New posts sign in menu 

Cricket News

Smith, Pollock shoulder arms to Ntini's claims

by  Adil  •  Last updated on 2020-07-24 15:40:59

The captains in almost 90% of the matches Makhaya Ntini played for South Africa have yet to respond meaningfully to the former fast bowler's claims that he was shunned by his white teammates. Instead they have offered vague and limited comment that is sure to further polarise a game ever more acutely divided along racial lines.

An enduring icon as the first black African to play for the national team, Ntini made the allegations on national television last Friday, saying he ran to and from the ground rather than take the team bus to avoid the loneliness that came with being ignored by his teammates - who he said he would hear making dinner plans in which he was not included.

Ntini was the only black African to play Test cricket for South Africa for almost three years before Mfuneko Ngam made his debut in December 2000. When Ntini retired he was among just five black Africans who had featured at that level. More than 10 years after he hung up his whites, the names of only four more have been added to the list.

From January 1998 to January 2011 Ntini played 284 matches across the formats for South Africa. Shaun Pollock was his captain in 88 of them and Graeme Smith in 167. Cricbuzz asked Smith, via Cricket South Africa (CSA), and Pollock if they knew of Ntini's feelings, if they noticed whether he was being shut out of team interactions, and - if they had - what they did to remedy the situation.

Pollock's only reply was: "Regarding your questions Makhaya is your person to speak to." Smith? A CSA spokesperson said, "As director of cricket, Graeme is fully focused on his task at hand, which is transforming cricket for the future, and is preparing some exciting announcements for the coming weeks that will be clear evidence of that. He has however engaged directly and amicably with Mr Ntini about the contents of his interview."

That might have happened at the 3TC Solidarity Cup in Centurion on Saturday. Ntini and Smith took a knee alongside each other and raised a fist while wearing Black Lives Matter armbands on the boundary before the start of the match. They also shared commentary stints, during which they seemed at ease in each other's company. If there was anger or awkwardness between them they hid it well. But, asked if he and Smith had spoken about the issues raised during the previous day's television interview, and whether he was satisfied with the outcome of the discussion, Ntini did not respond.

One-sided communication on issues of race has been the norm since Lungi Ngidi was asked, during an online press conference on July 6, whether South Africa's players would take up the BLM conversation among themselves. In a comprehensive answer he said the discussion had started and that he was keen to continue it, even lead it. That prompted a backlash against Ngidi from former white players, which sparked support for Ngidi from former black and brown players - along with accounts of their own experiences of racial discrimination within the game.

It seems worth pointing out that the question to the black Ngidi came from a white reporter, if only because after that black and brown players have spoken publicly on the matter on social media or exclusively to black or brown reporters and interviewers.

Richard Parry, a UK-based South African cricket historian and author - most recently of "Too Black to Wear Whites", the powerful story of Krom Hendricks' struggles against empire and racism in the game in South Africa in the 1890s, which he co-wrote with Jonty Winch - didn't struggle to understand why that was happening: "There is a point at which it is exhausting to explain yourself. One of the things that's underlying BLM internationally is that, 'We've done this stuff. We did this stuff in the '60s. We did this stuff in the '90s. How many more times do we have to do this? How many more times do we have to get shat on because we're trying to end the individual oppression that we are subject to on a daily basis? What's the point in talking to white reporters when we've got to start from the beginning? They don't get it'.

"That's certainly a lesson from the broader international movement, that the lessons of history are not being learnt. And that the lack of communication from black players in those settings is partly a feeling of, 'How many times? How many times do we have to go through this?'.

"BLM is saying there's significant discrimination towards blacks, whether it's on or off the cricket field. That's just the reality of life and it has been for a very long time. There's a history of this, which grinds you down."

Maybe that's why some of what black and brown players have said has not been interrogated as thoroughly as it should have been. When it has, several of their claims have been shown to be overstated, others simply untrue.

But a greater truth arches over everything: there is no doubt that black and brown figures in the game - players and coaches in particular, less so administrators - have got and are still getting a raw deal, even in theoretically democratic South Africa. Racism is dead. Long live racism. So what we have seen, heard and read over the past three weeks has been, sometimes, a release of hurt rather than the straight up truth. Perhaps that is how it has to be until all of it is out there.

Five current South Africa players didn't need those frustrations unpacked for them, and they weren't who many might have thought they would be. The first cricketers in the country to publicly stand with Ngidi and BLM were Rassie van der Dussen, Faf du Plessis, Anrich Nortje, Marizanne Kapp and Dwaine Pretorius. All are white Afrikaners, people who in previous generations were the architects and enforcers of apartheid - which put whites above all others, wrote legislation to keep them there, and has damned South African society to ongoing decades of crippling inequality.

But black Africans and white Afrikaners are not as disparate as a cursory reading of the country's history might suggest. "There's always been a closer history between black and Afrikaner - Afrikaners may not have treated them well but nonetheless there was a closer relationship - than between blacks and English-speaking South Africans," Parry said. "They both had agrarian cultures; rooted in the land with a sense of what the land was and their relationship to the land. There's an argument to say that this still exists in these guys' self-identification. That connection is still strong, although not everybody feels it.

"There's a level of anger and negation of the system as it is by English-speaking South Africans, much more so than among other South Africans. Black and Afrikaans South Africans see this in the long term. They're part of South Africa, for better or worse, forever. Whereas English-speaking South Africans are still 'soutpiels'."

The Afrikaans word is a mild pejorative that denotes those South Africans who, by dint of their UK heritage, are said to have one foot in Africa and the other in Britain; leaving significant parts of their male anatomy dangling in the ocean. The term has been in common use for decades, rarely causes offence, and is the equivalent of calling an Afrikaner a "dutchman".

Most "dutchies" and "souties" are happy to be labelled as such, and often describe themselves accordingly. It really is harmless banter. But those who engage in it are white, so they are not condemned to live lesser lives because they have been artificially classified - a distinct difference to what it has meant and still means to be black and brown in South Africa.

BLM confronts this deep-seated injustice head on, and demands change for the better. In a society not short on seismic shifts and explosive moments, this sticks out as among the most seismic and explosive yet. Not before time, South Africans are staring at their unvarnished, imperfect, contested truth. It's not a pretty picture.

"It's the end of the reality of the rainbow nation, in a sense," Parry said. "In Europe, for example, everyone is in favour of BLM. The entire English cricket team takes a knee, before the [first] Test match [in Southampton], with the West Indies players. There was never a question of them doing it. There's nobody saying, 'We wouldn't do this', even though there are still huge issues around slavery and empire in the UK.

"So while there's a consciousness of history about that, the capacity of the team itself to build bridges and operate within the present is quite strong. In the South African context I think there's clearly still some basic resistance to internationalising the issue. There are strong elements of racism in South Africa, and that's based on a lack of communication between racial groups."

Despite South Africa having changed so much, even since Ntini made his debut, attitudes remain in lockstep with the past. If you're old enough, Boeta Dippenaar's rejection of BLM in an interview with Cricbuzz on July 9 might have sounded familiar: "It's got all the characteristics of a leftist movement - 'If you don't agree with what I propose you do, then you're a racist'. The movement itself has gone beyond what it stands for. It's now nothing short of thuggery - 'I throw stones and break windows because I stand for this'."

In 1971, as opposition to apartheid mounted and organised itself into protests against tours by South Africa's all-white teams, one of the pariah's players was quoted as saying: "I see these demonstrations and riots as part of a Communist-inspired idea to smash the vital links which have for years forged the Western [sic] nations firmly together. We cannot afford to give them the scent of victory... A principle is involved and any measure of success for this kind of defiance would see the idea far beyond the realms of sport."

The 51 years between those likeminded comments is a long time in politics and in cricket, enough for anyone to understand that apartheid was evil and that isolating South Africa from international sport was the least the world could do. Let it not take as long for the remaining unconvinced outposts of civilisation to accept that BLM is a vital and required reaction to a crisis that started in 1526, when the first European slave ship set sail across the Atlantic.

That's 494 years of wrong and not nearly enough done to make it right. Dippenaar was wrong on July 9. As was the man who spoke in 1970, a fast bowler who had by then played all of his 28 Tests: Peter Pollock. Three years later he became the father of someone who would be South Africa's record wicket-taker in Tests for three months short of 15 years: Shaun Pollock. Almost 25 years after that Peter Pollock convened the selection committee that picked South Africa's first black African player: Makhaya Ntini.

People change. So do the times. But never fast enough. Fifty-one years is a long time in everything. Except, perhaps, in hearts and minds.