Episode 65: Painful testimonies of racism shake the culture of denial of apartheid in South African cricket

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

In recent months, South Africa has been rocked by the testimonies from black players of the isolation, hostility and outright racial abuse they have encountered playing in first-class and international cricket. Two expert South African cricket broadcasters and authors, Mo Allie and Aslam Khota, relay these stories and their impact as the guests of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller on their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Mo sets out their context:  last year’s passionate statement on BlackLivesMatter by Michael Holding, the suggestion from the pace bowler Lungi Ngidi that the South African team should discuss taking the knee, the subsequent backlash from several white former players, and the dramatic revelation by Makhaya Ntini of his alienation from the South African team as his real reason for running alone from the hotel to international grounds rather than sitting with them in the bus. The South African Cricket Board set up hearings through the Social Justice Nation-Building project, under a respected advocate and ombudsman Dumisa Ntsebeza. Many players have given testimony, nearly all black, although a few white players had submitted defences of their words or conduct, including Mark Boucher, accused by Paul Adams of insulting him viciously in a team song.

Among others, Ashwell Prince had revealed how black players were regularly blamed for any South African defeat and disparaged as “quota players”, selected for racial balance rather than ability. Khaya Zonda had suggested that he was a victim of bias by A B de Villiers.  Taken together the testimonies showed the depth of feeling among black players that they were not considered part of the national team.

Aslam conveys the special shock caused by Makhaya Ntini’s revelation, as a sporting icon renowned for his public persona as a fun-loving extrovert. He suggests that this released the spate of testimony from other black players. He explains the process and powers of the SJN inquiry: the Board will ultimately decide what to do about its recommendations. He doubts that these will lead to sanctions against offenders but believes that they will guide the next generation of South African cricket administrators to create a better team culture. The issues raised by the black players were already being discussed, itself a major change from the past. Mo reveals that the SJN inquiry has already gathered 3000 pages of evidence.

Aslam suggests that the issues raised were missed in the 1990s amid the euphoria of South Africa’s emergence from apartheid as a rainbow nation and its early international sporting successes. In spite of the “transformation charter” of the late 1990s (in which former podcast guest André Odendaal had played a major role), South African cricket managers had not done enough to prepare for the major cultural changes needed to create genuine integration in South African cricket. Mo suggests that white South Africans generally had not taken account of the pervasive psychological impact of apartheid, in which every single aspect of life was determined by the racial group to which a person had been assigned.

Mo assesses the current state of opinion within South Africa on the SJN inquiry. Whites are divided between those who seek to atone for apartheid and those who think enough has been done, the issue is past: if whites are marginalized by further hearings South African cricket would collapse into the state of Zimbabwe’s. The vast majority of black opinion wants more testimony from the inquiry and sanctions against those found to be racist, especially the dismissal of Mark Boucher as national coach.

Aslam explains why élite white-dominated schools are still the pipeline for provincial and international recognition in sport for all races because of the facilities and coaching they offer and their scouting and recruiting systems for promising players in lesser-endowed schools. He blames the government for its long neglect of sport in state schools in townships, where physical education was actually dropped as a subject in the late 1990s. One product of this neglect was South Africa’s modest medal total at the recent Olympics – three (all by white athletes), equalled by tiny San Marino with a population of 33,000.

Aslam enlarges the background to the white backlash against Ngidi’s seemingly innocuous comments on taking the knee, particularly the three former players concerned, Brian McMillan, Pat Symcox and Botha Dipenaar, who appears to have been especially influenced by the violence against white farmers. The issue of taking the knees became a strong marker of division. Mo reveals that when Graeme Smith and Faf du Plessis later took the knee at an international event they received fierce abuse and even death threats from other white South Africans. There is now no consistent team policy on taking the knee or on any other gesture in support of black people in the world. Aslam expresses hope that the newly appointed South African Cricket Board will show leadership on this under its respected chair Lawson Naidoo.

Mo shares more of the stories from Paul Adams, Mark Boucher’s main accuser, and Boucher’s admission and acknowledgement of his lack of cultural awareness. He sets out Ashwell Prince’s upbringing in a cricket environment of strong opposition to apartheid. Despite his achievements he was never made to feel welcome in the supposedly unified South African team, and was constantly treated as a “quota player” and a regular victim of selectors’ caprice.

Mo picks out two white former players who have made a special effort to support and inspire young black cricketers in the townships: Vince van der Bijl and Gary Kirsten. They have set an example to other white players on how to address the long poisoned legacy of apartheid.

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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