Squashing of press freedom the catalyst for change at troubled Cricket South Africa

  • Daniel Gallan
  • December 9th, 2019
  • 10:37:33 IST

Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin once said, "There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen." South African cricket has just had one of those weeks.

It started on Sunday, 1 December when journalist Stuart Hess arrived at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg to cover the Mzansi Super League match between the Jozi Stars and Paarl Rocks. Like he had done countless times before, he placed his press pass under the electronic scanner and expected to walk through the turnstile to begin his work. Instead of a green light, the machine read "ticket cancelled" and he was denied entry to the ground.

Without prior warning, Hess's accreditation had been revoked by Cricket South Africa (CSA) along with four other senior journalists in the country.

The news erupted on social media with the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF), a non-profit watchdog for press freedom, joining the chorus of critics demanding an explanation. It emerged that the five journalists had been exorcised for their reporting of CSA mismanagement and poor fiscal responsibility.

Within hours of the news breaking, the five journalists had their accreditation approved once again. But the damage was done. Over the next seven days, two independent directors of CSA's board resigned, its chief executive Thabang Moroe was suspended for allegations of misconduct and the Proteas' main sponsor, Standard Bank, declared it would not renew its agreement with the team after April 2020.

Problems at CSA had long been uncovered in national newspapers and online. In September the governing body announced an annual loss of around USD 13.7 million while the professional players' union, the South African Cricketers Association (SACA), has been waging a long legal battle on multiple fronts including disputes over commercial rights and a proposed domestic restructure.

But the banning of journalists resonated at a different frequency. Freedom of expression is one of the key tenets of the Constitution of South Africa, the supreme law in the land. It is the greatest gift Nelson Mandela gave his fractured nation and has been the guiding framework for the rights and duties of all citizens for a generation.

Nothing else is as revered or respected in South Africa and any perceived trampling of its virtues immediately elicits a fiery response. CSA had crossed a line.

Because of the oppressive nature of apartheid where the majority of the country was treated as inferior citizens, the values espoused within the Constitution are sacrosanct. South Africans will largely tolerate living in a country with poor service delivery, high crime rates, unpredictable electrical supplies and a dearth of batters capable of facing a slow turning cricket ball, but when the Constitution is threatened, alarm bells are sounded.

Moroe and CSA president Chris Nenzani have committed a laundry list of mistakes but revoking the accreditation of journalists was unquestionably their greatest blunder. It is proof that they have been woefully disconnected from the South African people they have purported to have served.

Cricket South Africa president Chris Nenzani. @OfficialCSA

Cricket South Africa president Chris Nenzani. @OfficialCSA

CSA is a not a private organisation that can pick and choose its mouthpieces in the press. CSA belongs to the people of the country and the teams it selects are filled with ambassadors of South Africa.

Jacques Faul, current chief executive of the Titans franchise, has been appointed as CSA's chief executive on an interim basis. His primary task will be to win back the hearts and minds of the stakeholders within South African cricket who are, to use a local colloquialism, gatvol [fed up].

Any new sponsor will demand well stocked stadiums and the fans who will fill them will want to see a winning team. That can only happen if the board that supports the players is aligned with the union that represents them and helps, not hinders, their abilities to win cricket matches.

"There's too much negative stuff that has happened over the last four, five weeks," Proteas captain Faf du Plessis told a press conference, just three weeks before he leads his team in the first of four Test matches against England starting 26 December. "Our cricket is too strong to have so many issues all the time. We are too proud a cricketing nation to be talking about this stuff all the time. The attention needs to be on the cricket and making sure we will build ourselves as a team and ourselves as an organisation to be great again."

Du Plessis outlined his desire to move beyond the politics and infighting and present a unified front on the field. After a torrid year in which he presided over a 2-0 defeat to Sri Lanka at home (the first time an Asian team has won a Test series in South Africa), a worst ever 50 over World Cup and a 3-0 battering in India, the square-jawed skipper knows that a win against England could prove a soothing tonic in these troubling times.

"It's about getting focus on what's really important now, which is a a Test series against England," du Plessis said. "I am a firm believer that it's time for us to look ahead from all this crap that's been happening behind the scenes. It's about making sure that the players are focused on to what is the cricket side of things. The players have got absolutely nothing to do with what's happening behind the scenes."

A decade of headlines have unfurled throughout a tumultuous week in South African cricket. Plenty more will likely have chins wagging as the saga continues. Nenzani's role in the debacle means he will surely come under fire and he has already attracted the ire of SACA chief Tony Irish who said the president was "clinging to power."

Then there's the matter of the vacant director of cricket role. Former captain Graeme Smith was in the running until he publicly withdrew his interest in the position. It is believed that with Faul at the helm, Smith will sign on Wednesday. This will-he-won't-he escapade seems better suited to a Hugh Grant rom-com, but in the tragicomedy that is CSA, it is becoming harder to separate the truth from the surreal.

Updated Date: December 09, 2019 10:37:33 IST

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