DANIEL GALLAN: Proteas at CWC - Who exactly owes who an apology?


“Dan, I promised that if you came on the show we wouldn’t talk about South Africa, but that was a lie.”

High up in the commentary box of The Oval in south London, Jo Harman, editor of the Wisden Cricket Monthly Magazine, caught me off guard. We’re recording an episode of the publication’s weekly podcast, meandering through recent events of the 2019 Cricket World Cup - Jonny Bairstow’s hundred against Indias, MS Dhoni’s strange batting at the death, Rihanna watching the West Indies - when Harman addresses a subject I was hoping to avoid.

“Are people at home angry?” he wanted to know.

“More frustrated and dejected,” I said, explaining that given the largely pessimistic view of the domestic set-up, the troubles between Cricket South Africa and the player’s union, and the ever-looming presence of another Kolpak exodus, South African cricket fans were waking up to the realisation that this sorry World Cup campaign might not represent rock bottom.

Completing the triumvirate on the podcast was Cricbuzz’s English correspondent Rob Johnston who chimed in with a timely question.

“On the anger angle, I noticed that after the Bangladesh game [which South Africa lost by 21 runs] one of the journalists asked Faf du Plessis what he’d like to say to the fans back home. I found that quite strange. It sort of seemed expected.”

Johnston’s confusion was not simply his own. I myself, a dyed in the wool devotee of Mandela’s Rainbowism and a firm believer that sport has the power to change the world, was equally baffled. By asking the captain what message he wanted to send to the fans, the journalist was not simply searching for an attention-grabbing sound bite or a clickbait headline. He was asking du Plessis to speak into the narrative that South African athletes are more than just athletes. By virtue of wearing that rainbow flag on their shirt, the men and women who represent the nation are ambassadors of the most important order. Failure on the field is an embarrassment and so an explanation was expected.

This was evidenced again a few weeks later when JP Duminy apologised to the people back home - that fractured cluster of over 54 million who speak over nine different languages and encompass at least five broad racial groups - and wanted them to know just how much the team were thinking of them.

This was met with approving nods in the press conference. “Finally,” one journo declared, satisfied that at least one of these overpaid, overhyped cricketers had prostrated himself in a fitting manner.

But here’s the thing. I don’t believe they do owe us an apology. Unless the Proteas deliberately tried to lose or weren’t bothered with trying their best - both of which I do not believe to be the case - then an apology for poor performances was a commendable but wholly unnecessary response.

Johnston and Harmer hypothesised the reaction of Eoin Morgan if an English journalist were to the England skipper to apologise to the nation. They both laughed. “Morgan would be pragmatic and just say they lost a game of cricket,” came Harman’s simple summation. Besides, with Morgan being Irish, to which nation exactly would he owe an apology?

You know who owes South Africa an apology? The leaders of the DA for deciding to fine homeless people up to R1,500 for having the temerity to sleep on the street. Or the leaders of the EFF whose Cape Town trash revealed a wild weekend in a foreign-owned flat filled with rivers of expensive champagne and the remnants of used condoms, underlining the hypocrisy in their empty promises of economic equality.

Why not an apology from Jacob Zuma and his cronies for selling off the nation piece by piece for the better part of a decade. Since we’re in the apologising mood, why not knock on the door of mine owners and fat cat bankers and the peddlers of propaganda and defenders of racial inequality like those loudmouths in the BLF or AfriForum.

There are many people in South Africa who owe the nation an apology. If you have Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy or any athlete who earns a living on a sports field near the top of that list then we are in disagreement.

Here’s why: when an elected official is given the mandate to improve housing or service delivery in an impoverished area, there is no external force preventing him from doing so. Sure there are financial and social restraints that might make the job an extremely challenging one, but there is no direct opposition with the primary task of making sure that those houses are not built or that those textbooks are not delivered.

The same is not true on a cricket field. When Duminy stands in the middle clutching a bat, there is an Englishman or an Australian or an Indian with a ball in his hand whose sole purpose is to prevent the batter from scoring runs while trying to secure his wicket.

Sometimes that person is Jofra Archer or Mitchell Starc or Jasprit Bumrah; world-class performers who represent teams that are better equipped and resourced than the one that Duminy represents.

Sometimes, an athlete’s best just isn’t good enough. That is the nature of sport and, as much as their loss might impact us emotionally, they do not owe us an apology the same way our inept politicians do.

But sport has the power to change the world, as Madiba’s magical mantra told us. The triumphs of the 1990s showed that South Africa’s athletes would drive the nation out of the darkness and secure our seat at the main table of global affairs. Sadly, this, like that Rainbow Nation ideology, has proved to be a hollow myth.

In a recent post on The Bounce, a blog that claims to be “doing it for the fans”, Ben Karpinski, the sports guy on Gareth Cliff’s independent radio station, declared that “South African sport is in a deep recession”.

At the time of writing this column, Karpinski’s tweet promoting the blog had received 208 likes and 17 comments. Hardly a groundswell of support, but enough to gauge a general feel. Among those who championed the blog’s sentiments were Kevin Pietersen, the former English cricketer with the Three Lions crest tattooed on his shoulder. “Great article!” Pietersen hurrahed. He wasn’t the only one.

What the article failed to mention was a way out of this depression. It also makes glib statements disregarding the need to transform the sports teams that represent the nation, citing this desire for racial inclusivity as “unnatural”.

The article also does not mention that in 2003 the Proteas were dumped out of their own World Cup at the group stage, or that the Springboks were the laughing stock of world rugby after the infamous Kamp Staaldraad fiasco or that Bafana Bafana were a year away from group stage elimination at the 2004 African Cup of Nations.

This Cricket World Cup might feel like a recession compounding the struggles of South Africa’s Super Rugby teams and the inability of our footballers to shoot the ball towards goal, but sport has always operated like a stock market. There are peaks and valleys. Recessions and expansions. And as much as we want the teams we support to win, and for the athletes, we love to do our country proud, they do not owe us an apology.