Themba Bavuma

TWO former South African cricket captains obstructed the careers of promising black test players, Khayelihle Zondo and Thami Tsolekeli. Another senior player indulged in racist language, which now forms part of a charge of gross misconduct. These are the findings of Cricket South Africa’s Social Justice and Nation-Building (CSA SJN) commission chaired by Dumisa Ntsebeza. It was sparked by the mid-2020 revival of the Black Lives Matter movement. Lungi Ngidi felt that the national cricket team should be responding positively. But there was a highly reactionary blast from white cricketers that featured accusations of communism and complaints about farm genocide. This was a case of treading on their own wicket as it released a torrent of accusation about the discriminatory treatment experienced by black cricketers since the end of apartheid. Ngidi was supported by 31 players and five coaches, all black.

The SJN commission, which reported in December 2021, kicked off with a process of scene setting. One view was that the unification of cricket had happened too fast. This is untrue: unification should never have happened at all. An entirely new body founded on non-racialism should have been established that excluded everyone not prepared to abide by the principles articulated by the South African Council on Sport (SACOS) since 1973. That would have put paid to the toxic attitudes spread by the likes of Brian McMillan and Pat Symcox. If cricket had been correctly governed from 1991 onwards, Mark Boucher would have been suspended for calling Paul Adams a ‘brown shit’ and kicked out of the sport for a repeat offence.

Many complaints about racism in sport show up the puerile attitudes of the perpetrators, a reminder of the fact that many professional sportspeople are immature and barely versed in adulthood, yet represent their nations and are venerated by millions. Casual racism is excused as joking, part of team culture. But in the case of South Africa, it is clear that such culture has been determined by the same white mindset that in a previous generation gave us apartheid in sport. Transformatory quotas were used as a fig leaf to preserve traditional group think and conformity. Much is made of the importance of teamwork in cricket. It seems to have escaped the notice of many self-identifying leading players that inclusivity, which means respect for everyone, is required off the field as well as on it.

Themba Bavuma has pointed out that black cricketers are still seen by some as eternally young and developing. The SJN report writes about a ‘toxic patriarchy’ and there have clearly been problems about language and travel (one team seems to have had a ‘darkie bus’) and away accommodation. Boucher’s indiscretions aside, the k***** word, ‘monkey’, ‘black c***’ and ‘tokoloshe’ were used. Complaints about salaries and contracts are harder to weigh up and clearly depend on individuals and circumstances. The Ntsebeza commission wisely left some issues unproven, but its report notes with a rare burst of eloquence, an ‘exclusionary culture which persists within the cricket ecosystem’. This may be seen to include the irregularities around the appointments of the current CEO and coach.

Some black players found guilty of bringing the game into disrepute tried to use claims of racism to have findings against them reversed. Ntsebeza’s commission listened and predictably found the disciplinary processes devoid of any bias. Some have tried to deprecate the commission accordingly. But has anyone considered the possibility whether those who betrayed the game by acting corruptly did so as a result of the discrimination they experienced?

The SJN commission was tasked to answer one basic question: why has there been so little transformation in South African cricket over thirty years? Embedded racism and discrimination apart there is another factor: failure of government at all levels to take the provision of recreational facilities seriously. The ANC in 1994 was thoroughly unprepared to lead a government and weighed down by a political culture of so-called democratic centralisation and collectivism, echoes of eastern Europe in the 1960s that haunt its ongoing failures it to the present day.

Prior to 1990 the ANC took little interest in sport: the internal sports struggle was spearheaded by SACOS and the international boycott by the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC). But as apartheid collapsed sport took on instrumental value: readmission to international competition could be used as a grand but inexpensive gesture to reassure the white community. It worked like a charm: political power was traded for economic wellbeing ‒ and sport. During a cricket tour in the 1990s every shop and workplace had a television at full bore.  

But there has never been any real commitment by the ANC to the development of facilities for communities or schools, especially in rural areas. The collapse of municipal government has seen catastrophic deterioration in the number and condition of recreation grounds in urban areas: just look around Pietermaritzburg. Only one leading cricketer, Mfuneko Ngam, is thought to have emerged from a pure township background without passing through one of the traditional cricketing schools. In Mpumalanga only one township, Embalenhle, has a cricket ground (which was built by SASOL) and a second at Malekutu is unfinished because of a lack of water. Elsewhere in the country facilities such as Dan Qeqe in Motherwell have been vandalised and looted. Gauteng’s Lenz ground had eight pitches and was used for SACOS inter-provincial matches in the 1980s. Now it is degraded. Most township schools have no more than a dusty football field on which cricket equipment is quickly destroyed. Where there is mini-cricket, progression to hardball cricket is thwarted by a lack of nets.

This may possibly be over-optimistic, but the culture of racial discrimination can be overcome given time and determination. On the other hand, a lack of new infrastructure and respect for and maintenance of the old is the long-term transformational problem. Unless it is resolved cricket will fail as a national game.

PS While its content is crucial and its purpose admirable, this report is a disappointment. Transcription of verbal evidence is poor, language usage is even worse, and far too much of the document sounds as if it is written to score points in a legal examination. In short, as a document intended for public readership it needs a competent editor.

• This is a follow up to Sharp Thought #101 published on this website on 24 August 2021. It appeared in the Witness on 16 February 2022.