Trevor Noah had just become the most influential South African in pop culture. Eskom had just fired the guy who replaced the guy who replaced the guy who dropped the bolt into the machine that wasn’t malfunctioning because there isn’t a crisis. Maybe we were just all cried out over the World Cup semi-final.
For the die-hard fans, though, it was a shocker. Within hours of the Proteas touching down at OR Tambo International, reports citing unnamed sources inside the team were claiming that the suits had panicked about the paleness of the semi-final team, and had forced AB de Villiers and Russell Domingo to include the out-of-sorts Vernon Philander in the starting XI.
The rumours were angrily denied by Fikile Mbalula, South Africa’s Minister of Twitter and a man who sometimes moonlights as our sports minister. He knew exactly which racist ‘dinosaurs’ had invented the story, he claimed, and urged South Africa to look in the other direction and not do pointless things like ask questions or do any thinking.
The names of these counter-revolutionary Jurassic crackers? Well, Razzmatazz was less forthcoming about those. But as Cricket South Africa boss Haroon Lorgat weighed in with his own denial, it looked as if a veil was being drawn over a non-scandal that was quite possibly the work of racists looking to pin a World Cup exit on a coloured bowler and a black sports minister.
The problem, though, was that the pesky story refused to die. The next day an Afrikaans news website reported damningly specific details: that Lorgat had sent Domingo a text at midnight; that De Villiers and Philander had been so angry they’d threatened to sit out the semi-final, but they’d been compelled to play.
At the time of writing that was all we knew. It’s possible more of this story will leak out over time, like oil seeping to the surface from a submerged shipwreck. The truth will be interesting. Either our suits were lying, or someone senior in the team was, or a journalist was.
Truth. It’s a tricky thing when it comes to World Cup exits. For a few hours after that fateful evening in Sydney, a few people tried to insist that the truth was the Proteas had choked. When the SMS story broke, some South Africans claimed the true villain of our exit was Philander. The fact he had conceded far fewer runs than the hugely disappointing Dale Steyn didn’t seem to register in their version of reality.
But the one truth that seemed to unite most commenters was that sport and politics should not mix. Ever. Not if the last two people on the planet were a politician and cricketer. Never.
It’s a widely held belief in South Africa. It’s also a naive one, and it reveals we don’t really understand what sport is. We cling to a childish notion that sport sort of just is. We seem to think it somehow ticks along like a perpetual motion machine, lubricated by passion and shouting and corporate sponsors. Basically, we believe in sports fairies who make the whole thing run on green and gold magic.
Like missile tests and Eurovision, sport is a way for countries to assert themselves
No wonder, then, that many think politics and sport shouldn’t mix. Why on earth would you let politicians with their sordid materialism intrude on this fairy kingdom of gees and honour? How could politicians possibly be of benefit to a self-running system that automatically sorts the men from the boys, the sheep from the goats, and the metaphors from the better phrases?
The trouble, though, is that not many fans even get this far in their thinking. For many, the ‘truth’ that sport and politics shouldn’t mix is simply received wisdom, a hand-me-down factoid that feels true because it confirms their suspicions about politicians. It’s not backed up with any real knowledge of what sport is, or why it runs the way it does. Because, of course sport is politics; a nationalistic ritual that helps prop up the idea of the nation state. Like parades, missile tests and Eurovision, it is a way for countries to assert themselves in the community of nations; somewhere between trans-border cock-measuring contests and a sweaty sort of diplomacy.
This is why countries spend hundreds of billions of dollars on developing excellence in odd sports like gymnastics or badminton or rugby; why Australia and China ploughed a large chunk of their GDP into winning gold medals at the Sydney and Beijing Olympics. It’s why the apartheid government of South Africa made all the little white boys want to be rugby stars instead of physicists. It’s why Indian fans burnt effigies after their semi-final defeat. Nationalism is macho to its core, and sport is the ideal way to act out its ambitions and values. Keep politics out of international sport? You’re basically demanding that petrol be kept out of cars.
This is why I get annoyed with those who claim that transformation in South African sport will happen ‘naturally’ or ‘organically’ without ‘meddling’ by politicians. It’s as ignorant as believing that a poor black child in a shack will become upper-middle class if you just leave her alone for long enough.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that politicians should pick teams. Far from it. If the reports are true and some stooge texted the team at the precise moment they needed to be united and focused, it was yet another appalling bungle by our bungling political cohort. But I absolutely believe that politics belong in sport. Anyone vaguely familiar with the history of South African cricket understands the debt it owes to politics, whether it was Steve Tshwete risking his political life to negotiate with white administrators in the late-1980s, or Indian politicians deciding that South African cricketers were no longer sporting polecats. For me the question is not whether they should be linked. The question is how they should be linked, to ensure the greatest benefit to the sport, the fans and the country.
In theory, those questions are easily answered. Politicians should build fields, provide team minibuses, employ administrators to keep account of funds and facilities and leagues. They should act as a bridge between nationalistic sport and private corporate money, persuading sponsors of the branding- and nation-building benefits of parting with their cash. In practice, though, it’s a different story.
transformation now consists of text messages, denials, and threats
I concede that transforming South African sport is difficult. The economics alone are terrifying, as the government tries to give poor people access to activities that need middle-class incomes, time and facilities. And, of course, there’s white resistance to many of those who do crack it. Sometimes it’s overt racism. Sometimes it’s just the insularity of coaches or players who favour their mates (and their mates just happen to look like them …).
But even the most disinterested observer would have to admit that the transformation of cricket in South Africa is a pantomime of foot-dragging, buck-passing and name-calling. Indeed, if the latest debacle is anything to go by, transformation now consists of midnight text messages, denials, and threats by the minister about revoking national colours. That’s not transformation. That’s complete dysfunction.
Four black African bowlers have played Test cricket for South Africa. Four. In 25 years since readmission. Batsmen are expensive and difficult to produce, but to produce bowlers all you need is a ball, a set of stumps, a usable run-up, a concrete pitch, and a coach. I understand the complicating factors. I know that poor kids often don’t have the luxury of parents who can ferry them to practice. I understand that proper childhood nutrition is needed if you’re going to bowl fast at elite level. And yet … four? In a quarter of a century? To me that doesn’t suggest a broken production line. It suggests a non-existent one.
It’s a crisis that needs efficient, hard-working politicians. And yet our minister seems more interested in Twitter than in his much-vaunted mandate of transformation. Instead of making tough decisions and unpopular speeches, he emits a cloud of jokey rhetoric that obscures one damning truth – that Fikile Mbalula could transform cricket (and rugby and all the rest) overnight if he wanted to.
Why does he simply not name, shame, and transform cricket?
The ruling party got a gigantic majority in the last election. Very few politicians in the world could even dream of having such a strong mandate. So if his efforts are being blocked by racists like those he claimed fabricated the Philander story, why does he not provide details so that all South Africans can unite in our condemnation of those shadowy conspirators? He is a minister in a government whose entire international image is built on the fight against white racism. Why does he simply not name, shame, and then transform cricket in line with his vision?
The answer, perhaps, is because there are no names (at least, not in the Philander fiasco). There’s no vision. And there’s no plan, other than reacting to short-time crises with bluster and finger-wagging. Yes, we need politics in cricket. But we do not need these kinds of politics in cricket.
There are so many conversations we need to be having but aren’t, precisely because the wrong kind of politician is arguing with the wrong kind of fan. Basically, the debate has been hijacked by the people least equipped to have it.
But we need to talk; not only about fine points of policy but about basics too. For starters, what does transformation mean? Are we talking about creating a team that reflects the racial demographics of the country, or is there also some vague attempt being made to improve the lives of the very poor through sport? If it’s the latter, does anyone know if this is a practical idea? Are we sure all this time and money and political intrigue is worth it? And can we try to remember that when we talk about ‘transforming’ cricket, we’re actually talking about a ludicrously tiny niche – ultra-fit, highly co-ordinated young men between the ages of about 15 and 30. About 120 of them play first-class cricket. How large is the pool that keeps those 120 men at the top of their game? Perhaps 5,000? So are we aware that the debate about democratising and opening up this sport is aimed at perhaps 0.01% of South Africa’s population? That’s a lot of politicking and money and arguing over something that affects almost nobody.
Nobody, that is, except the fans who want their team to win. And that’s the next tough conversation we need to have: quotas. It’s another that’s been hijacked by non-producing ideologues on the left and racists on the right. It’s a pity, because if we could only have this talk, calmly and openly, we might be able to come to some sort of consensus over what quotas are for and whether they work in achieving those ends. I don’t know what we’d decide. We might all end up agreeing that they are a long-term experiment in social engineering with a real shot at good results in 20 years. We might agree that they don’t do much for the players involved but help lure millions of eager new converts to the sport. I don’t know.
Of course, it’s unlikely we’re going to have this chat any time soon, because it would require both sides to accept facts they find unpleasant. The politicians would have to accept that it is not racist to believe that quota players weaken a team. This isn’t a subjective judgement call. It’s basic logic: if you are good enough to play in a Test match, you’re not a quota player. Quotas and merit are mutually exclusive, and any politician who tries to sell the two as the same thing is selling you a crock of horse manure.
Those opposed to quotas must also accept that our national teams are just that: national teams. They are constructions of nationalist identity. The specific demographics are negotiable, but they cannot deny that we are an African country, and we need an African team. In non-fudging language, that means we need a team that looks – that is – predominantly black African.
But what we need most of all is intelligent, efficient leadership. We need it right now. 2040 is too long to wait to see four more black bowlers.
First published in Business Day/Sunday Times Sport Monthly and SACricketmag.com