In 2019, the Springboks won their third Rugby World Cup under the leadership of the game’s first black captain, Siya Kolisi. They were inspired by the mantra Stronger Together. Just like it did after “Madiba magic” delivered its first World Cup triumph in 1995, a nation, and by nation I mean politicians, administrators, players and some fans became entranced with how possession of the Webb Ellis Cup for the next four years can only unify the country.
SA sport is anything but unified. Whether it was white former cricket players having cardiac arrests over the notion of cricket supporting Black Lives Matter, or two RWC winners and six of their compatriots donning an anti-racism T-shirt but standing resolute against a bow to Black Lives Matter on a rugby field in England. The common denominator on matters arising on the field? Race dynamics. Funny thing that, for a nation who wrote the book on reconciliation with democracy derived not by the barrel of a gun but by discussions which ended decades of tyranny and encoded racial hatred.
This past Saturday, the Proteas national team coach completed something known as a culture camp with the men’s senior team at a private game resort in Skukuza. Mark Boucher is yet to speak publicly on claims from former players like Makhaya Ntini of being “othered” in a team culture he was an integral part of. The mind boggles how Boucher has dealt with his side in a wild game park on the reality that not all animals are equal.
To Cricket South Africa’s credit, they have built on the pain of racism expressed in the media by a long list of former black players by hosting the first of hopefully many meetings for social justice. A forum set up for all players to assemble and simply recount their experiences in a safe space.
Away from that seemingly wholesome process, SA cricket is in a boardroom mess with the president and CEO resigning just days ahead of an elective AGM. This makes any step in the right direction, like these social justice meetings, even more crucial.
The fact that this process was never transferred into smaller specific sectors of our society like sport in any real way was a classic case of putting the cart before the horse and now, mixed metaphor or not, the chickens have come home to roost.
It is in brief, a copycat of a process this democracy of ours deemed necessary as a by-product of a non-racial franchise. It was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The fact that this process was never transferred into smaller specific sectors of our society like sport in any real way was a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. And now, mixed metaphor or not, the chickens have come home to roost.
Why would this process be of any salient value to sport and the broader South African society, you may ask? Let’s assume that in addition to finding out literally where the bodies were buried from the 1,500 men and women who owned up to their apartheid crimes through the TRC, the purple-robed Archbishop Desmond Tutu also had the added responsibility of delving into so-called normal sport in an abnormal society.
Let’s imagine for one second that someone like globally celebrated golfer Gary Player was summoned to appear, or even better that he voluntarily submitted himself to the process. Now, let our mind’s eye play out the scene as advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza interrogates the golfer who won a career grand slam, about his own words: “I must say now, and clearly, that I am of the South Africa of Verwoerd and apartheid.”
Those words were published in 1966 in his book Grand Slam Golf. How much would we have learnt as a post-apartheid nation from an interrogation into Gary Player’s directorship of something called the Committee for Fair Sport? The CFS was a creation of apartheid propagandist and secretary of Information Eschel Rhoodie, purported to have spent the equivalent of R14-million in modern times on countering the sporting boycotts which eventually led to the racist regime’s international sporting isolation.
‘So when you defended apartheid I don’t think you did it because you were an evil man or a racist. You did it because you honestly thought you were doing the right thing.’
And then finally, let’s imagine Ntsebeza asking the critical question:
“Do you, Mr Player, now and forever admit being an apartheid apologist and do you, Mr Player still uphold those values?”
Ultimately, by putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, people like Player have never publicly been forced to answer these questions. The closest he has come from perusing what is in the public domain stems from an interview conducted with media professor Govin Reddy published in the Mail & Guardian in 2004. Reddy asked the Black Knight the following:
“So when you defended apartheid I don’t think you did it because you were an evil man or a racist. You did it because you honestly thought you were doing the right thing.”
Player responded, reportedly after a long pause and a nod of the head:
“You know Govin, I think you are right.”
In summation, do we not owe it to ourselves and future generations of athletes to finally transcend the 240 characters of Twitter as the main space to interrogate our feelings, suspicions and defences of our tribes?
Unity in Diversity means nothing if that unity is not embedded in the real lived experiences of all who came before us.
After all, one man’s hero is another man’s villain. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. South African cricket and sport in its entirety can allow those dichotomies to perpetually filter on to the playing field at its own peril, or it can finally have a real and meaningful conversation about the past and the present. A true unified future depends on it. DM