Sunday, January 23, 2005

Race and South African Cricket

I was reading a blog yesterday about one of my favourite topics - cricket. It dealt with one of the thorniest issues in sport - that of "positive discrimination" in South African cricket teams. Following the abolition of apartheid, and the desire of the cricket authorities to present South Africa to the world in the best possible light (going so far as to call the team the Proteas rather than the Springboks, lest comparisons be drawn with the apartheid era), provincial teams were for a period of time ordered to pick a quota of non-white, or "development", players.

This led to many white players leaving South African cricket, most notably Kevin Pietersen, who came to England and has just qualified to represent the national team. Perceiving that doors were open to others which were shut to them, they rejected the system in its entireity and sought a climate where they had a greater chance to shine.

Most controversially of all, a few years ago the selection board ordered that a white player be dropped from the national side for a coloured one. This is a debate which is still running on - in the recent series against England, South Africa's wicketkeeper, Mark Boucher, was dropped in favour of a young black cricketer who showed little of the standard necessary for the highest rigours of Test cricket. This coming by ruling of the SA Cricket Board's President, in the process overruling the majority of the selection committee.

Obviously the issue of how to integrate a country so deeply riven by racial splits for so long is always going to be a thorny issue. Once apartheid was over, a new national identity needed to be formed - that of the "Rainbow Nation" - and sport, the area in which South Africa had their most positive reputation, was always going to be a testing ground for such matters.

The post to which I referred in the first paragraph points out that the black cricketers of South Africa had a fantastic club tradition, and indeed a great tradition of their own in the way they adopted the West Indies as "their team". And at the end it implies an amount of positive discrimination is needed for the South African team to truly be the embodiment of the nation it represents.

I cannot agree with such a viewpoint. My views on "positive discrimination" largely concur with the words of Joe Lieberman - "As soon as you discriminate for someone on the grounds of race, you discriminate against someone on the grounds of race". And that must surely be unacceptable.

But from a symbolic point of view, the issue of racial selection is much trickier. I have written previously here about how I consider sport to be politics in many forms; one of these forms is that national sport is often the last true vestige of nationalism - certainly the one most popularly felt by populations at large.

To this end, picking people who aren't good enough poses a huge problem, especially when the blight of unofficial racism within organisations is taken into account. For a successful cricket team is one of the means through which the successes of the "Rainbow Nation" can be judged. However, the selectors are in an invidious no-win position.

For it is impossible to deny that racial tension still exists in South Africa, and that it will be a long time before barriers can be broken down. I firmly believe that sport has the power to break down these barriers - just as when in baseball Jackie Robinson demonstrated that black players could take on the best white players, so an infusion of black players into the South African team would be demonstrative of their talents. But, with a couple of exceptions, most notably fast bowler Makhaya Ntini, they are not there yet.

However, if the successes of a national team are achieved by a mainly white side, it will reinforce the prejudices of the racists that the black players are simply not as good - and I believe this sort of attitude will have wider cultural connotations as well. On the other hand, if the team performs poorly through the selection of players who are not up to the expected level, then it will again reinforce divisions. Only this time it will be the whites who feel victimised, and there may be many more stories similar to that of Kevin Pietersen.

Maybe the ideal situation from a political point of view would be for a weak South African team to emerge in whatever form. With expectations lowered, new players could be brought into the side under the aegis of giving them greater experience, and there is a chance of it being less contentious. There are two problems with this. One is that it is highly fanciful to believe that these divisions would be so easily accepted. The second is that it is no good for South African or world cricket for them to have a poor team. They have contributed far too many world class players to the game - Barry Richards, Clive Rice, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, to name but a few - for such a situation to be acceptable.

The struggles of the new South Africa are thus played out in a fascinating, if saddening, situation on the cricket field. A country having to adjust and adapt to the expectations of a new political structure is bound to have difficulties. It is regrettable that it should have to be played out to the detriment of a great cricketing nation. All we can hope for is that the new investment in the game in the townships will pay off. Soon, we must hope, this debate will not happen. There will be so many good black players that the question of their worth will not even arise.