Cricket SA: The long shadow of Thabo Mbeki

by The Editor

ExcellenceFEATURE: Cricket South Africa has recently announced it will appointing a new national selector not on merit, but on their race: they must be black. Not only are quotas anathema to professional sport in general and excellence in particular but, for the most part, South African sport seems to have moved beyond demographic representivity; at least, that is what the Minister says. But CSA seems trapped in the past and, with that, held hostage by the antiquated thinking of Thabo Mbeki.

Cricket: The long shadow of Thabo Mbeki

By: Gareth van Onselen

12 December 2012

According to Cricket South Africa (CSA) intends to “appoint a black African selector in accordance with their transformation policy, in an attempt to better represent the country’s demographics”.

CSA Chief Executive Jacques Faul told the website: “We want to transform and reflect the demographic of our country as best as possible. A black African selector is needed to help address representation on all levels, which includes management”.

He stated the move, however, did not represent a drive increase the number of black South African cricketers: “Just as white selectors don’t only select white players, so would black selectors not only select black players.”

In other words, CSA intends to appoint a quota of black selectors tasked with upholding and striving for excellence in player selection (that is, to continue to ensure cricket selections are made on the basis of merit, not race).

A curious policy.

The website reports the front-runner for the position is former South African fast bowler Makhaya Ntini, who recently ingratiated himself before the cricketing ‘nation-builders’ – so long the infection poisoning CSA with their particular brand of racial politics – by saying wicket keeper Thami Tsolekile “would be playing for the Proteas if he was white”.

It was a comment Tsolekile himself didn’t take too kindly to: “…what he said was quite disturbing, for me personally. I wouldn’t know why he said that,” and “Makhaya was speaking on behalf of himself, not me. I haven’t experienced anything like that.”

So a fantasy then, but one shared by many in South Africa’s cricket administration and, no doubt, smiled upon by those political power brokers who care about such things.

More curious still is that Ntini seems to have abandoned his earlier position on quotas. Asked in a February 2003 article for Britain’s Observer what he made of those politicians who still claim racial discrimination remains rampant in South African cricket, he responded:

“I do not believe in mixing politics with sport and I do not see why people still see a problem today. We already all have the same opportunities. One thing I do not want is for us to be called affirmative action players. That’s bad for black players and bad for South African cricket. I want to play first and foremost with good players, the best players, in a winning team.”

But an affirmative action selector, assuming he is the front-runner, well that is another story. And mixing politics and sport? Now a good and necessary thing. What a pity.

I would have far preferred a comment about how CSA has a plan to ensure we continue to select the best cricketers with the purpose of retaining our position as the best team in the world. But that would appear a bridge too far for CSA. We are on top of the world; time to throw a spanner in the works.

Not that this kind of attitude is anything new mind you. And Faul is just being silly if he expects the public to believe the drive for more black players is not a constant and relentless pressure applied to CSA and its selections. What would be the point of a ‘transformation’ policy otherwise?

The policy in question is a 2008 invention. It states, among other non-performance related things, “The existing targets applicable to all levels of the game should remain in existence at least until the end of the 2010 season whereafter a process should be put in place to review them and make adjustments which maintain the momentum of the past decade towards more equitable and representative cricket demographics”; that selectors “are trusted to ensure that the team is representative and reflects the broad ethos of democratic South Africa and the principles of CSA’s transformation policy” and that “In order to promote the principles of CSA’s transformation policy, the selection panel should include black Africans.”

As long as the policy has been around, so has the accompanying public obfuscation.

Asked back then if the target of seven black players in the national team would trump the pursuit of excellence, convener of selectors Haroon Lorgat, responded “Quotas are cast in stone, targets are an aspiration. I liken it to businesses setting budgets. If you meet or exceed your targets it is good, if you fall short you have to explain the reasons why. I would love to be able to get to eight black players for the World Cup, but the key thing is that everybody who goes to the World Cup must know they have been picked to play a clearly defined role and that they deserve to be there.”

Lorgat continued: “As selectors, we pick our best possible team then afterwards check it against our transformation target. If there are two players of more or less equal ability we will give preference to the black player, but that does not apply if the black player is competing with someone who has a stronger claim to a place.”

And CSA has a very clear idea of what constitutes ‘black’ too. Former head of CSA Gerald Majola has put it like this: “Our black is generic black. We are working to Africanise the entire structure of cricket but there is no specific policy to pick black African players. Our challenge is to the system to produce more such players.”

“Aboriginal black” he called it elsewhere. So the Khoisan? Truly CSA got rid of an unpleasant piece of work when they parted ways with Majola. His influence, though, like the spectre that doesn’t know its dead, lingers on.

Few things make for more convoluted logic than trying to marry excellence and quotas, an excruciating pastime for many in South Africa. The two ideas are simply incompatible. Either you go with the best (merit), or some other consideration (race). Should it so happen a person of a particular race is excellent, well then you are talking about excellence anyway. But it’s one or the other. Quotas can’t be an “aspiration” and yet you still “pick the best possible team”. That, as Harry G. Frankfurt would say, is bullshit.

Of course it says a great deal that the powers that be feel a need to couch their true intent in this kind of double speak. If there really is a need for racial quotas, if it’s what everyone wants and desires, why not just be upfront about it? How refreshing it would be to read a CSA statement that read: “We aren’t picking the best team for this World Cup, we are picking the most demographically representative. We won’t win, causing winning is not the point of professional sport, having a team with a particular quota of people from each race is.”

You laugh, but that sentiment is not as fanciful as you might think. Move up the power hierarchy, to the primary influence behind much of this thinking, and Mbeki himself has said pretty much exactly that: “For two to three years let’s not mind losing international competitions because we are bringing our people into these teams.” I am fairly confident every South African who celebrates a hard fought international victory is grateful no one took that too seriously. The “our people” phrase in particular stands out with the polarizing menace that was Mbeki’s signature affect.[1]

Make no mistake, the fact that South Africa has managed to field a world-beating team, given the kind of nonsense CSA spends its time concerned with, is a minor miracle. One of those rare occasions, so often chronicled by Hollywood, where a team’s results render all the underlying politics null and void. I would be surprised if in the Wanderer’s Long Room, someone hasn’t muttered, “Number one in the world is all well and fine, but we really need a more representative team, things must change”.

CSA’s public rhetoric on the subject is couched in such contradictory language because only a fool would think race is more important to a sports fan than winning. Never mind a professional sports person. It is a concession. An attempt to allude to excellence while smuggling in race betwixt and between – a recognition that their real agenda is just not acceptable or palatable to the vast majority of South Africans.

It is a profound irony that the one team exempt from this kind of pressure, the national football team, has over the past 18 years seen its international performance nosedive so spectacularly it can hardly draw a handful of supporters to an international game. Why? Because the administration of our football has been second only to Eskom in the South African maladministration premier league. We spend so much time seeking out the best racial administrators that when race isn’t an issue they don’t know what to do. How many football fans have you heard call into a radio show going, “You know, we lost to Egypt but wow, I sure got a kick out of how demographically representative our national side is. So all is forgiven”?

The point is: sports fans, sports men and sports women don’t care about race; they want to win. They want to win because they want to be the best; to be excellent. It’s is why they get up in the morning.

In a wonderfully authentic and personal interview with the Sunday Independent in 2005, Breyton Paulse set it all out:

“People should not use us as tokens. It is so discriminating. It is against our integrity. I wasn’t ready the first time I was chosen for the South African squad and I was unhappy. I needed about three more years to get ready for it and had the feeling I was only there because of other considerations. I was very cross at the way it was implemented. There have definitely been players whose careers have been ruined by this. I won’t name names but they have been fast-tracked onto the scene and sadly that didn’t do them any good and they disappeared. But for my character, my spirit-base and determination, I would probably have disappeared, too. That sort of thing makes you think and can harm you: the consequences are bad.

You start to doubt yourself and negative things creep into your mind. People have been put in there because of their colour; and that is wrong. You can’t just put someone in. You must give the players a support structure and provide the opportunity for them to help themselves get to where they want to be. This tokenism is definitely wrong and will create divisions in the team. Supporters are also fed up with it. People are not stupid; they cannot be fooled. You cannot play with reality. Obviously, after democracy, transformation was going to happen, and originally I supported it. But the manner in which it has come across has been wrong for both sides. There is a better way you can nurture people. You can’t just take them from the bottom and put them at the top. They must put themselves at the top. This happens … in business.”

But fooling themselves seems to be CSA’s intent. Ntini himself makes the case. Here is a black South African, immensely talented – indeed, one of South Africa’s greatest ever bowlers – who made it to the top not by being black but by being excellent. Certainly the International Cricket Council doesn’t award bonus points for blackness when it draws up its player rankings. Nor does Sachin Tendulkar give away his wicket because he feels they should be equally distributed between the various races in a bowling line up. You have to earn such things, by being good. Very good. By being the best.

So when Faul says: “I don’t think people realise what a big gap Ntini left when he retired from international cricket. He was a great role model and obvious choice for the Test team,” what actually is he saying? That time and age robbed South African cricket of a great? That its fans will miss him because he made us better? More likely to win? Or that it’s a great shame because all the bean-counters out there had to move one bean from their black cricketers jar to their black retired cricketers jar.

What an insult to Ntini, to suggest his career was an exercise in racial PR. And what an insult to all those young cricketers out there, whatever their race, to suggest they aspire to a career in racial representivity, rather than professional brilliance. I wonder, if you had to poll young black cricketers who identify Ntini as their role model, and ask, what do you remember about the man? Why Ntini? Will they point to his 10 wickets at Lords? His vital single in the 438 game? His mammoth haul of test scalps? Or will they say, “You know what, I remember the team photo”?

Even the sports minister seems to have moved beyond quotas, stating in January 2011 that, “…the quota system is both undesirable and a blunt tool that we believe will not bring about meaningful development and transformation in sport as envisaged”.

Not CSA though. It appears intent on bashing away at its racial carving with the only blunt instrument in its toolbox. Why is that? When the rest of the world seems to have moved on, Cricket South Africa seems stuck in the past.

The answer, perhaps, has something to do with just how monumental its failing has been in engineering a generation of black cricketers. Someone should ask just how much CSA has poured into the development of black cricketers over the past 20 years. It must be a breathtaking amount of money. And for what? A handful of black players, the majority of whom enjoyed a private school education anyway? (South African schools remain the real engine room of our future sports talent). Gauteng in particular has failed fundamentally to generate a new black cricketing elite.[2]

But that is to be expected. It’s a social engineering project akin to artificially turning the American National Basketball Association into a haven for Wall Street bankers. They are just not interested. That doesn’t mean many black South Africans don’t follow cricket. Nor does it mean such individuals can’t be the best in the world at it, should they so choose. It just means it’s not their thing. Football isn’t my thing but I don’t feel the effects of some programme to elicit my affections for the sport on the basis of my race.

But perhaps it’s more than just some stubborn refusal to stop flogging a dead horse. You get the sense it’s all about the past. And here I don’t mean the obvious, but the more recent past. A generation of administrators stuck in a mad-Mbeki era of quotas and targets and demographic representivity. Sure that kind of thinking still holds a fair deal of influence across South African sport (more so outside of it) but nothing as bad as it was at its zenith, when Ncgonde Balfour proudly flouted his ignorance about Jacques Kallis [3] and ANC sports committee chair Butana Komphela – a man who himself admitted “I know nothing about [sport] but I know the policy position of the ANC around it” – would label Desmond Tutu “treasonous” for speaking out against quotas.[4]

Certainly Gerald Majola epitomized those Mbeki heydays. You would think, with him gone, it might be time for CSA to cleanse the system somewhat. Turf out that 2008 nonsense. Hell, maybe even to modernize – concentrate on winning for change, on excellence and such things. But the sickness, it seems, runs deep.


[1] This kind of thinking wasn’t limited to Mbeki, following his lead, Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile, speaking in parliament on 15 February 2005, would make the following plea: “[Government has] called on sports administrators to sacrifice a little bit in terms of wanting to win, because even when we field these lily white teams, we lose.”

[2] Former South African cricket selector, Clive Rice put it like this to the Daily Telegraph, on 7 December 2004: “The (United Cricket) board have got it into their heads that there’s a generation of black and coloured players straining at the leash to play Test cricket and that holding back whites is the only way they’ll ever get a chance to shine. Wrong. Unfortunately, few black South Africans regard cricket as their national game. They are more interested in football. Recently we were asked to find four black cricketers from Pretoria to make up a representative team. We couldn’t find four in the entire province. They talk about players from Soweto but most of them have been Kenyans imported to make it look good. A young black player was nearly killed because they insisted on promoting him beyond his capabilities. Poor guy couldn’t handle the quick stuff. We literally had to rescue him.”

[3] South Africa’s former Minister of Sport and Recreation Ngconde Balfour was recorded in the minutes of a 10 July 2002 meeting between himself, United Cricket Board officials and other sports figures about the state of South African cricket, as saying: “I do not go to Newlands to watch Jacques Kallis or Mark Boucher, I go to watch Paul Adams and Makhaya Ntini. Who is Jacques Kallis? Jacques Kallis means nothing to me.”

[4] Tutu’s comments were actually a response to Stofile’s Mbeki-like suggestion we lose to be more representative. His full remarks were: “I don’t want tokenism (in sport), it’s an insult to everybody. And there are so many occasions when it seems black players are there to satisfy demands of transformation. That is not good for the morale of the individual or the team. People talk of two or three black players in a team but what is the difference between two, three, five or six? If they are good enough, they should be there, of course. I don’t like our guys carrying this additional burden. I doubt that we are going to see dramatic changes until the sport at the lower levels is developed sufficiently. We still do not have enough or adequate facilities in what are still black townships. Until you really get down to ensuring … such facilities are created … at lower levels like schools and clubs, you won’t be able to develop the talent that there is.”

This article first appeared on Politicsweb. It was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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