Opinionista Judith February 12 July 2020

Pat Symcox and Boeta Dippenaar are on the wrong side of history

On 18 July 2020, South African cricketers will take to the field in a charity match, appropriately enough on Mandela Day. Let them take the knee and carry the Black Lives Matter logo on their shirts. As another great West Indian cricketer, Ian Bishop, said this weekend, it’s an act of solidarity. 

Cricketing great Michael Holding wasn’t whispering this past week. Better known as ‘Whispering Death’ for his quiet run-up, Holding fought back tears as he spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement during a rain delay in the #raisethebat series between England and the West Indies in Southampton.

Holding, one of the greatest fast bowlers in the world, with a career that spanned from 1975-1987 with 249 wickets in 60 Test matches, including a 14-wicket haul against England at the Oval in 1976, has never displayed this kind of emotion. In cricketing retirement, he turned his craft to commentating and is direct and clear-eyed in his analysis of any game, with his Jamaican lilt and wicked sense of humour.

Yet, here he was at age 66, almost breaking down as he recounted incidents of racism from his childhood and his playing days. 

Before the test match, players from both cricket teams “took the knee”. Started by the American NFL player, Colin Kapaernik in 2016, this has now become almost routine in sport all around the world since the murder of George Floyd. In the English Premier League, where black players have often been subjected to racial abuse, this act seemed an obvious response. In this and many other sporting codes, players also had the #BlackLivesMatter logo somewhere on their kit. 

And so, as English and West Indian cricketers took the knee, it seemed right even for this genteel game. It felt particularly right because no sport and certainly no institution in the former British colonies was untouched by racism and white supremacy. Colonialism, after all, was premised on the sacking of land and on the violation of black people’s rights. In fact, the taking of the knee in Southampton was even more symbolic given the ongoing controversy in the UK regarding the so-called “Windrush generation”, who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean between 1948–1973. Nearly half a million people arrived to take up positions within the National Health Service and other sectors given the post-war labour shortage in the UK. Given that the Caribbean was part of the Commonwealth at the time, the workers were granted rights of citizenship. 

In 2017, it emerged that because many of the Windrush Generation arrived as children on their parents’ passports, the Home Office destroyed thousands of landing cards and rights to remain in the UK. Now deemed as “illegal immigrants”/“undocumented migrants”, they began to lose their access to housing, healthcare, bank accounts and driving licenses. Many were placed in immigration detention, prevented from travelling abroad and threatened with forcible removal, while others were deported to countries they hadn’t seen since they were children. 

Given these kinds of historical injustices, Holding’s story matters. His story matters because it is one of many. It matters because systemic racism still exists in the world. 

Black lives matter. 

It was in this context that Proteas player, Lungi Ngidi was asked what seemed like an obvious question. 

Ngidi was asked whether South African cricket fans would see “the whole team taking the knee during the national anthem”.

Symcox should also not presume to speak about sitting down to the next meal when a player like Mfeneko Ngam, whom many called the most natural of fast bowlers, eventually succumbed to all manner of stress fractures possibly because of deficiencies in his childhood diet. 

He responded saying: “We have spoken about it and everyone is well aware of what’s going on. It’s a difficult one because I feel we are not together so it’s hard to discuss, but I definitely think once we get back to playing that it’s something we have to address as a team, and as a nation as well. We have a past that is also very difficult in terms of racial discrimination.” 

This unleashed a Twitter storm with former Protea batsman, Boeta Dippenaar replying: “I am afraid to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ has become nothing more than a leftist political movement. I would suggest Lungi Ngidi listens a bit more to the likes of Thomas Sowell, Larry Elder, Walter Williams and Milton Friedman. All lives matter. If you want me to stand shoulder to shoulder with you Lungi then stand shoulder to shoulder with me regarding farm attacks.” 

Former Proteas spin bowler, Pat Symcox stretched it further to the crisis affecting Cricket South Africa (CSA) and tweeted: “What nonsense is this? He must take his own stand if he wishes. Stop trying to get the Proteas involved in his belief. Besides the fact that right now Cricket South Africa should be closed down. A proper dog and pony show with cricket being dragged through the mud daily. Buy popcorn and watch. Now when Ngidi has his next meal, perhaps he should rather consider supporting the farmers of South Africa who are under pressure right now. A cause worth supporting.”

The Symcox response was particularly egregious and unintelligent. Quite what the dysfunction within CSA has to do with Ngidi as an individual player is unclear. His comment regarding Ngidi’s “next meal” is simply cruel. Social media provides a platform for the basest instincts after all. 

Symcox must know that Ngidi’s story is an unlikely one, or has he not bothered to listen? Ngidi’s scholarship to Hilton College provided him with a cricketing opportunity. Nothing about his rise to success was inevitable. His parents, Bongi and Jerome Ngidi were both cleaners at Kloof Junior school. In 2015, aged just 19, Ngidi bought his parents their own home. No one can surely presume to lecture Ngidi about the privilege of having a meal? 

Symcox should also not presume to speak about sitting down to the next meal when a player like Mfeneko Ngam, whom many called the most natural of fast bowlers, eventually succumbed to all manner of stress fractures possibly because of deficiencies in his childhood diet. 

Dippenaar’s bitter tweet regarding farm murders is easy enough to pick apart as it fails to recognise a system which ensures that black people are the victims of poverty,  general violence, state violence and inequality. Sadly, this is nothing new. 

Despite the ideals of our 1996 constitution, one is more likely to be black and poor than white and poor, and more likely to be the victim of state-sponsored violence if one is black. Collins Khosa, Mido Macia, Andries Tatane, Bulelani Qolani start a very long list of victims of state violence. 

There are some things white people never had to endure and still do not have to endure in 2020. In the US, it means a young man in a hoodie could be killed for going jogging or buying a packet of Skittles. It gives the likes of Amy Cooper the license to call the police in a fit of hysteria when she sees a black man bird-watching in New York.  

In the US, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written about so eloquently in his book, We were eight years in power, one in four black men has been incarcerated since 1970. He quotes the following study: “For her research, Pager pulled together four testers to pose as men looking for low-wage work. One white man and one black man would pose as job seekers without a criminal record, and another black man and white man would pose as job seekers with a criminal record. The negative credential of prison impaired the employment efforts of both the black man and the white man, but it impaired those of the black man more. Startlingly, the effect was not limited to the black man with a criminal record. The black man without a criminal record fared worse than the white man with one. ‘High levels of incarceration cast a shadow of criminality over all black men, implicating even those (in the majority) who have remained crime free.’” 

South Africa is not the US and some of the Americanisms like “people of colour” that has slipped into our lexicon is unthinking. That aside, however, our own apartheid history – an entire system set up to ensure black people become nothing more than farmworkers or the like is not easily erased in 26 years. That this ANC-led government has failed in its sacred obligation to the majority of South Africans is a travesty and a grievous injustice. 

Despite the ideals of our 1996 constitution, one is more likely to be black and poor than white and poor, and more likely to be the victim of state-sponsored violence if one is black. Collins Khosa, Mido Macia, Andries Tatane, Bulelani Qolani start a very long list of victims of state violence. 

But, we can hold two thoughts at once – or at least, we should be able to. 

The system of apartheid created fundamental inequalities for black people that means a persistent payment for that which went before, through so-called “black tax” and the burden of assisting family members who did not have access to education or employment during apartheid. Black lives matter is about recognising that historic wound of injustice and thinking afresh about white privilege. 

Saying this, as Ngidi did in subsequent interviews, (when referring to the #BLM protests), “It makes you emotional. It’s been a tough year”, should not be controversial. 

It also should not mean that we are at war with each other. It means we have to respectfully recognise that Ngidi’s rise to success was not guaranteed. The tired mantra to keep politics out of sport does not apply here. Sport and politics have always been intertwined in South Africa and any game takes place against a social backdrop that cannot simply be ignored. Of course, how one deals with historic inequality and systemic racism in sport or elsewhere is a debate which is complex and should not, as is often the case, be subject to lazy thinking and quick, half-baked solutions. 

The starting point has to be to realise that systemic racism exists and that no sport operates independently of the society in which it is played. 

Black lives matter should be viewed as a continuation of the same struggle which compelled Rosa Parks to sit defiantly on a bus. It is also part of the same struggle which drove Nelson Mandela to prison, Martin Luther King to declare his dream, civil rights activists to march in Selma and South Africans to protest at Sharpeville.  

Dippenaar, Symcox and others should seek to understand this better. And since Dippenaar is handing out reading material, he might wish to reflect on the Andre Odendaal trilogy on race and cricket. This an important rendering of history that many within cricket may choose to forget or gloss over. It is a necessary retelling, not only for those of us who love cricket, its eccentricities and statistics, but also for anyone interested enough in understanding the past in a way which is constructive and paradoxically despite its pain, is affirming. 

It affirms the talent of those who were denied the opportunity to represent their province and their country. In that context, the success of Ngidi, Kagiso Rabada, Hashim Amla and Vernon Philander belong to them all. 

The struggle towards a more equal society has throughout history been marked by many different kinds of activism. 

Rosa Parks resisted bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 by refusing to give up her seat in the “coloured” section to a white man. Parks’ act of defiance became iconic for not only the US, but for the global civil rights movement. 

Yet, her defiance on the bus that day was not a once-off incident, but a part-culmination of her fierce fight against racism over many years. As Parks spoke of a younger, more impatient generation, she reflected in 1973: “The attempt to solve our racial problems non-violently was discredited in the eyes of many by the hard-core segregationists who met peaceful demonstrations with countless acts of violence and bloodshed. Time is running out for a peaceful solution.”

For Parks, the struggle was not over and she recognised that a new generation of activists was becoming increasingly impatient at a lack of progress on questions of racism. 

Black lives matter should be viewed as a continuation of the same struggle which compelled Parks to sit defiantly on a bus. It is also part of the same struggle which drove Nelson Mandela to prison, Martin Luther King to declare his dream, civil rights activists to march in Selma and South Africans to protest at Sharpeville.  

Symcox, Dippenaar and those who don’t understand this do not understand the march of history. If they did, they would realise that they are on the wrong side of it right now. 

On 18 July 2020, South African cricketers will take to the field in a charity match, appropriately enough on Mandela Day. Let them take the knee and carry the Black Lives Matter logo on their shirts. As another great West Indian cricketer, Ian Bishop, said this weekend, it’s an act of solidarity. 

It is not a condemnation of all white people, but rather it is about an acknowledgment of the world as it is and the power relations that represent the proverbial knee on the neck. DM

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