SOUTH Africa’s cricket ducks are no longer neatly in a row. Sooner or later there was bound to be a reckoning and the Black Lives Matter campaign has exposed a hidden rawness to the game that has been obscured for thirty years.
From 1973 onwards, and building on a tradition that stretched back to the late nineteenth century, the South African Council on Sport (SACOS) campaigned for non-racialism, social justice and community cohesion through physical recreation. A potent tactic was the international boycott of white South Africa’s racist sports structures. For this, SACOS members were labelled sports terrorists by the government.
When apartheid began to unravel in the late 1980s the ANC, which had developed no coherent sports policy during the exile years, cynically undermined SACOS for its own political purpose. With the assistance of the breakaway National Sports Congress it railroaded unity at national level without proper consultation and respect for SACOS objectives. The ANC needed white acquiescence and buy-in to an inevitable loss of political power; and what better a consolation prize than re-admittance to international competition? Oiled by the capital beginning to flow into global sport, a deal was rapidly sealed. The underlying message was business as usual. Dissenters were called extremists who failed to appreciate the reconciliatory power of sport and its ability to unite a brave new rainbow nation.
Reality vindicated the sceptics. Most significantly many whites failed to reflect on the lessons of years in the sporting wilderness, regarding them as an inconvenient interruption to South African triumphalism. Thus the supremely arrogant banner [pictured] at the 1992 Cricket World Cup: ‘South Africa world champs 1970–1992 (unbeaten)’. Unity was simply a hostile takeover of non-racial sport. The principles of SACOS were buried, together with the history of black sport they reflected and represented.
For a while the mythical rainbow narrative held, although anyone with the slightest knowledge of the field of play knew that racism remained rife. Remember Brian McMillan’s ‘coolie creeper’? That was in 1999 and not only did he use highly offensive language but also unacceptable stereotyping that implied dishonesty. (Bowlers’ deception is ironically an integral and honourable part of the game.) The racist McMillan was officially sanctioned but remained unapologetic and multitudes of white South Africans thought his offensive behaviour highly amusing. Like him, they failed to understand the game beyond a platform for their own hubris.
Black cricketers like Ashwell Prince and Makhaya Ntini are now putting on record their painful personal experiences. This destroys the fairy tale that sport unites. Of course it can; but that depends on specific human behaviour. And this current soul searching should not be allowed to obscure other betrayals.
Not only was non-racialism undermined, but SACOS’s emphasis on recreation, community and social cohesion was also devalued. The current sports imperatives are nationalism, professionalism and commercialisation. Community needs are all but forgotten: look no further than the state of public sports facilities in a city like Pietermaritzburg. They diminish and deteriorate by the year. We are currently being treated to a wave of media nostalgia around the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Its real legacy was one of debt and corruption. It had no lasting benefit for the average sportsperson.
Today’s sad state of affairs can be traced back directly to hasty and unwise decisions made thirty years ago. But it is by no means entirely a consequence of white racism. The ANC is equally culpable, selling out the dedicated work of anti-apartheid sports organisations and failing to follow through the radical reform they advocated. Instead sport, like so much else in post-apartheid South Africa, fell victim to a stitch-up between two dominant nationalisms that ignored other political philosophies. Today we reap the consequences.
An earlier version of this piece was published in the Witness on 21 July 2020.