The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, in the South African sporting context, has ignited necessary conversations about race and sparked outrage in equal measure.
Painful stories of discrimination and insensitivity have emerged from hurt players such as former Proteas fast bowler Makhaya Ntini. His retelling of his sense of displacement and estrangement in the Proteas set-up, largely under Smith’s captaincy, was revealing and moving.
Listening to and hearing the issues people such as Ntini faced are vital to building a more inclusive sporting system, but the BLM movement has also become a soapbox for some to attempt political points’ scoring.
Smith is a case in point. Or rather, Smith the director of cricket is. He has become a target because he is white and holds a powerful position in CSA at a time when suspended chief executive Thabang Moroe and the CSA board are involved in a public battle.
Smith has been hammered because he appointed Mark Boucher as Proteas coach soon after taking the job last December. He has been beaten with the same stick because batting consultant Jacques Kallis and spin bowling consultant Paul Harris are white.
In this narrative, the fact that he was sought out and appointed by the CSA board, which only has two white members out of the 12, is conveniently forgotten. It’s also overlooked that he also appointed black coaches such as Enoch Nkwe, Charl Langeveldt and Justin Ontong to coaching positions in the Proteas set-up.
Smith took on the job when CSA was in a state of turmoil in the days after Moroe was suspended after a series of blunders while the national team was in freefall.
CSA is still nowhere near a stable organisation and it still faces massive challenges, which includes responses to the outcome of an independent forensic audit commissioned to investigate the Moroe era. Next month CSA has an annual general meeting where it will elect a new president and perhaps restructure the board. There are so many agendas at play it makes T20 cricket look like the Timeless Test.
Smith is an easy target
Smith, in particular, has become an easy target for those looking to pigeon-hole the CSA malaise into a neat black versus white narrative against the backdrop of BLM, the fight between Moroe and CSA and the upcoming elections.
“Referring to some of the articles around appointments — my appointment and the appointment of the staff, those are extremely unfair,” Smith told a media conference on Saturday. Smith was referring to among others, former provincial player Hussein Manack’s criticism of his appointment. Manack unsuccessfully applied for the same job in 2019.
“I feel there is a slight agenda with some things that are being said,” Smith said. “But, internally, with all these leaked documents and trying to create stories in the media, certainly I do feel there is a plan at play at times. But I’ve got to come back to my value system and why I got involved in this job.
“CSA courted me for a while. I went through the same interview process as everybody else in getting the job. I actually turned it down; I tried to not be a part of it. And when I got involved in December it was absolute chaos in South African cricket. There was zero trust with anyone within the organisation. I got involved because I’ve got cricket at heart.
“I do feel that at the moment there’s an element that’s pulling in a lot of different directions. There’s a lot of internal agendas at play. I’d like to align some of this stuff going forward, in particular from a cricket perspective. That’s my major role and I’d like to get back to performing that role.
“I can understand where people are coming from, but I think this narrative of a clique taking over is really unfair. I was appointed by a really vigorous process. There were mainly black African people in my interviews. I didn’t appoint myself. By no means did I fight to be in this position.
“If you are asking me whether Jacques Kallis was one of the best batting coaches and batting cricketers we’ve ever had, I’d tell you, ‘yes’. Do I feel he has a role to play in South African cricket? It would be stupid of us not to involve our most successful cricketer, and the batting experiences he could bring to our young batters.”
Current CSA President Chris Nenzani surprisingly came out in support of Smith’s appointment and decisions in an interview with Sport24.com last week. It’s surprising because the focus on Smith and acting CEO Jacque Faul has kept the spotlight off the real issue – the CSA board’s role in allowing Moroe to bring CSA into disrepute.
“The appointments he (Smith) made were endorsed by the board,” Nenzani said. “If you look at the urgency of the situation at the time, we needed to have a management team in place. And we wanted to give the director of cricket a handle on that appointment.
“We needed a coach for the summer series against England, which we did (Boucher), and that was endorsed by the board.”
Time to listen
CSA has launched a Cricket for Social Justice and Nation Building (SJN) initiative to help with a restorative process to address issues of the past while taking the game forward.
“We are sorry that our cricket players had to endure the emotional hardships that they did; subjugated by their peers along racial lines under our new democracy that enjoined us to embrace reconciliation and inclusivity,” Nenzani said.
“SJN is the first-of-its-kind project meant to rid cricket of apartheid racial discrimination. This is the very important project that all stakeholders must make sure it succeeds, for the future sustainability of cricket.”
Ntini’s testimony was particularly painful to hear. He explained that he preferred to run from the hotel to the ground at times to avoid taking the team bus. He also said that teammates wouldn’t sit with him at mealtimes. Smith revealed that he was surprised.
“I was very taken aback by ‘Mackie’s’ stuff,” Smith said, using the affectionate moniker given to Ntini. “Having played with Mackie I never thought of him as a silent person. When I got into the environment he was a senior player already. In my conversations about why he ran to the ground his explanations to me were different at the time.
“He never expressed anything different to me. Culturally, I can imagine… being the only black African from his walk of life, it must have been tough.
“Maybe an awareness around that is something that I didn’t have. I’ve certainly considered that. In 2010, when we opened the channels for sharing in the culture camp we had, that became a real and powerful experience for me. Some elements really surprised me. We’ve got to own and listen and be a part of the solution. Some aspects certainly caught me off guard.
“I feel normal with Mackie. We had an open discussion. We listened, we shared; there are certainly no hard feelings at all. It’s about being able to hear each other, talk to each other, communicate and find a way forward. I feel like myself and Mackie have done that. There’s no issues between us.”
Smith’s expressed surprise, if not remorse, that players felt unable to speak freely in teams he was a part of. He believes the SJN process will help make sure that isn’t the case in future.
“The initial thing (with SJN) is to listen,” Smith said. “It’s a real opportunity to have open conversation, to listen to everyone talk, to understand everyone’s thoughts and ideas around the process.
“A number of things that have come out have been surprising. The most important thing is that we’ve got to create an environment in which everyone feels safe to communicate in.
“The thing that has surprised me the most is that there were players in the past who never felt that they had a voice or could feel comfortable enough to communicate. As part of my role and my department’s role, we’re going to have a very big influence on how things move forward. I really would like the opportunity to engage and be a part of the solution.”
Smith, as a celebrated Test opening batsman, was adept at seeing off the new ball and laying a foundation for his team. Smith, the director of cricket, appears ready to dig in for another long innings, ducking and diving the bouncers along the way. DM