Changing level of conversations around racial transformation could prove to watershed moment in South African sport

  • Daniel Gallan
  • February 12th, 2020
  • 10:04:46 IST

Racial transformation in South African society is often viewed, and spoken about, in black and white terms. This is understandable given the fractured history of the country as well as the subject matter that compartmentalises people according to their skin tone.

This makes it almost impossible to argue that transformation is working as it should when it evidently is not. The camera doesn't lie and watching the Proteas' humiliation against England over four Tests was difficult viewing without even considering the results of the matches.

At no point was there more than one black African player on the field during the series and the limited overs teams are still overstocked with white players. Black Africans comprise over 80 percent of South Africa's population with whites encompassing less than 10 percent.

South African batsman Temba Bavuma recently criticised media for not giving credit to racial transformation structure when black cricketers do well. AP

South Africa's Temba Bavuma recently criticised media for not giving credit to racial transformation structure when black cricketers do well. AP

The disparity between the general population and the select few who represent the country on the cricket field is a damning indictment on the structures that prop up the national game 30 years after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Whichever way you spin it, the optics point to failure across the board.

But the optics alone do not tell the full story and that is the problem when viewing this conundrum through a lens that allows no nuance. In a country that was quite literally conditioned (brainwashed) into seeing the world in absolutes, understanding the complexities is a challenge.

Speaking after his sublime 98 in the first of three one-day internationals against England in Cape Town, Temba Bavuma provided an insight on the unique pressures of being viewed as a black person first and a cricketer second.

"The awkwardness from my side is when you're thrown into talks of transformation," he said, expanding on a difficult six week period that saw him axed from the Test team before becoming a lightning rod for extremists on both sides of the transformation debate. "I think the one [thing] that really irks me the most is when you do well transformation is not spoken about, but when you do badly then transformation is thrown at the top of the agenda."

Bavuma continued: "I have a serious problem with that. If transformation is bad when a black African is not doing well, then when he is doing well let's also recognise transformation for what it has done. At the end of the day I am black and that's my skin colour, I play cricket because I love it."

Cricket is a numbers game. Runs and wickets are the game's currency and enough of either will dispel most talk about one's melanin count, even in race-obsessed South Africa. Kagiso Rabada's dismantling of batting units might be used as a way of championing 'black excellence' — a term that has gained popularity in the country — but his pace generated and seam positions will likely stretch conversations beyond the confines of his skin colour.

It is when these heroes fall that talk of race resurfaces. When Rabada was rightfully slapped with a demerit point for celebrating too loudly and too close to Joe Root after bowling the English skipper in Port Elizabeth, a not so subtle conspiracy gained traction. Twitter is no barometer for the real world but it was telling that more than a few twits wondered if the ICC would have come down so harshly on the young tearaway had he not been black. Ammunition was provided in the shape of Ben Stokes and Joe Buttler who escaped suspension despite audible expletive tirades.

Of course Rabada was not suspended for this one misdemeanour but for the accumulation of four such flagrancies over 24 months. This seemed of little consequence to those who had decided that it was Rabada's race, rather than his character, that was tried and convicted.

Faf du Plessis, a bastion for white Afrikaans masculinity, has also found himself caught in the maelstrom of race tensions. His detractors cherry-picked a recent poor run of form and compared them with Bavuma's. Never mind that he was the captain of the side, the leading figure in the middle order and was one of the standout performers over a difficult 2019, he was white and Bavuma was black. Preferential treatment, rather than cricket logic, was keeping him in the side according to the race-baiters.

That is not to say that preferential treatment according to race has not existed in South African sport. Jonty Rhodes, an icon around the world, made global headlines when he told Indian newspapers Deccan Chronicle, The New Indian Express and The Hindu, "I certainly benefited from the fact that I wasn't really competing with 50 percent of the population. You talk about white privilege and it raises a lot of heat and debate on social media but it is the case. I'm very aware of that. My cricketing statistics as a player were very average when I was selected."

Racial transformation conversations in South Africa have generally been done in binaries and makes it impossible to understand complexities. AP

Racial transformation conversations in South Africa have generally been done in binaries and makes it impossible to understand complexities. AP

Du Plessis erroneously stated in a press conference during the Test series that he "doesn't see colour". He was rightly criticised for the irresponsible line but it should be noted that English is not his first language and that a presser under bright lights is not a conducive environment to hash out one's thoughts. Either way, it was a sentiment not in keeping with the wider discourse surrounding South African cricket.

The men who have worn the Proteas badge have always been ambassadors of a disjointed land, chosen from a minuscule group of eligible talents from a small subsect of society. During apartheid, only whites were permitted to climb to the highest echelon of their sport. Today, graduating from an esteemed school or having access to state of the art training facilities are near prerequisites for reaching the international stage. Even players like Bavuma, Rabada and Lungisani Ngidi were products of privileged schools. Transformation is not as black and white as it would appear.

Perhaps the most telling contribution to the discussion has come from Graeme Smith. The former captain and now director of cricket at Cricket South Africa sat down with a clutch of local journalists before the fourth Test in Johannesburg and sought to clear some of the squalid air that had settled after a difficult start to his tenure.

On the agenda was the future of Du Plessis and the rumoured return of his old pal AB de Villiers. Kolpaks and Brexit came into the equation as did the legitimacy of Quinton de Kock as captain, the proposed restructuring of the domestic set-up and the damaged reputation of a once proud organisation.

A prevalent theme was the racial makeup of the South Africa teams and Smith did not shrink when confronted by the lack of black cricketers. He did however offer a relevant counterpoint.

"The players need to step up," Smith said. "CSA is spending a ton of money [on transformation]. There is a lot of success out there. I feel this one-day squad is a sign of the future and players have earned their right to be there. I feel going forward that CSA will meet its expectations around transformation."

Placing more pressure on players to perform is an interesting take from Smith. There is something to be said of players — black or white — not taking their opportunities. There will always be pressures at the elite level and these are exacerbated when one is a black South African. But by adding this thread to the narrative, Smith revealed how many layers exist in the Gordian knot that is racial transformation in South African cricket.

As we begin a new decade, frustration amongst some black sports fans is turning to anger. Like the rising vitriol emanating from the far left of the political spectrum, where the firebrand Economic Freedom Fighters party have gained traction in recent elections, much of the discourse concerning transformation is filled with resentment. Battle lines have been drawn.

Hope springs from another sports code. The Rugby World Cup triumph was brought about by a team that is more representative than any other and captained by Siya Kolisi, the first black African to skipper the Springboks. Though rugby has its own challenges, those men wearing green and gold showed that there are positives to be gleaned from the morass of negativity. The massive outpouring of joy around the nation upon the Springboks return from Japan was shared by South Africans of all races. As Mandela said, sport really does have the power to change the world.

But sport is merely a reflection of society and the fact that conversations around race and representation are becoming more frequent in cricket press conferences and in stadiums shows that South Africa today is a different place than it was five, 10 or even 26 years ago when the first democratic elections took place.

Uncomfortable subjects are dissected with greater regularity. Important themes are explored more deeply. This tumultuous period may prove to be a blip that future writers look back on and wonder what all the angst was about. The more likely scenario is that we are in the midst of a watershed moment in South African sport. Race has always impacted conversations about the games we play, but it has never resonated at this particular frequency.

Updated Date: February 12, 2020 10:04:46 IST

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