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Cricket in South Africa has a racism problem

By Busisiwe Mokwena

It took the death of an American man, George Floyd, to ignite a long overdue conversation about racism in South African cricket. Floyd’s last moments, pleading for his life while pinned to the ground by a white police officer’s, were caught on camera; massive protests ensued around the world under the “Black Lives Matter” banner. And, as has happened in the past few years when the global conversation turns to just whose lives matter, sporting codes and individual athletes were front and centre. Many in the US took the knee (a gesture that’s come to symbolise being against racial discrimination, and which was popularised by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Then one of South Africa’s most well-known young cricketers, Lungi Ngidi, was asked if the men’s national team, the Proteas, would do the same.

Read: We urgently need a far reaching inquiry into racism and governance problems in cricket

Ngidi, the reigning South African men’s one day international and T20 Cricketer-of-the-Year champion, made his stance clear: black lives matter, and it’s time both the Proteas and the country more broadly discuss these issues openly and honestly. His response enraged several former white Proteas, most notably Pat Symcox and Boeta Dippenaar; Symcox criticised Ngidi for not “supporting the farmers of South Africa who are under pressure right now”. It’s just the sort of “whataboutery” designed to scupper long-overdue discussions about systemic racism in cricket.

More than a quarter of a century after democracy, and close to 30 years since South Africa was readmitted as a cricketing nation after decades of exclusion because of its apartheid policies, cricket is still largely seen as a white sport. This, in a country where black people are the majority. 

Former Proteas cricketer Makhaya Ntini. Image: GCIS

Makhaya Ntini, the first black Protea, only got selected into the squad in 1998. In the wake of Ngidi’s comment, Ntini stepped forward to reveal just how lonely and isolated his time in the national team was – even while he was racking up extraordinary bowling figures. He recorded 390 wickets throughout his career; he was only the third South African after fellow fast bowlers Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock to reach the 300-wicket milestone.

Ntini, whose incredible pace as a fast bowler saw him nicknamed the Mdingi Express (for the small Eastern Cape town where he grew up), was left on the social side lines even as he raked in important wickets for the team. He has told SABC’s Morning Live how he chose to jog between the team hotel and the stadium of the day to avoid feeling like a loner in a structure that presented a united front on the pitch.

A number of cricketers, past and present, have rallied around Lungi Ngidi. But Ntini’s former teammates – among them the current director of cricket at Cricket SA (CSA), Graeme Smith, and the men’s coach Marc Boucher – remained silent for an uncomfortably long time about Ntini’s comments. Pollock didn’t answer his phone this week; Donald initially said he’d be available to speak and later did not respond to our calls. Smith, speaking through Cricket SA’s communications structures towards the end of July, made it clear he would make no comment on either Ntini’s statements nor “Black Lives Matter” more broadly. Speaking to Sports24’s Sibusiso Mjikeliso on August 2, he finally engaged with Ntini’s comments. Still no comment from Boucher, though.

It’s Smith who is best placed to really start driving change, says freelance journalist Khuliso Nemarimela.

“CSA must start being honest and transparent, and this starts with Graeme Smith, the man in charge of everything cricket. Taking cricket to black communities must not only be a campaign thing – it must be a programme through the whole season. Facilities, kits, travelling arrangements, education (about) the sport must all be part of the budget. CSA has had a lot of campaigns going into townships but come the next season it’s gone, and the kids are back in the streets,” Nemarimela says.

“On a professional level, CSA definitely sees transformation as a burden. This must stop. They must see it as their duty to promote black cricketers. They must see colour and not only select black players who went to ‘traditional cricket schools’.”

Read: Graeme Smith ready to dig in at CSA

He’s referring to schools such as King Edward VII School, Jeppe College and St Stithians College, which have collectively produced a number of professional cricketers. These institutions have good structures that are set on developing players from a young age. 

He’s right: at any given time, the men’s national team still has fewer than five players of colour in a squad. Black players need to overcome some enormous odds to be called up at the highest level. Not only must they come from one of the “traditional cricket schools” Nemarimela refers to; they also need to perform constantly at almost supernatural levels to remain in the ranks. 

There tends to be a rush in dropping black players when their performance dips. They don’t get as many consistent chances as white players to prove themselves. The system needs to trust and back players as much as it does with white players who often get given second (and third, and fourth) chances

It’s also important to point out that this isn’t a problem unique to cricket: the 2018/19 Eminent Persons Group report on transformation in sport made it clear that black people and women are underrepresented in different areas of sport across South Africa.

Springboks captain Siya Kolisi has also added his voice in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Breaking his silence after being questioned, Kolisi said in a video, at time he felt like his life didn’t matter and that he had to assimilate to white culture at a young age. The rugby player, who led South Africa in the victory of the 2019 Rugby World Cup said when he joined rugby, he had to conform. 

In the video, he said : “I’ve failed as a leader because of being silent, but that’s over. I will speak, even if it is going to cost me my place. It doesn’t matter because the next generation can’t suffer like we did.”

Springbok Captain Siya Kolisi. Image: GCIS

And, of course, this isn’t just about sport. Racism plays out in boardrooms, bedrooms, and backyards every day. But there’s something about athletes daring to take a stance that gets some white South African sports fans hot under the collar – as videos of unhappy men cutting up their Proteas and Springboks jerseys make abundantly clear. As far as they’re concerned, “all lives matter”.

Nemarimela is pragmatic about the realities of South Africa in 2020: “I don’t think we will ever have a racist-free society, so I don’t expect the sport to have no racism.”

But, he adds, that doesn’t excuse CSA from working harder and doing more to support its black players: “(They) should have policies and laws that are very strong on issues of discrimination, especially on racism.” 

Some have praised CSA for releasing a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Smith has been hailed for a statement in which he did the same – though his unwillingness to respond quickly to Ntini and other players of colour who experienced deeply rooted racism during their playing days surely dilutes his comments.

The #BLM Movement shouldn’t be treated like a campaign. It should be used as a vehicle for change so that the coming generations of exceptional players will not have to swim upstream to break into the national teams.