By opting against taking the knee in the upcoming white-ball series against England, South African cricket has lost the momentum it had previously generated in the fight against racial inequality, writes Daniel Gallan.
Early on Monday morning, Kagiso Rabada looked rattled. It was as if he was sitting in the dock while a silver-tongued prosecutor revealed to the court that the fast bowler’s fingerprints were found at the scene of a murder.
The reality was far less sinister. Instead the Proteas’ alpha spearhead was fielding questions from journalists ahead of the white-ball series against England when the conversation turned away from cricketing matters. What did he make of the assertion from coach Mark Boucher that his team would not be taking a knee against England in solidarity with the global Black Lives Matter movement?
“I’ve already expressed my views on that,” Rabada said, shifting uncomfortably on screen. “I’ll see if I want to express them again. It’s something that [people need to be] constantly reminded of. But I’ve expressed my views on that for now. It’s a tough question. Let me think about it. I’ll answer the next question.”
Was there a villain off screen making sure Rabada stuck to the script? Was Boucher himself glowering from a dark corner, ready to pounce the moment an incriminating word was uttered?
Despite what some sections of South Africans would like to believe, the journalists on the other end of the line did not have an agenda. There is no unified drive to thrust dirty politics into the sanitised realm of sporting competition. International sport is political by its nature. What’s more, Rabada had indeed made his views on the matter very clear.
In July, Lungisani Ngidi was asked to comment on the Black Lives Matter movement and whether he and his teammates would consider making an on-field gesture in support of it.
“It’s definitely something that we will discuss once we are together in person,” Ngidi said. ”We have spoken about it and everyone is well aware of what’s going on. It’s a difficult one because we are not together, so it’s hard to discuss. But once we get back to playing that is definitely something we have to address as a team.”
Divisions lines were drawn. Retired white players led the fight against Ngidi. Rabada was among those who went to bat for his teammate: “#BlackLivesMatter it’s really that simple,” he tweeted.
#BlackLivesMatter it’s really that simple !
— Kagiso Rabada (@KagisoRabada25) July 17, 2020
The next day, at the 3TC Solidarity Cup, players, coaches and commentators took a knee before the start of play. It felt as if a corner had been turned. Former black players and administrators were now emboldened to share the traumas of their past. CSA toyed with the idea of financial reparations. Difficult conversations were starting to take place but a light was creeping over the horizon. A new dawn beckoned.
Then the mess emanating from within the walls of CSA’s headquarters overwhelmed the discourse. Board members were falling on their swords or being pushed overboard. Accusations of corruption and mismanagement were rampant. Journalists accustomed to pontificating over cover drives and away swingers had turned into investigative newshounds.
And so the resumption of actual cricket was welcomed like a refreshing breeze that would blow away the stink that had settled. But it also swept back the thorny issue of what to do before the start of play. Would that energy felt at the height of the pandemic result in tangible action from the national side?
“We have done what we needed to do, in particular at that [3TC] game,” Boucher said. “It’s an ongoing issue for us. It’s not something that we have to continue to show. It’s something that you have to live. There are a couple of other issues that our president has raised going forward with regards to gender-based violence and the victims of Covid-19. We are going to be addressing this with the team so if there is a black armband to wear, we will probably be wearing it because of the president’s call.”
For those of us who were excited by the prospect of the Proteas living up to an ethos that espouses the advancement of social justice, one that they themselves had shaped and advocated, this felt like a step backwards. What exactly was discussed during the much publicised “culture camp” that sought to address the racial imbalances that continue to plague South Africa? Did they really believe that the sound of ball on bat would make us forget about the important strides that had been taken over the last few months?
Naturally some questions needed answers but Rabada remained tightlipped. On Tuesday, it was Rassie van der Dussen’s turn to speak with the press. Perhaps he had some views on kneeling. He was, after all, one of the few active players to take a stand:
“I support BLM,” Van der Dussen tweeted. “I’m against all murders; physical, character, and cultural murders. I support equal opportunities for all. Just because I support BLM does not mean I support violence or Marxism, so I refuse to be labelled by people. Long live Africa!”
Before he had a chance to expand on those views on Tuesday, Cricket South Africa’s media officer intervened. “I would like to draw a line under it,” she said, inviting the journalist who raised the subject to engage “offline.” Van der Dussen looked as comfortable as Rabada did the previous day. The silence that followed hung heavy in the air. This was not a good look for an organisation that tripped over itself a few months back in their efforts to position itself on the right side of history.
This was not an unprecedented move by a CSA media manager. A former press liaison had once scolded me for asking a non-white player about his experience at a predominantly white, elite all-boys high school. I was reprimanded and told that my line of questioning “sets us back when we’re trying to move forward”. She said that “sports and politics” don’t mix and informed me that I would have “issues with player access going forward” if I veered into this territory again.
The decisions by both press officers to shut down important conversations that are relevant to the South African experience is alarming and chafes against the ideals that the CSA purports to uphold. These issues die in the light where we can scrutinise them and learn from them. They grow in the dark, like a poisonous fungus that releases its noxious fumes when poked.
Kneeling is a binary act. You either do it or you don’t. For a complex matter such as racial inequality in South Africa to be rendered to such a black and white decision is regrettable. But this is the landscape we must now navigate. By choosing not to kneel, CSA and its players have lost whatever momentum they had previously generated. No amount of on-field action can distract from this.