Beyond the boundary

South African cricket is currently the subject of TRC-style hearings into the racism and nepotism in the game. It makes for riveting TV, but focuses too much on individual instances of racism and discrimination.

Image credit It's No Game via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

A recent historical biography, Too Black to Wear Whites, tells the story of Krom Hendricks, a talented black bowler thought to be the fastest in South Africa in the 1890s, whose national cricketing career was blocked by the colonial state. The authors demonstrate how Hendricks’ exclusion from his country’s national team on a tour to England, due to his “race,” formed part of the broader history of racialisation and segregation of that period.

Cricket, and the drama that unfolded on the various pitches, in boardrooms, and clubhouses in Hendricks’ time, and over his own career, expressed the contests over racial identity and the construction of a strict racial hierarchy that would culminate in the formation of the apartheid state in the 1940s. Cricket, in other words, is an expression of broader social life and needs to be seen as such.

Today, South African cricket, like South African society, is in disarray. The results on the field have been the worst in a generation—the Proteas find themselves languishing far from the top of the test and ODI rankings (this writer does not take T20 rankings seriously). At the same time, the game’s administration is in a desperate state, rocked by various financial scandals and general mismanagement. A postcolonial state, a government of the black majority, has replaced an apartheid and colonial state. Yet the issues that plagued South African cricket and society in the time of Krom Hendricks—racism, nepotism, corruption—stubbornly persist.

While the South African cricketers struggle to perform on the pitch, Cricket South Africa has launched the Social Justice and Nation-Building (SJN) hearings to address instances of racism in cricket since unification. Many black players have given testimony at the commission. Omar Henry, Ashwell Prince, Paul Adams and others have testified to experiencing various forms of racism while playing and training with the national side.

The commission’s aims are focused mostly on individual instances of racism and discrimination. It also seeks to understand the causes of racism in order to eradicate it from the game. More ambitiously, it has set for itself the principal objective to “realise greater equality in cricket.” The commission may indeed provide a necessary platform for players to speak freely about their experiences. Whether South African cricket will embody a greater sense of equality and fairness, and whether the national team will experience a meaningful shift in its institutional culture, remains to be seen.

Reconciliation, where?

It was Lungi Ngidi’s innocuous words, spoken during a press interview in 2020, which in retrospect can be viewed as the beginning of a series of events that would finally lead to the formation of the SJN. Asked about the American political movement Black Lives Matter’s potential impact on South African cricket, Ngidi casually responded that he thought it necessary that his team address issues of racism and discrimination in the sport. At this stage, the message of BLM and the “taking the knee” protest synonymous with the movement, had spread beyond the shores of the US. The protest gesture had reached various international sporting codes, from European football to rugby to cricket. Inspired by the moment, Michael Holding, the great West Indian fast bowler, gave an improvised and emotional account of his own experience as a victim of racial prejudice and abuse during a live broadcast in the UK.

Ngidi’s words were widely perceived to have provided a welcome opening to discuss problems related to racism and institutional culture within the South African cricketing community. But they attracted sharp rebukes from former white South African cricketers. Pat Symcox alleged Ngidi’s interview was simply “nonsense.” Boeta Dippenaar, in pure rooi gevaar form and clearly inspired by alt-right American tropes that are themselves expressions of deeply ingrained anti-Semitism and racism, suggested that BLM was nothing more than a “Marxist plot.” Both argued that farm attacks needed more attention than racism in sport.

Viewed in a longer history and with a realistic view of our present social context, the views of Symcox and Dippenaar are unsurprising and more broadly shared than perhaps many of us would like to admit. Indeed, while many of Ngidi’s teammates—black and white—supported his efforts to bring the issue of racism and culture to the fore in the local cricketing community, some were uncomfortably silent or equivocal. Around the same time as Ngidi’s interview, many South African rugby players refused to take the knee in solidarity with the message of BLM while playing in the European rugby leagues. Their stance was soon embraced by a group of South African cricketers, several of whom refused to take the knee.

Ultimately, a seemingly simple gesture in solidarity with anti-racism, embraced across the globe by variously racialized people and cultures, came up against the reality of South Africa’s curious social dynamics. Conspiratorial right-wing ideologies, conservative Christianity, submerged or outright racism, and defensiveness and evasion regarding the persistence of racism in our social institutions, still prosper and flourish.

While Ngidi has insisted that the South African team are united in the cause to fight racism, the vagueness of that unity is expressed in the awkward manner in which the team attempted to express solidarity with the cause. The team simply could not agree on whether to kneel or to stand. Some, like Quinton de Kock, have stood stone faced making no gesture as those around him chose their own way of expressing solidarity. De Kock refused to explain why he chose to do this.

Clearly, what matters is not exactly how the players choose to express their commitment to eradicate racism. But the clumsy approach of the South Africa team cannot be reduced, as Ngidi would now have it, to the whimsy of individual decision. Those with a sharper historical perspective, and a less comfortable view of the reality of contemporary South African society, know better than this. One can speculate, moreover, that the recent resignation of the Proteas assistant coach—who cited his discomfort with the institutional culture in the national side—has something to do with his own, less sanguine interpretation of the events of the past year, and how they have been received and interpreted in the team camp.

Transformation deferred

Cricket, unlike any other sport, was deliberately constructed as the sport of national unity. Cricket could perform a role that rugby, with its associations with conservative Afrikanerdom, could not. Cricket abandoned the Springbok for the Protea and was packaged by the media and government as the sport that would carry the aspirations of the new “rainbow nation.”

Recent events have exposed just how much of an illusion that sentiment was. Black cricketers of the 1990s and early 2000s have shared painful memories of exclusion and alienation in the national team during the first years of “reconciliation.”

Makhaya Ntini was one of the first black South Africans to make the Proteas side on a regular basis. In a recent emotional interview on the SABC, Ntini confessed how he would sometimes prefer to jog to the games in the morning rather than sit with teammates on the bus. At the SJN, Paul Adams, who played in the 1990s, recalled that he was regularly called a “brown shit” by his teammates, including current coach of the national team Mark Boucher.

Boucher’s response to the accusations from Adams are telling. While he has apologized for his role in contributing to a climate of exclusion and alienation, he maintained that he was “naïve” about the offensiveness of his team’s behavior. Boucher is ultimately a product of his own upbringing in apartheid South Africa and his actions and those of his teammates express the attitudes that many white South Africans carried with them into democracy. In these communities one could, with a straight face, use racially abusive language and claim that one was unaware of the offense caused. One could have reaped the benefits of racial discrimination, yet, when confronted with the bald facts of apartheid, plead ignorance about one’s legislated privilege. Boucher claims that he was “naïve” when entering the national team in the 1990s. Yet it was not “naivety” that led to Paul Adams being called a “brown shit.”

Social solutions for a social problem

Despite the flimsiness of Boucher’s apology, he is correct to bemoan that, in his words, “there was no guidance, no culture discussions, no open forums and no-one appointed by the CSA to deal with the awkwardness or questions or pressures that were being experienced by players and in particular players of color” during his and Adams’ playing days.

This lack perhaps speaks to the awkwardness of the transition, where a recalcitrant old order was giving way to a new dispensation. Yet today, decades down the line, the fact that players are raising similar issues regarding exclusion and alienation, expresses a more disturbing reality.

The fact of the matter is that the hope for reconciliation and social transformation that came with the dawn of democracy has been frustrated and betrayed. The current rumbling in South African cricket is an expression of this broader failure to create institutions that embody the ideals of reconciliation, non-racialism and equality in substance. And, just as our social problems of inequality cannot be resolved by replacing white faces in high places, the use of quotas in cricket is exposed to the contradictions of an approach to transformation fixated on racial representation alone. We should recall that the use of quotas in cricket was championed by the same Mbeki government that was obsessed with creating a “black bourgeoisie,” an obsession which has left us with even wider inequality in the country.

Recognizing the limitations of this approach to transformation, the SJN has turned towards attending to the spirit of the national team and South African cricketing culture more broadly. It is indeed positive that it is giving a platform for players, past and present, to reflect on their experience of racism. Yet the commission’s blind spots are the same ones that have plagued other institutions and policies that have been assigned the task of transitional justice.

Cricket is reliant on its own physical infrastructure—nets, fields, pitches—and development and transformation require greater investment in this area. Yet, cricket is also reliant on social infrastructure. Indeed, as long as our communities are plagued with poverty and related stressors, it is hard to imagine how South Africa will produce self-sustaining transformation on the cricket field. All of the stories of Ngidi, Rabada and Springbok captain Kolisi are stories of how talented black youth were afforded opportunities to study on scholarships and bursaries at private boys’ high schools on their way to the national team. This is not a sustainable pathway for substantive transformation of the sport and our society. The problems in cricket are thus intimately connected with the problem of austerity, the neoliberal form of governance and the corruption that has decimated our public sector and administration.

There are international constraints worth mentioning. Treasury’s fiscal approach is justified for fear of reaction from domestic and international investors and the threat of credit downgrades. Global cricketing governance is analogous with the subordinate position that South Africa occupies in the global political economy. India, England and Australia dominate decision making at the International Cricket Council (ICC). They monopolize funding and schedule matches which suit their own agendas—leading to these teams dominating the test playing schedule in particular, starving our players of the opportunity to excel in the most meaningful format of the game.

Ultimately, while the SJN desires greater equality in cricket, it does not foreground the material barriers to succeeding in this endeavor. The connection, in other words, between the specific issues of racism, alienation and exclusion in South African cricket and the broader material context of these issues is not being made. This limitation mirrors the limitations of other commissions of inquiry in post-apartheid South Africa—such as the TRC, Zondo and Marikana Commissions—which focus on “truth-telling” and individual narratives, while ignoring systemic issues at work.

If the SJN is to realize its principal objective, and if the opening provided by the BLM moment is to translate into meaningful change, then the current efforts in South African cricket cannot continue to imitate the disabilities of previous attempts at transitional justice. It is up to progressives interested in cricket, and cricket’s place in society, to amplify this message and leverage the current conversation to raise the imperative of progressive social transformation.

Further Reading