It wasn’t cricket

The systemic challenges faced by black South Africans in even getting onto the field to play cricket in the first place.

Cricket fans watching South Africa vs Australia. Image via Flickr.

Ashwin Desai’s book Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid opens with a quote by white South African writer, JM Coetzee: “Cricket is not a game. It is the truth of life.” In a book that is a sublime infusion of politics and cricket, Desai, a South African Indian writes with a lyricism of which Coetzee, a Nobel Laureate now living in Australia, would be proud.

Yet, while Coetzee’s poetics compare playing cricket to an unpassable test, Desai’s deal with more systemic challenges faced by black South Africans in even getting onto the field in the first place. A sociologist, he treats the reader to a scathing critique of the South African cricketing fraternity over the Apartheid, transition and early democratic eras through the lens of race and class. He expertly and personally narrates the impact on the South African game of racism, neo-liberal capitalism, corruption and maladministration. In many ways, therefore, the book reads as the story of South Africa – from the perspective of an Indian South African activist, academic and cricket fan – lathered with beautiful cricketing metaphors.

It is a book that reverberates with familiar post-apartheid narratives: the speedy abandonment of resource redistribution in favor of international competitiveness; a corruption and bribery scandal toppling the first African institutional head; conspicuous double standards applied against new black players as compared to white players; and the “necessary evil” of apartheid-era administrators and leaders continuing to profit from their expertise and connections in the democratic era, entirely without sanction. It is a devastating indictment of governance in South African cricket in particular and the country more broadly.

Using some of Desai’s own chapter headings, in this review, we attempt to briefly capture the breadth and power of this book in the hope that it will challenge many who may not read it and influence many more to find a way to do so.

Of white knights and Apartheid ideologues

Perhaps the most powerful narrative in the book is its indictment of the past and present white cricketers, cricket journalists and cricket administrators (both from South Africa and abroad) for their hypocrisy, brazen racism and servile self-interest. Understood in its full context, Dr Ali Bacher, the book’s apparent grand villain, is representative of a range of other white people involved in pillaging black cricket in South Africa all the while masquerading as saviors, philanthropists or activists.

Bacher, the last white captain of an official Apartheid-era South African cricket team, was the key orchestrator of so-called “rebel tours” of international cricket teams to South Africa throughout the international sports boycott on South Africa (instituted because anti-Apartheid activists rightly insisted that there could be “no normal sport in an abnormal society”). Throughout, Desai describes a range of pathetic excuses presented by Bacher for these profit-motivated tours: that Apartheid was not really so bad; that racism existed in all countries; and most offensively, the claim that actually the breach of the boycott was good for black cricket in South Africa and black South Africans more generally.

Desai cuts to the core, noting that while Bacher could be correct that on one such rebel tour black West Indian fast bowler Colin Croft might have been seen speaking to coloured children on the boundary, and white children may well have offered his teammate Franklyn Stephenson a cold drink, that this was hardly proportionate to the harms caused by the rebel tours and “what Bacher might have added is that white children had been offering their leftovers to the ‘garden boy’ for centuries in South Africa”. As if to cement the irony of Bacher’s pitiful excuses, Croft, himself heavily criticized by his compatriots for agreeing to tour South Africa, was thrown off a whites-only carriage of a train in Cape Town.

Despite this, Bacher managed to ascend to prominence, remaining synonymous with cricket administration in South Africa for over a decade after the end of the Apartheid, fashioning himself as a human rights activist. In line with a common trope in South African cricket, he claims not to have “understood the full reality of South Africa” or “what the fight against apartheid was all about.” Drawing the link between Bacher’s behavior and the opportunism of many similarly situated white South Africans, Desai is scathing:

When did Bacher’s human rights activism begin exactly? After he was the last white captain of an official apartheid era team, but before he organised the rogue tours that broke an international boycott? Or did he become interested in human rights after the tours but before Mandela was released? If it was the latter, he joined many white South Africans, who, as the saying sarcastically goes, never supported apartheid.

New whites for a new South Africa

Either way, Bacher, along with other putatively reconciled but unchanged “new whites” slid smoothly into the “new South Africa” without skipping a beat or losing a cent. South Africa’s willingness to compromise with (white) moneyed interests, buoyed by notions of reconciliation and rainbow nationalism, produced an immediately co-opted color-blind non-racialism.

After fighting tooth and nail to enforce South Africa’s international isolation from the cricketing world, the African National Congress went out of its way to support the immediate re-entry into international cricket for an all-white side – accompanied by two black “non-playing,” “development” cricketers – in India in 1991. Desai details how Nelson Mandela himself, famous for his willingness to don the infamous Springbok jersey three years later, actively supported this venture. Ironically, Madiba adopted the position of the colonial cricket establishment when he described as “extremists” those who maintained that there could be no normal sport in an abnormal society, stating instead that “sport is sport, and quite different from politics.”

None of this, as we know, is inconsistent with the ANC’s post-1994 politics or its centralizing, controlling behind-the-scenes-maneuvering culture. That culture has long destroyed parts of the anti-Apartheid movement that agitated for a more radical transformation of society. Nevertheless, the clarity of Desai’s revelations rankle for those of us who retain some belief in the idea that the ANC was ever a genuine advocate for the obliteration of white supremacy, poverty and inequality.

In cricket, the contingent calling for radical change were the black clubs and activists (represented by the South African Cricket Board and South African Council of Sport) who called for policies to redistribute resources following Apartheid’s deliberate destruction of black cricket. Desai makes a convincing argument that the top-down approach of Dr Bacher’s administration – beginning with the reintegration of a white team into international cricket and aiming to trickle down benefits to the grassroots – and supported by the likes of Steve Tshwete, Sam Ramsamy and Nelson Mandela, has profoundly stunted exposure and opportunity within the cricket microcosm. Furthermore, this approach dismantled the structures that advocated politically for substantive change in the form of the politics of reparation and redistribution, favoring instead the politics of representation, or, in Bacher’s words the need for more “black faces.” Desai observes “at a general level depoliticisation was thus the handmaiden of demobilisation. Change was defined as a set of technical issues and targets to be met.”

Given this approach, it is unsurprising, that the present crop of black South African cricketers hail primarily from well-resourced private schools and formerly exclusively white public schools, as Desai notes. Their backgrounds, rather than proving the success of transformation strategies, often highlight the complete failure of a truly developmental cricket program in South Africa – a program able to produce competitive teams in poorer black areas such as the rural Eastern Cape where the game remains extremely popular.

Desai also highlights the blatant racism of white cricketers participating in rebel tours and the continued self-seeking racism of white South African cricket coaches and players in the post-Apartheid period. From Brian McMillan’s instructions to bowl an Indian batsman a “coolie-creeper,” to Craig Matthews’s description of Paul Adams’ bowling action deriving from him “stealing hub caps off moving cars,” to Bob Woolmer and Mickey Arthur’s insistence on picking players only for “cricketing reasons,” Desai illustrates how so-called non-racialism disguises direct individual and systemic racism that has been at the core of post-Apartheid South African cricket. Even players that perhaps cut more sympathetic figures, like Alan Donald, participated in rebel tours during the boycotts.

Sports journalism and the padding of history

Astonishingly, through a deliberate retelling of history by the white cricketing establishment, and a smooth transition from white players participating in rebel tours into media pundits, commentators and journalists, Desai describes how this history – and even this present – has been deleted.

We have written before on this blog about the racism in contemporary South African cricket journalism, but Desai’s book reveals that such incidents are merely a continuation of a long-term and elaborate journalistic project to soften the writer’s own complicity with Apartheid. Iconic white players who are memorialized in South African cricketing folklore, such as Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock, willingly participated in rebel tours with enough political consciousness to threaten to boycott games if they were not paid equally to touring teams, yet they somehow lacked the conscience to consider the inequality of Apartheid South Africa and the total absence of black players on their teams.

Desai reveals too that many household favorites over the last two decades of cricket on television and radio were in fact players on rebel tours who either actively supported Apartheid or were willing to play in support of it for their own financial benefit. Hidden in the public eye are the likes of Mike Haysman, Geoff Boycott, Robin Jackman, Kepler Wessels and Colin Bryden. Their justifications for their actions are not even requested by the South African public who accept on good faith their friendly faces, cricket expertise and detailed knowledge of South African cricket. It is no wonder that when they draw on history these voices choose to regret the tragedy of players like Richards and Pollock not being able to play test cricket rather than reminiscing about the total obliteration of black cricket and the erasure of players such as Baboo Ebrahim, Suleman Dik Abed, Krom Hendricks and Basil D’Oliveira.

Bryden, whose voice for many of us remains synonymous with South African cricket because he has narrated so much of it over the radio, himself worked both as a journalist and for a promotions company supporting rebel tours. Though Bryden may have believed that he was acting in the best interests of South African cricket, Desai concludes decisively: “for people like Bryden, South African cricket was essentially white cricket… Bryden makes the seamless journey from propagandist to journalist and back again.”

Black skins, white helmets 

Perhaps the weakest part of Desai’s book is its lagging analysis of modern developments afoot in South African cricket. For example, although he analyses the problematic underrepresentation of South Africa at every world cup between 1992 and 2011, there is no analysis of the 2015 World Cup. Nor does Desai deal in any meaningful detail with the impact of recently expanded quotas at both national and provincial levels.

Desai broadly characterises two present positions on racial transformation in South African cricket as the “colour-blind non-racialists” and the “racial bean counters.” He accuses the latter of “aggressive African nationalism,” “chauvinism” and “almost messianic drive” to include more black faces in the South African team at any cost. With an eye on a bottom-up, grassroots driven approach to the development of cricket in South Africa he supports the resurrection of a “militant non-racialism,” an “idea that places both the idea of racial transformation and class privilege centre stage.”

In our view, Desai is too harsh on quotas and too willing to support a radical construction of non-racialism that has never genuinely existed in South Africa. Although noting at least once that “quotas were necessary to force selectors to divest themselves of prejudicial thinking and make the objectively correct cricketing decision,” Desai appears at points to conflate the laudable politics and pragmatism of quotas with those opportunistic politicians who promote them. Indeed, the astoundingly quick turnaround of South African cricket over the last year since Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula imposed a ministerial ban on hosting or bidding for major events until Cricket South Africa met its own transformation targets, is telling.

The problem has never been a lack of black interest in or ability at cricket. The problem, is, and has always been, the willingness of the large, white-run old boys network – of which Bacher was the key protagonist – to manipulate black interest for white gain, all the while professing to be acting in the interests of black cricket(ers).

Batting in uncertain times

Desai’s book reflects lifetime passion for cricket and his deep disappointment with its administration and the way it has served black South Africans. That conflict is intimately familiar. We also both grew up loving the game of cricket despite, and sometimes unconscious of, its whiteness. We were devastated by Hansie Cronje’s betrayal and delighted by the achievements of Graeme Smith’s team and the emergence of black talent such as Makhaya Ntini, Herschelle Gibbs and Paul Adams.

As we have become conscientized, it has been disturbing to recognize the casually biased views of many powerful people within the cricketing sphere towards black cricketers and their open hostility towards discussions of race in cricket. We regret the treatment of black players such as Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Aaron Phangiso, Vernon Philander, Thami Tsolekile, Charl Langeveldt and Garnett Kruger, and the South African cricketing public’s insistence that world class players like Hashim Amla and Temba Bavuma have to prove themselves over and over again.

This book reminds us of the personal responsibility for reflection (if not conscientization), particularly within the elite circles that continue to control access to resources and opportunities for others. Transformation requires insiders (and their children) from the old system to understand and interrogate their privilege, particularly because South Africa has entrenched systems that require bottom-up and system-wide transformation. This starts with a proper appreciation of the dirty history of South African cricket and how corrupt white officials, players, coaches and journalists have contributed to reproducing it.

As cricket fans, we have not been merely betrayed by Hansie Cronje or Dr Ali Bacher. We have been betrayed by whiteness. That is the story of South African cricket in post-Apartheid South Africa. We applaud Desai for telling it.

Further Reading

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