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[OPINION] The difficult tapestry of race in SA

Whether we like it or not, the complexity of race remains part of the master narrative of South Africa. Our angriest moments centre on race and exclusion. The recent events surrounding the H&M ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ advertisement and the ugly scenes outside Hoërskool Overvaal last week underscore the point.

When two boys, one black and the other white, save several lives in the Kroonstad train crash, we know that we are not only applauding Evert Du Preez and Mokoni Chaka for their singular act of bravery, but also because of how naturally genuine this inter-racial friendship between two farms boys is - and because when interviewed, Evert responded in fluent Sesotho. That spoke to us all so simply yet so powerfully.

South Africa has much unfinished business, but perhaps the next generation will slay the demon of race. However, for as long as deep inequality persists as it does in our country, it will take a while yet.

The race narrative manifests itself regularly in the sporting arena too.

And so last week when Lungi Ngidi took 7/90 in his debut Test match at Supersport Park, Centurion, we all instinctively knew that it meant far more than a 21-year-old doing well on debut. Ngidi’s story is one of courage, having earned scholarships to schools that his parents, a domestic worker and caretaker, would never have been able to afford.

At every point in his incredible journey he was met with teachers, coaches and mentors who cared enough and who nurtured his talent. Again, Ngidi’s story shows us how important schools are in the crucial act of finding talent and exposing children to opportunities. His story also illustrates again what a powerful nation-building tool sport is. Suddenly little boys everywhere want to be Lungi - as they do Dale Steyn or Hashim Amla.

At Newlands in 2016, we experienced similar elation when Temba Bavuma became the first black man to score a century in Test cricket.

It was as sweet a century as Ngidi’s 7-wicket haul.

One needs only listen to Fanie de Villiers or Daryl Cullinan to see how deeply ingrained the sentiment of black players simply not being good enough is. Be that as it may, the sight of Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi walking off the field at Centurion last week was what true transformation looks like. It was hard not to be moved when captain Faf Du Plessis passed the stump to Ngidi as a keepsake. Life is made for moments like these.

And so inevitably one is drawn back to reflect on The Blue Book: A history of Western Province Cricket (1890-2011) by Andre Odendaal et al published in 2012 as well as the next in the series, titled, Cricket and conquest: The history of South African cricket Retold: 1795-1914, first published in 2016.

The Blue Book was the first real attempt to consolidate the statistical history for Western Province cricket and the new Cape Cobras franchise over 121 years. The book was a serious attempt to move away from the ‘official’ statistics of Western Province cricket that encompassed only the records of white players. In fact, as the book points out, there was a rich tradition of cricket in coloured, Cape Malay and African black communities in the Western Cape. Some part of that history was written a few years ago by Moegamat Allie in More than a game but many stories remain untold, many heroes still unsung.

What the cleverly named Blue Book did was to overturn old, exclusive, ‘official’ accounts of the past’. It records over 500 unrecognised Western Province players and 250 new Western Province matches. In a sign of how divided our past really was, the book notes that the current Western Province Cricket Association (WPCA) was preceded by no fewer than nine different Western Province boards whose records are all included in the book. While there are some statistics which could not be provided because records were not always accurately kept, and memories had faded, the records that have been uncovered show consistent, high standards amongst ‘players of colour’.

When the Blue Book was launched, ex-players of all the former incarnations of the WPCA took to the field in a sign of both inclusion and recognition. While it is always difficult to acknowledge all players who played through different eras and boards, from the WP Cricket Union, the Peninsula and Districts Cricket Board, the WP Bantu (sic) Cricket Union, the Hottentots Holland Cricket Union, the WP Women’s Cricket Union and the WP Cricket Board, to name but a few, the welcome to Newlands then and subsequently was significant. As the book notes, “the cricketers who played on the wrong side of the colour line in the old days inhabited deep cricket cultures”. It immediately therefore puts paid to the notion that cricket is ‘the white man’s game’.

The book traverses the colonial years, the d’Oliveira saga, the ‘stop the tour’ boycotts and, of course, the rebel tour eras and the subsequent years of unity. All have their place in the difficult tapestry that is Western Province and indeed, South African cricket. Importantly, though, as the book pointed out, those who played then were not merely ‘passive victims of an oppressive system’, they were ‘characters who, through cricket, said yes to life itself’. And so, apartheid may have consigned them to dusty grounds, but games were being played with regularity and precision over decades and cultures formed and rich stories and traditions were being passed down from one generation to the next.

Of course, there are many more stories to be told and the storytellers of the game remain at large, in communities in Cape Town and beyond, though the numbers are dwindling.

Interestingly, the book also tells of the first Western Province Cricket Union of 1890 that met in Greenmarket Square, the founding clubs of which were Sea Point, Cape Town, Claremont and the WP Cricket Club. The latter had built Newlands. The other clubs had met to “wrest from WP Cricket Club the monopoly which they held in the administration of cricketing matters in the Western Province”. And it was ever thus, some might say!

Meanwhile, years later, in 1959, the WP Cricket Board (representing ‘coloured’ players) was formed at Immaculata Girls’ High School in Wynberg and competed inter-provincially with the board players dominating the winnings for four seasons between 1963 and 1970. And it was during those years too that some board players found their way to playing in the English leagues; Coetie Neethling, the Abed brothers, Rushdi Magiet, Des February and Dickie Conrad. And some remained, while others like Owen Williams emigrated to Australia. Sadly, Suleiman ‘Dik’ Abed died in The Hague this week.

In Langa and Gugulethu, the Blue Book tells us that cricket had been played for decades - William Magitshima, Cannon Ziba, Ashton Dunjwa and Ben Malamba were but a few names that made their mark in the late 1960s.

This 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, affirming.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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