in [...]


South African rugby, Sri Lankan education and the challenge of affirmative action


Affirmative action has been used in many parts of the world as a means of bridging the gap between those who have and those who do not have equal opportunities. The absence of a level playing field among competitors often makes a mockery of the call for meritocracy. The call for merit would then, in fact, amount to a call for equality among those unequally placed.

In such situations, the inequality springs from the absence of equal opportunity rather than any inborn or nurtured superior skills of one person over another.

These special situations often exist in countries struggling to come out of systemic discrimination by organs of Government or, uneven economic development in countries that have newly won freedom from colonial rule.

The basic duty of a State is to ensure that its citizens enjoy equal opportunities in all fields of human endeavour so that, they can realise their true potential. This goal provides varied challenges to different Governments. Many Governments have used racial quotas as a means of bridging the gap between segments of society who do not enjoy equal opportunities.

More than two decades after ending the oppressive apartheid regime, South Africa is facing numerous challenges in pursuing and achieving its own stated goals. During the apartheid regime, blacks were barred from representing South Africa in international sports events.

With the dismantling of the system of apartheid, the South African government insists that, at each level of representative sports, there must be a certain number of non-white players.

Post apartheid, the South African Government and the country’s Rugby officials had entered into an agreement that, at the 2019 Rugby World Cup to be held in Japan, half the Springboks team would comprise black players.

When this agreement was arrived at, clearly, it was not intended that black players would be chosen merely to fill the slots that had been pre-arranged for them. The obvious objective would have been to reorganise the system to favour the whites, which existed in the apartheid days, into one in which the system provided equal opportunities to and identified talented black players who would be trained and prepared mentally to fit into the rigors of international sports.

However, with the Rugby World Cup around the corner there is no indication that such a goal will be realised by the time of the Japan games. This is not due to the absence of talent among the blacks, but purely due to the failure to structure the system to meet the goal of increasing the number of black players in the team.

South Africa’s current Rugby skipper Siya Kolisi who is also the Springboks first black to captain the Test side, voiced the dilemma faced by the game, at a Press interview.

Kolisi expressed his belief that Nelson Mandela, the former South African President who led the movement against Apartheid and presided over the dismantling of the oppressive and discriminatory system, would not have supported the system of racial quotas for sports

Kolisi went on to remark: “I don’t think he (Mandela) would have supported that (quotas) , but I don’t know him.”

“I would not want to be picked because of my skin colour, because that surely would not be good for the team, and the guys around you would know.”

Kolisi himself admitted he would not have made the team if he did not go to an English school where he had all the opportunities that his white peers had. Referring to the agreement between the South African Government and the National body to ensure that half the team at the Japan Rugby World Cup should comprise blacks, he said, “You should not put a number on stuff like that. If you want to talk about (racial) transformation, you have to start there (grassroots level).”

Fortunately, although Sri Lanka has employed affirmative action as a tool to address social disparities, the system of racial quotas has not entered the field of sports. Muralitharan was selected to the national team and excelled purely because of his inherent skills. He did not find his place in the team because of a racial quota which needed to be adhered to.

In sports and, more so, in the contemporary world where the sporting environment is highly professionalised, merit and merit alone can and should determine the selection of a team. But then, Sri Lanka is in the privileged position of not having had a sporting system which was discriminatory of a particular community, unlike in South Africa under apartheid.

In the field of Education, however, Sri Lanka has resorted to affirmative action and attempted to address inequalities by means of processes like standardisation and the Z-Score system of admission to Universities. This endeavour of the State has not, however, achieved its desired objectives.

In 1971, the system of standardisation of admission to the Universities was introduced to correct what was perceived to be the lack of a level playing field in Education. The colonial powers, over the years, had built quality educational Institutions in the coastal belt of the country, particularly, in the Northern and Western Provinces, giving the inhabitants of these two Provinces an advantage over their fellow citizens in the field of Education.

Post-independence too, successive governments had developed educational institutions in the urban areas, while not paying sufficient attention to the rural areas. As a result, the admissions to the Universities, particularly, in the Science streams, did not reflect the ethnic composition of the country.

In a well intentioned, but a poorly thought out move, the Government of the day introduced a Language-based standardisation for Universities, which eventually backfired. The Language-based standardisation meant that, more Sinhala medium students (who were invariably Sinhalese) and less Tamil medium students (which invariably meant mostly Tamils) entered the Universities.

This was one of the conditions that helped fuel the armed struggle with the Tamil political groups, labeling the method of standardisation as a means of discriminating against the Tamils.

While standardisation, as a temporary measure, could have been justified, the mistake was in making it Language-based, rather than a District-based scheme, which would not have given it an ethnic colouring. The Districts of Colombo, Jaffna, Galle and Kandy would have been some of the advantaged Districts, while Moneragala, Killinochchi, Nuwara Eliya and Digamadulla would have been categorised as disadvantaged Districts.

Such a categorisation would have avoided the attempt to correct disparities in educational opportunities being given an ethnic flavour. This issue was later addressed by resorting to District-based standardisation, but not before considerable damage had been done to ethnic relations.

What is of great concern from a national perspective is these disparities still remain. Fifty years after standardisation was introduced, the educational facilities in the disadvantaged districts have not caught up with those of the more privileged areas. The use of continued affirmative action to address disparities in social and economic opportunities, can only be justified if they are tied to a timeline, whereby the handicap given to disadvantaged sectors are gradually reduced by a development and upgrading of opportunities, so that, a level playing field is created and the need for affirmative action nonexistent.

Sadly, even 5 decades after affirmative action was applied in Sri Lanka, there are no signs of the less fortunate sections of society catching up with those who are better placed. (

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