South African Cricket and A History of Racism


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“I was forever lonely.”

“You wish you were collectively happy with everyone who surrounded you, and that not only at that moment are they happy for you. Then, when the team loses, you are the one who has fingers pointed at you.”

These here are some excerpts from a poignant interview of Makhaya Ntini – the first black African cricketer to play for South Africa – as told to South Africa Broadcasting Corporation’ Morning Live on July 17.

Ntini, who played 101 Tests, 173 ODIs and 10 T20Is for South Africa between 1998 and 2011, explained how he vented this forlornness through his famous antics after taking wickets; how he used to sit at the back of the bus while everyone else sat ahead; and how he never thought he would get a chance to pour out these feelings. 


A New Air


In the backdrop of a cresting anti-racism movement in the United States, cricketers in South Africa, both erstwhile and present have found themselves in a different air than the rest of the world.

The Black Lives Matter campaign, which started with the brutal lynching of an African American George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota in May and has since then permeated into politics and subsequently into sports.

Sporting organizations are coming forward in outright support of the movement and while their debates hinge on the question of how far this support should go, South African cricketers are debating if there should be any support at all.

It all started when Lungi Ngidi – one of the most promising speedsters in South Africa – weighed in for the BLM and said that his team needs to address and make a stand for it which they’ll try and do once they get together as a group.

What followed was a Facebook thread that started when Rudi Steyn who played four internationals for S.A commented: "I believe the Proteas should make a stand against racism, but if they stand up for [BLM] while ignoring the way white farmers are daily being 'slaughtered' (sic) like animals, they have lost my vote."

Boeta Dippenaar, with over 150 international caps, supported him: "If you want me to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you, Lungi, then stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me with regards to farm attacks."

Former international umpire Ian Howell wrote: "Agree with you Rudi: all lives matter. [Ngidi] is entitled to his opinion but he should not be in a position to force it on his teammates."

And Brian McMillan backed with: "Opinions always accepted. But the current one, in my opinion, is crap and political! All lives matter!"

This has to be noted that Ngidi is a black man from Durban while the other pundits with their churlish tones are all pale-skinned. The ‘farm killings’ mooted here are a part of a far-right conspiracy theory that touts an unsubstantiated “white genocide” and theoretical plots to replace or eradicate white populations.

Immediately after this tumult, several sportsmen, none of them white signed statements in support of Ngidi.

Rassie van der Dussen who was the lone silver lining in South Africa’s rather dreadful World Cup Campaign in 2019 was the first white and current Proteas player to support the BLM campaign. He was also, more significantly, the first adherent from the Afrikaner community. 

He vowed his support in Afrikaans, which in the country’s struggle against apartheid was considered as the “language of the oppressor”.

Soon, Rassie’s other white comrades too followed suit including Anrich Nortje, Marizanne Kapp, and Dwayne Pretorious.

Appreciably, Graeme Smith, director of cricket at Cricket South Africa (CSA) said that he is “proud to support this incredibly important movement.” 

He added that "there is no room for neutrality on this topic. I stand with Lungi Ngidi and our brothers and sisters around the world. I will join the team tomorrow in taking the knee at the 3TC Solidarity Cup."

More significant still was the moving statement from the white, Afrikaans speaking, and former SA captain, Faf Du Plessis in which he asserted “choosing our battles” and the “many injustices” that beset his country.

He accepted, "I have gotten it wrong before. Good intentions were failed by a lack of perspective when I said on a platform that - I don't see color. In my ignorance, I silenced the struggles of others by placing my own view on it.”

And concluded – “I am saying that all lives don't matter UNTIL black lives matter. I'm speaking up now because if I wait to be perfect, I never will. I want to leave a legacy of empathy. The work needs to continue for the change to come and whether we agree or disagree, the conversation is the vehicle for change.”

If all this alludes towards anything, it is that Cricket in South Africa is a lot more than only about willow, leather, and grass. Here is a society which is among the most unequal in the world, where racism has its root in every faction of it even decades after being denounced by the law.


A Glimpse at the History


Apartheid in South Africa was a system of legislation that upheld segregationist policies against non-white citizens. It was adopted as a formal policy by the South African government after the rise of the National Party during the country's 1948 general elections.

This regime precluded any contact between the two demographics. This included separate public places, restrooms, the prohibition of inter-race marriages, and sexual relations. 80% of all the land was reserved for the white minority who were (and still are) only a fraction of the total population.

This deep-rooted discrimination prompted Sports to be all-white as well. Let alone sporting non-white South Africans, the Proteas didn’t even play opposite to India, Pakistan, West Indies, and other such teams.

South African cricket remained an imperative subscriber of white nobility till 1970 when the team was banned from international cricket after the International Cricket Conference (as the ICC was called then) voted to suspend the country indefinitely.

The boycott was prompted by the reaction of the South African authorities to the selection of the prodigious Basil D' Oliveira, a "Cape Coloured" South African, for England in 1968.

While the South Africans outright denied playing with them if he was the part of the touring party for the impending test series, the English couldn’t let D’ Oliveira go. Not only was his batting prowess well-established at the international stage, but the liberal English public was also unwavering in its enmity with racism.

The kerfuffle that followed culminated only in banning the Proteas for the next two decades. The players were boycotted and age-old ties between the MCC, ICC, and the CSA were severed.

At this moment, South Africa had just trounced the mighty Australians 4-0 in their home. Such was their panache that speculations were high that this team could rise to the ranks of England and Australia and break the bi-polarity of international cricket.

The isolated players went ahead with some county cricket here and there and also the Karry Packer’s rebel world cricket series. The administration also manufactured some ‘rebel tours' with different international sides offering lucrative prizes to the dissenter tourists.

Those who went ahead, like the West Indian Colin Croft, too faced humiliation and belligerent reactions from the public both native and international.

In mid-1991, the Apartheid was repealed in South Africa, which paved the way for their readmission into an international sport. As a sign of things returning to normalcy, South Africa made a quick tour to India in late 1991 to play 3 ODIs – their first-ever official ODI series.

The period away from international cricket deprived international cricket of many South Africans in their full glory. Supremely talented cricketers like Barry Richards, Mike Proctor, and Graham Pollock could never become the international stars commensurable with their caliber.

Many others like Clive Rice and Jimmy Cook were in the ebb of their careers by the time South Africa was back on the international stage. More importantly, it left the now changed CSA with a trifling pool of Black cricketers. 

 
The Quota System


And if you thought this couldn’t get any more complicated, here comes the cricketing quota system for non-whites.

In a population with a shy over 8% of people white, and the rest all black, brown, or Asian, it wasn’t until 1992 that a colored player – Omar Henry – represented South Africa in international cricket. And it was not before 1998 that a black Protea had stepped onto the international field.

Until 2007, informal quotas were in place across many of South Africa’s sporting teams. In cricket, it was an unwritten rule that there should be at least four players of color in the Proteas’ playing XI. 

This broadly stemmed from two reasons – to bridge the decades of scathing racism against the majority; and to inhibit their incessant under-representation in the sport.

After the informal system failed to achieve its goals, the CSA rolled out its mandatory transformation targets before the start of the South African summer of 2016.

These mandatory quotas, formally known as affirmative action, positive discrimination, or transformation, made it requisite to play a minimum of 6 non-white players in an eleven where 2 of them had to be black.

These targets were to be met yearly, allowing for some flexibility with the team selections. It also became mandatory for the domestic teams to follow the same six to five ratio of non-whites to whites with 2 of them being black.


View – Counterview


Like everything else in the gentlemen’s game this change also met with mixed reactions.

Initially, this system was touted as the only panacea for the underrepresentation from the black demography, and even though the changes in the domestic circuit might have brought actual transformation to the situation, problems are galore in the international arena.

For the last few years, South Africa has seen an exodus of talented white players towards highly remunerative and stable county deals in England.

Even when the informal quota system was prevalent, batsmen like Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Strauss – their careers hit hard by lesser opportunities for whites – left South Africa for England only to play over 100 test matches apiece and coming out as stalwarts of the game.

In the 2015 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand, the Proteas had decided to include Vernon Philander as a replacement of the tournament’s then highest wicket-taker, Kyle Abbott, to fulfill the informal quotas. 

Philander proved to be expensive on the day, South Africa lost a heart-wrenching match and Abbott was immediately lost to county cricket.

The critics say that the quota system goes against the central tenets of professional sport and selection must be only based on merit. No one knows this better than Temba Bavuma. A dark-skinned, witty batsman with deft footwork, Bavuma faces this extra burden to prove his merit every time he steps on the field.

It was in the heat of this particular issue that Faf Du Plessis commented that “we don’t see color” which he regretted and lamented in his recent statements mentioned above.

A second argument says that this system stigmatizes the players who come through it. Even if they have climbed the rungs on their talent and skill, it insults them. As Ntini was once quoted saying “Nobody would be happy if they thought they were picked because of their colour.”

Moreover, the selection panel has been criticized for fulfilling the targets by playing more non-white players in less important matches while leaving major games for the pale-skinned.

For the proponents, nothing can summarize their arguments better than one of the men who made it happen. Omphile Ramela, the serving president of the South African Cricketers' Association (SACA) wrote this as a part of a written statement to Crickbuzz:

"I, fortunately, was a beneficiary of the policy. In all fairness, without the policy, I would not have had the privilege to play professional cricket, be president of SACA and even write this. In fact, many black African players that fans have come to admire would never have made it.

"What does the future hold? We have had approximately eight years of targeted transformation for a greater black African presentation. More specifically, we have had five years of stable implementation of this policy, at three black Africans per team.

"In my view, meritocracy arguments are used to insinuate that black players are not competent relative to their white counterparts. And they often hide racism. The reality is black African cricketers have had five years of affirmative action. 

"It goes without saying that it is not enough and it is clear that cricket was unable to self-transform and lead the process. As a country, if we are serious about transformation, we will demand more of it. And we will demand that the system gives us the best version of ourselves.”


An Unlevel Field


The answer can be nothing but a straightforward yes. Players like Lungi Ngidi, who’s voice gave this age-old debate a new lease on its life, was jeered by people who owe their cricketing careers mostly to the privilege provided to them by the draconian laws of the time in which they were born.

According to a United Nations survey, only eight percent of South African schoolkids of colored descent have access to sport. Even after 29 years of unity, the progress of the Black people remains hampered at all levels due to malnourishment, poverty, and lack of adequate facilities and opportunities.

Mfuneko Ngam statement in 2013 endorses this. "I needed to bowl at 150 kilometers an hour for people to notice me, “I got injured because I had to work harder than the white guy next to me. It's always a survival situation for black cricketers. Talent alone is not going to make it happen,” Ngam had said.

Through South Africa’s roller-coaster path, while the whites are raised to the pedestal for is highs, black cricketers and their quotas have become the scapegoat for the lows.

Players like Hansie Cronje and Gulam Bodi, who were part of similar malign incidents of match-fixing, and similarly brought ignominy to SAC, saw irreconcilable outcomes to their careers. 

The former, at the time of his death, was working as a respectable financial manager for an earth-moving equipment company and was studying towards an MBA. Bodi on the other hand, sold vegetables to get by in the wake of his expulsion.

Cronje’s actions are vindicated as "taking the fall" for others, who are never named while Bodi and his partners were heckled at every step of their lives in their own country.

As Telford Vice wrote for Crickbuzz, “they [Ngidi’s dissenters] would likely not have had those careers had they been born black. Conversely, Ngidi would have been barred by law from fulfilling his talent had he been born in the country his critics grew up in. 

"Those laws no longer exist, but their ongoing effects are impossible to explain away. Black lives did not matter in old South Africa, and it is difficult to believe they matter currently.”


Written by - Rudransh Khurana

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