ADRIAN EPHRAIM: Down to the detail - the unbearable whiteness of cricket
Over a week ago, a young, black cricketer was asked a topical and pertinent question by a journalist during a media briefing.
“With regards to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) situation, has that been a topic of conversation and would it become bigger, and might we see South African players or the whole team taking a knee during national anthems?”
It’s a fair question given how the BLM movement has swept across the world of sport and found solidarity among luminaries such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Lewis Hamilton, and Naomi Osaka.
The 24-year-old cricketer’s response to that question was sincere, faultless, and mature beyond his years. “I think that’s definitely something we’ll discuss once we’re in person. Yes, we have spoken about it and everyone’s well aware of what’s going. It’s a difficult one because I feel we’re not together so it’s hard to discuss but I definitely think once we get back to playing that is definitely something we have to address as a team,” he said. “As a nation as well, we have a past that is also very difficult in terms of racial discrimination and things like that. It’s definitely something we will be addressing, I believe, as a team, and if we’re not, obviously it’s something I would bring up, that it’s something we need to take very seriously, and like the rest of the world is doing, make a stand.”
At this point, it’s worth noting that the young, black cricketer is no ordinary cricketer. He was just awarded two coveted prizes in cricket, after battling injury upon injury to resurface at the top of his game. His name is also Lungisani True-man Ngidi.
With that answer, Ngidi (Test bowling average: 19.53) demonstrated his awareness of both the world around him and the palpable tensions at his place of work - the cricket field. His response acknowledged that the Proteas players had not yet discussed BLM as a team, and that he would take it upon himself to raise the subject if it wasn't. Ngidi also mentioned South Africa’s history of racial discrimination, hence the need for Black Lives Matter to be addressed.
It was an acceptable answer and hugely significant in the context of sport in South Africa, and the complicated (read: racist) history of South African cricket. But a handful of former national team players criticised Ngidi publicly, in a way that was not just embarrassing, but disrespectful (read: racist).
With all of three Test matches and one ODI to his name, former opener Rudi Steyn (Test average: 21.16) was the first to come out swinging for the old guard, also known as the Mediocre Proteas XI. He shared a story on social media headlined: “Lungi Ngidi urges SA cricketers to consider ‘Black Lives Matter’ stand” and commented: “I believe the Proteas should make a stand against racism, but if they stand up for "black lives matter" while ignoring the way white farmers are daily being 'slaughtered' like animals, they have lost my vote.”
Following close behind Steyn, former Protea Pat Symcox (bowling average: 43.32) and Boeta Dippenaar (Test average 30.1), took exception to cricket being used to support the BLM movement, instead of other issues like murders that take place on farms. (Note: There is no crime category called “farm murders”, according to the police).
“What nonsense is this [sic]. He must take his own stand if he wishes. Stop trying to get the Proteas involved in his belief … Now when Ngidi has his next meal perhaps he would rather consider supporting the farmers of South Africa who are under pressure right now. A cause worth supporting,” posted Symcox.
Symcox’s outburst can be paraphrased as “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. It’s a familiar refrain often communicated to people of colour, to placate them, to force them to look passed an obvious injustice, and to discourage protest. Don’t cause trouble, to put it more bluntly. Ngidi was being told to understand his place in the hierarchy of South African society and South African cricket; that even though you can earn accolades on the field, it means little in the eyes of a white cricketing “elite”. You’re still just the black guy who’s speaking out of turn and you're lucky to be here.
Dippenaar, coming in to bat for a shaky top order, called BLM a “leftist political movement”, adding “All lives matter. If you want me to stand shoulder to shoulder with you Lungi, then stand shoulder to shoulder with me with regards to farm attacks.”
At this point, we are to assume that all farm murders matter, and Messrs Steyn, Symcox and Dippenaar are also concerned about the 29.5% of victims of farm attacks who are farmworkers. But in Dippenaar’s mind, the nearly 20 000 murders of mostly black people in SA per year, doesn’t come close to the approximately 70 murders on farms every year. But this is a debate for another day.
Why would these average former national players feel entitled to criticise a black player who has just been lauded by the rest of his peers for an outstanding summer of white-ball cricket? What makes them emboldened enough to spew their lop-sided views in public? For the answer, we need to look deep into the dark heart of cricket and what it represents in South Africa, and the broader Commonwealth. Cricket has, for centuries, been the embodiment of whiteness, and the extension of the British Empire. Subsequently, in South Africa, the sport has fought a proxy war against black sportspeople, on behalf of the then apartheid regime. Politics and cricket have been entangled from the start.
It is in the above context that we must view the anguish of former players like Ashwell Prince, Makhaya Ntini and Mfuneko Ngam. For Prince, in particular, it cuts deep. It’s still raw in places, and the latest furore started by Steyn, Symcox and Dippenaar demonstrates to Prince that nothing has changed since his days of hell 15 years ago.
“The system is broken,” Prince tweeted. “… and has been for some time in our beloved SA, both in society and in sport. We return from isolation and we say to the world, 'look at us, we’re back, oh by the way, there’s still no black people who can play the game, but we brought a few along'.”
From the moment South Africa set foot in international cricket at Eden Gardens, Calcutta in November 1991, the sport put its best, white foot forward (apart from two black players Hussein Manack and Faiek Davids who were among four non-playing “development” players. The other two were Derek Crookes and Hansie Cronje). It was the first attempt at window dressing, while behind closed doors dozens of black players were to be denied any sniff of international cricket that was to come. South African had been welcomed in the international fold while its house was still in disarray.
Nevertheless, a narrative was created that still persists today, says Prince, that white players are inherently better at cricket than black players, and that in order to "bring them up to speed" it would take years, possibly decades, and millions of rands in investment. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. The facts tell us there were a number of black players who could have stepped up to earn a Proteas cap easily, but the white administrators of cricket thought otherwise. This is the unbearable whiteness of cricket that Prince and many other black players have had to live with in the national team, that brought him to tears, that tugged at his suppressed emotions and tormented him on and off the field. It’s the whiteness of cricket that he’s speaking out against – not just white cricketers and administrators – but the system.
Whiteness in cricket - as in many sectors - is intangible, invisible and elusive, yet it looms large like an elephant in every team selection meeting, board meeting, training session and youth programme in cricket.
It’s that feeling of inadequacy, when in reality there should never be any doubt about your abilities, all things being equal. Some will reason that you either have it or you don’t, and that some black players are not equipped to handle the big time, despite being given an opportunity. But it’s the whiteness of cricket that makes a player doubt his ability and forces him either give up or to train harder than his body can handle. The “injury prone” Mfuneko Ngam was just one case in point. His Test career lasted one month, three matches and 11 wickets, because he was shoehorned to tick a box, rather than being nurtured and mentored over time into a world-class bowler he no doubt would have been.
It’s whiteness that makes players of colour feel out of place in certain spaces and appear undeserving of certain jobs. We can cynically reason that this is all subjective and that there is no proof of racism in cricket; there is no proof (that we know of) that black players were discriminated against on the basis of their colour. But it’s in the nature of whiteness not to be noticed – even by white people – to whom it’s not exclusive either. Many people of colour are happily ensconced in the broken system of whiteness, and so to say “we have black players in the national team, and we have more black coaches and selectors now” is a red herring, a distraction from the broader issue at heart.
“The system” made it acceptable for Prince (Test average 41.64), one of the more successful South African players, to feel inadequate while playing for the Proteas. He was the scapegoat when the team lost, but rarely the hero when they won. The whiteness of cricket made him feel vulnerable all the time – like any match he was privileged to play in could be his last. It is the same system that made it acceptable for Jacques Kallis (Test average: 55.35) to spend two years trying to score a hundred in Test cricket, but the same system only gave Hashim Amla (Test average 46.64) three Test matches, before he was dropped for 15 months and told to work on his technique. Symcox, unsurprisingly, was one of Amla’s biggest critics at the time.
Journalist Niren Tolsi put it best when he spoke on CapeTalk radio last Friday. “Cricket [in South Africa] has always been political… sport played a big role in bringing down the apartheid regime. But whiteness demands that we ignore all of this and everything be considered on this vague assumption of merit. The argument around merit is very much around whiteness. If you’re white then, as in the case of Boeta Dippenaar, who ended on 30.1. If you’re average, you’ll still be protected by the institutions of cricket,” Tolsi said.
Fighting racism is about meaningful action, whether it’s taking a knee, raising a fist or donating to justice organisations that fight to change laws and public policy. This is what Ngidi is asking for – a conversation for meaningful action.
Changing hearts is a different ask. It’s entirely possible for a system to employ black people, yet still, discriminate against them. It’s possible to work with black people, and coach black players and still be racist. Just like it’s possible to have black friends and still hold racist views.
Three days after Ngidi spoke, Sky Sports aired a moving tribute to BLM. It featured the legendary West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding and former England cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent. The video feature opened with a quote from James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”, and it played just before the start of Day 1 of the first Test between West Indies and England. The feature was followed by players and officials taking a knee on the field in honour of the BLM movement.
After that poignant tribute, Holding spoke about the re-education of the human race as the only way to rid humanity of racism. He spoke about re-educating the world, where black people’s contribution to history is objectively acknowledged, and the achievements of black pioneers, scientists, and inventors are honoured in history books, libraries, and museums. To do that would begin the process of ridding ourselves of the unbearable whiteness that permeates society and cricket.
In South Africa, we have used the kid gloves of “transformation” to address racist policies and structures in sport. "Transformation" makes the struggle more palatable for the likes of Symcox, Dippennaar and Steyn; who presumably vomit in their mouths at the thought of black players having a voice, not to mention taking a stand against racism.
Ngidi wants to have a conversation about racism in cricket and society, and he should be offered every platform available to do so.
Adrian Ephraim is deputy news and sports editor at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter on @AdrianEphraim.