South Africa

CRICKET: TAKING A KNEE

Bavuma emerges as the leader we need through De Kock saga

South Africa captain Temba Bavuma takes the knee as teammate Quinton de Kock looks on ahead of the Pakistan and South Africa warm-up Match before the T20 World Cup in Abu Dhabi on 20 October 2021. (Photo: Gareth Copley-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)
By Craig Ray
02 Nov 2021 5

Proteas captain Temba Bavuma emerged from this week’s Quinton de Kock kneeling saga as a strong and empathetic leader at a time when most of South Africa’s leaders are failing.

In a week of turmoil for the Proteas at the T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates, the one bright spot to come out of the situation was the balanced, strong and inclusive leadership style of skipper Temba Bavuma.

When Cricket South Africa (CSA) issued a directive to the squad, five hours before their second match of the tournament against the West Indies, that they had to take a knee against racial discrimination, it started a chain reaction.

On the bus ride from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, which took almost two hours, the directive was a topic of discussion. For some players it didn’t matter, as they were already taking the knee. For others it was a relief, as the choice was taken away from them, but for De Kock it was unacceptable.

Upon arrival in Dubai, he told his teammates he was withdrawing from the match against the West Indies. He did not want to be forced to take a knee, especially after the squad had undergone several culture camps and had numerous discussions on the topic without confirming with a blanket policy.

It would have been easy to toe the line and move on, but De Kock, as he later explained, didn’t take that view.

All this left coach Mark Boucher, and more glaringly Bavuma, in a tough position. Before the match all Bavuma would say was that De Kock had withdrawn for personal reasons because at that point he didn’t know much more. 

The Proteas duly won the contest by eight wickets, giving a strong display, especially under the circumstances, which had shaken the squad.

Batting for the team

The result of the match was almost irrelevant. Bavuma knew that he would be bombarded with questions about De Kock’s decision, considering the directive.

Bavuma was given the option by the media manager to skip the post-match media conference. For a weaker person, hiding behind a bland statement would have been an easy way out. But Bavuma stepped into the firing line with the same courage and conviction he does when facing 150km/h bowling. Only this time he didn’t duck and dive, which he sometimes has to do at the crease. He played every question with a straight bat.

Obviously, this issue had the potential to deeply divide the squad. But the two are friends and long-time teammates, and Bavuma refused to throw his colleague under the bus.

Because of the timing of the CSA directive and the late decision by De Kock to withdraw, followed by the match, Bavuma did not have time to have a lengthy talk with De Kock about his reasoning.

Even so, Bavuma stepped into the media firing line, prepared to stand up for his friend until he knew otherwise. It underlined that, despite perceptions to the contrary, the team culture is strong.

“Quinton is still one of the players, one of the boys. Whatever support he needs, whatever shoulder he requires from his teammates, will be there for him,” Bavuma said. 

“If there is a need for further conversations to be had, those will definitely happen.

“As a team, we are surprised and taken aback by the news. Quinton is a big player for the team, not just with the bat, but from a senior point of view, so not having this at my disposal, as a captain, is obviously something I wasn’t looking forward to.

“In saying that, Quinton is an adult. He is a man in his own shoes. We respect his decision, we respect his convictions, and I know he will be standing behind the decision he has taken.

“During the two-hour trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, Quinton made his decision. I found out when I got to the changing room. 

“There wasn’t a great deal of time for us to thoroughly discuss this matter. Unfortunately, it was a matter of us digesting what we’ve been told and finding a way to move forward. 

“It was probably one of the toughest days I’ve had to deal with as a captain, as a leader of the team, for obvious reasons with the off-field matters. We had to get the job done. 

“There was still a game of cricket for our country. It was important that, as much as everything was happening, we found a way to get into the right mental space and take it home for our country.” 

Bavuma’s grace under fire was in stark contrast to the CSA leadership, which put him in an invidious position.

De Kock explains

De Kock was subjected to criticism for his actions – some measured and deserved – but he also endured abuse on social media, where he was widely branded as a racist.

It was no doubt hurtful but also an indication that, in a country such as South Africa, and however ill-timed the CSA directive was, he needed to do more to explain his actions. And when he did, it was eloquent and deeply personal.

“I am deeply sorry for all the hurt, confusion and anger that I have caused. I was quiet on this very important issue until now,” De Kock wrote.

“For those who don’t know, I come from a mixed-race family. My half-sisters are coloured and my stepmom is black. For me, black lives have mattered since I was born. Not just because there was an international movement.

“The rights and equality of all people are more important than any individual. I was raised to understand that we all have rights, and they are important,” he wrote.

“We were previously told we had the choice to do what we felt we wanted to do. I chose to keep my thoughts to myself and thought of the pride of playing for my family and my country.

“I didn’t understand why I had to prove it with a gesture, when I live and learn and love people from all walks of life every day. When you are told what to do, with no discussion, I feel like it takes away the meaning. If I was racist, I could easily have taken the knee and lied, which is wrong and doesn’t build a better society.

“I won’t lie, I was shocked that we were told on the way to an important match that there was an instruction that we had to follow, with a perceived ‘or else’. I don’t think I was the only one.

“I think it would have been better for everyone concerned if we had sorted this out before the tournament started. Then we could have focused on our job, to win cricket matches for our country.”

And one of the most important points he made, towards the end of his statement, was how much he valued Bavuma’s leadership. Although he didn’t say so, De Kock would have realised his actions had a chain reaction that put Bavuma in a tough position. But his skipper never let him down.

De Kock’s one-line acknowledgment of Bavuma’s support spoke volumes about the respect Bavuma has among his peers. It also revealed the strong bond between the two and the strength of the team culture, which is mature.

“I just want to thank my teammates for their support, especially my captain, Temba. People might not recognise [it], but he is a flipping amazing leader,” wrote De Kock.

“If he and the team, and South Africa, will have me, I would love nothing more than to play cricket for my country again.”

Leading batter Rassie van der Dussen put any doubt aside that De Kock remains integral to the team and is most welcome, starting with their third match against Sri Lanka on 30 October.

“Quinny is remorseful, and I can say that in a positive way,” Van der Dussen said. “Even though he took that decision, everyone understood why he took [it] and we supported him even though the timing wasn’t great the whole day, and it was a bit chaotic to the match, but we all supported him.

“That speaks volumes for where we are as a team and a management group that we don’t judge and accept and think for themselves and make their own decisions and we respect that. The team is always an open environment. He didn’t even have to explain himself to us, because we accept people for who they are. Our team is a safe space.”

If De Kock needed any reminder of that, it was from Bavuma in the hours after the West Indies match. 

The captain, without the benefit of an explanation from De Kock, stood up for his friend and teammate because he knew the man’s character.

That is leadership. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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All Comments 5

  • Indeed. Leading with personal example. Soft spoken but clear. He and Kolise are the type of leaders our country need. May both of them leave a well deserved legacy.

  • Never underestimate the power of empathetic and authentic leadership. Well done Themba Bavuma for being brave and creating space to hear the full story.

    This was in contrast to the action that set the snowball in motion. The board made a decision to force the team to take the knee. I can imagine the thinking in the boardroom was, “How could anyone legitimately refuse taking the knee?”. In leadership, if you don’t want to be surprised, then rather ask the question first. (Making an assumption, then trying to beat someone with your authority after it is proven incorrect is poor leadership)

    The resolution of this incident makes me very proud as a South African cricket fan. I am proud that the full authentic story came out in the manner in which it did. It makes the gesture heartfelt and genuine going forward.

  • “We were previously told we had the choice to do what we felt we wanted to do. I chose to keep my thoughts to myself and thought of the pride of playing for my family and my country.
    “I didn’t understand why I had to prove it with a gesture, when I live and learn and love people from all walks of life every day.”
    so spoke De Kock and well said, he lives the life and needed no GESTURE.
    CSA should be apologising for creating a situation that should never have occurred. I wait with bated breath for the apology!

  • Great article and I agree with it almost completely.

    One important omission tho is that the SA cricket board stated explicitly that the enforced gesture was in support of BLM, a political movement, rather than racism per se. Indeed ‘the knee’ is broadly seen as associated with BLM specifically, as opposed to the Black Power salute and many others. I don’t want to flog a dead horse though.

    Bavuma rocks. I loved the team solidarity from all parties involved. The team showed clearly who the adults in the conversation are.