The latest transformation targets – announced by Cricket South Africa in September – stipulated that the national team should include at least six players of colour in their XI, of whom at least two must be black South African.
The announcement caused consternation among Proteas fans, but how else do you create equality in cricket in a Rainbow Nation that remains far from equal? South African writer Telford Vice tackles a question which has no simple answers.
Articles like this, especially when they appear beyond South Africa’s borders, tend to be met with responses like, ‘Why don’t you just pick your best side and get on with it?’ and, ‘Black people don’t play cricket in South Africa’.
The second is easily dealt with: crap. Many more blacks than whites play and follow cricket in South Africa. That’s why it’s the most popular sport here after football. If cricket is a white game in South Africa then only pot-bellied men drink beer.
As for picking our best side, we don’t know what that side is. Never have done. Not in the days of Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock and Mike Procter. Or in the era of Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini. Or in a team featuring Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Kagiso Rabada.
Are they among the best players we have produced? Who can tell when most of our children don’t attend schools where cricket is offered and don’t live in communities where cricket clubs, academies and grounds are common? And who in the mad milieu of modern South Africa, which remains rooted in the past in almost every way, is free enough from the serpentine tangle of agendas we have in lieu of a functional society to give us a view that has sidestepped the smoke and mirrors?
Journalists are supposed to supply answers, not questions. But in this case there are no answers. Except this – we don’t know.
Not even Ntini knows. Rarely a man who isn’t sure what he thinks, he squirmed when asked how South African cricket should fix what’s broken about race. With a deep frown Ntini said: “We need to get away from the quota system. Teams should be selected according to performance and not by lookingat how many players of colour are needed on the field.”
But, four years ago, when AB de Villiers replaced Mark Boucher as South Africa’s wicketkeeper – which pushed Boucher’s long-term understudy, Thami Tsolekile, into the cold – Ntini said: “Tsolekile would have been playing if he was white. People will say we are talking politics but we need to say these things.”
Ntini wanted the opportunities that would have been unfairly denied him on racial and social groundshad transformation not intervened, but he also wanted to earn those opportunities. How could he not be wracked with inner conflict?
Ntini’s opinions are not poisoned by malice or ideology but informed by his experience: “I always felt as if I was on the verge of being dropped. Whenever a new bowler came into the side the question always was whether they were coming to take my position.”
Another poster child for transformation, Ashwell Prince, the bulldog of South Africa’s middle-order for most of his 66 Tests, took a different tack: “Whatever the policies in place let’s look at the quality of the players and let’s talk about that.”
But if not even Ntini, the owner of 101 Test caps and 390 wickets, and the guts of South Africa’s attack for the best part of 10 years, knew he was secure in his position, what chance do the rest of us have of getting our heads round the quota conundrum? We just don’t know.
But we do know that almost every country in which cricket is played is afflicted, to a greater or lesser degree, by a similar problem. Only in Australia and New Zealand can it be said with confidence that every kid who picks up a bat or wraps their fingers around a ball has a decent chance to fulfil their potential. Australia is admirably obsessed with egalitarianism and inside every New Zealander would seem to lurk a Liberal-shaped heart.
There are, of course, counter-arguments to that sweeping statement. Aboriginals would be right to spit at it as errant nonsense and there is nothing Liberal – or even liberal – about an All Black lock shoving his finger in your eye at the lineout. Like death, taxes and the poor, there will always be fascists.
But in Australia and New Zealand even the most dumb-assed among them know they need to hide, that they daren’t show themselves unless they are behind high enough walls.
Former Australian Test batsman Greg Ritchie, for instance, thought he was safe to use the word “kaffirs” for laughs in an anecdote and crack Islamophobic jokes in a speech to a closed audience at the Gabba during South Africa’s 2012 tour to Australia. Except that one reporter had wandered into the room at the right moment – lured by, of all things, the strains of a jazz band playing nearby – and heard what Ritchie said. The story led the front page of South Africa’s biggest Sunday newspaper and Ritchie’s career in racism dressed up as public speaking was ended.
Which reeked of irony considering fascism arrived onthe sharp end of Africa with the Europeans in 1652 and has never left. It was dealt a serious blow in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president but to call South Africa a democracy is to call Donald Trump a harmless oaf. Apartheid is indeed dead. The inequality and prejudice it spawned, and needed to fester every facet of South African life, remain rudely alive.
In the here and now that still means any talent you have will not go unnoticed if your name is Pollock. But if your name is Ntini you will need a confluence of happy accidents before you are noticed.
What about Rabada, you say? His father is a doctor who had the means to send his son to St Stithians, the same Methodist Church schoolin Johannesburg that produced Grant Elliott, Michael Lumb, tennis player Kevin Anderson, Hollywood director Gavin Hood and Dave Matthews – he of the Dave Matthews Band. That’s as solid a list of middle-class luminaries as can be found and Rabada, more Pollock than Ntini, belongs squarely on it.
Rabada is ahead of his time on both sides of the boundary. He isin no way representative of black African cricketers in South Africa, who remain in the minority in major teams. But, as a member ofthe nascent black middle-class, he represents a future South Africa must build if it is to fulfil its wider potential.
How do we get there? See paragraph three above. Cricket is but a piece in the greater South African puzzle, and like most of the other pieces it has yet to be snapped into place. We know what we want the picture to look like when it’s completed – fairness and justice for all – but we don’t know how to make it look like that.
Clearly, waiting for evolution to correct the situation is not a solution. At least, it hasn’t been for the past 22 years, and in areasfar beyond cricket. Lingering, latent fascists prop up oneend of our faulty national equation, denying blacks opportunities they have earned by anyinsidious means necessary. The other end hasbeen crippled by corruptionin too many repositories of new power to be dismissed as a minor issue.
So, in the absence of a better idea, it is difficult to argue with the minister of sport, Fikile Mbalula, and the agreement he has reached with federations that national teams will be at least 60 per cent black. Or they will be punished. Cricket South Africa (CSA) already know what that feels like having had their privilege to bid to host international tournaments whipped away because their teams have only been 55 per cent black. And it could get worse: Mbalula has the authority to bar sides from competing as national teams.
If cricket had transformed more efficiently and sincerely on its own accord it would not have been in this trouble. That it hasn’t is the game’s fault – not CSA’s as much as the provinces’, where unfairness can be hidden from scrutiny.
That’s not to paint Mbalula as an unimpeachable champion of transformation. He is the African National Congress’ (ANC) chief election strategist and he waved the 60 per cent quota like a football rattle before the 2014 general elections. This year local government elections loomed even as Mbalula tub-thumped about federations’ transformation obligations.
The ANC is starting to lose its grip on black voters they once would have considered bought and paid for with blood and history, and tossing them a race quota in national teams is politics at its most populist. But will it work to transform South Africa’s team? Yes, if we want a team that looks more like the nation it purports to represent, and if we want more kids of colour to play cricket. No, if we want to avoid mass retirements and South African cricket’s integrity being sacrificed in the same sick way Vernon Philander’s was when the suits ordered him to run in and bowl on one-and-a-half hamstrings in the 2015 World Cup semi-final.
Is Philander part of our best side? Injured, no. Fit, we don’t know. But we know he is a bloody good bowler. And that’s the closest we get to the truth.