THIRTY years after the fall of apartheid and Cricket South Africa (CSA) is involved in protracted hearings about social justice and nation building; in essence a truth commission to look at what has happened to the sport since 1991. Some feel this is all unnecessary and that the past is the past; others that this is a vital process if South African cricket is to have any future. Not many, it seems, are asking exactly how and why CSA finds itself in this particular predicament.

There may be some justification to the accusation that this process is being exploited by players involved in match fixing or administrators guilty of dodgy dealings. That will come out in the wash of Dumisa Ntsebeza’s final report. What is beyond dispute is that talented players like Paul Adams, Ashwell Prince, Makhaya Ntini and Lungi Ngidi were subject to discriminatory and unacceptable treatment and their experiences alone justify investigation. Ironically, it was sparked by the Black Lives Matter campaign and the vitriol directed at it by certain white ex-cricketers making wild and ludicrous accusations about Marxist influence.

For one hundred years, cricket in South Africa was dominated by a racist clique. International recognition owed much to imperial interests and the racial capitalism of Cecil Rhodes and Abe Bailey initially shaped its domestic organisation. South African cricket was run according to a quota system: 100% white. Black cricket, largely invisible outside its own communities, was fragmented for various reasons. But there was a consistent strand of multiracism present in the Barnato Board that resulted in 1959 in the foundation of the South African Cricket Board of Control (SACBOC). It was one of the founders in 1973 of the non-racial, anti-apartheid South African Council on Sport (SACOS).

SACOS was a powerful and internationally influential critic of government attempts to use sport in the 1970s and 1980s to present a reformed version of apartheid and preserve the racist status quo. It used the truism ‘no normal sport in an abnormal society’ to good effect; promoted uncompromising non-racialism; and emphasised the community building value of grassroots sport and recreation. In challenging the geography of apartheid, it showed what a liberated country might look like. The National Party government declared it an organisation of ‘sports terrorists’. SACOS was non-aligned, embracing a range of political ideologies; the sports wing of the broad internal anti-apartheid movement.

But it was misused and betrayed. From the mid-1980s there were moves to create an ANC-aligned sports body that subscribed to the Congress movement even though the ANC had no policy regarding sport and had even distanced itself from boycott campaigns in the past. But it soon realised that sport was a useful asset in its dealings with white South Africa. The latter’s political power would quickly dwindle, but the payoff was rapid resumption of international ties.

This was fixed without regard for the principles of SACOS or any real change in the administration of cricket. Indeed, the phrase ‘business as usual’ was freely bandied about and there were boastful claims that South Africa was the cricket world champion bar an unfortunate 20-year interruption from 1970 onwards. No one seemed too bothered about why this had been so, except a few SACOS diehards. Many SACOS officials and players behaved opportunistically.

The price of international recognition and readmission should have been simple: entrenchment and wholesale acceptance of SACOS principles and practice. Anyone not prepared to do that should have been shown the door. Non-racialism should have become the norm, but instead white cricket adorned itself with a few faces from other communities and carried on as it had always done with its assumptions and attitudes about racial superiority and entitlement. The insights and values of SACOS culture, which held out great promise for a liberated country, were lost.

In the current context they have little more than historical curiosity value. Yet their demise can be linked directly to the painful experiences of Ntini, Adams, Prince, Ngidi and others. And, most extraordinary of all, some of those who perpetuated the toxic culture are now in charge of South African cricket.

So much for the nation building potential of sport. It could have been different, but all too often hard-won opportunity has been sacrificed to expedience. Merely playing a game is little more than just that. It only builds social cohesion and patriotism where it is based upon shared values.

An earlier version of this piece appeared the Witness on 12 August 2021.