Is Sa Sport Getting Over Its Obsession With Race? - Sunday Argus

21 April 2019 - The Proteas look as if they may be moving away from the vexed issue of race – perhaps South Africa will follow suit.

Marius Roodt

The decision by Cricket South Africa (CAS) to ditch racial targets for its 2019 World Cup squad could herald the beginning of a shift away from the country’s long obsession with skin colour.

South African cricket, like almost every other aspect of national life, has long had a vexed relationship with race, arguably a national obsession since the arrival of European colonists on these shores.

Between 1889, when South Africa made its debut as a Test playing country against England, and 1970, when the country was banned from playing international cricket, only one player of colour turned out for the national side. He was Buck Llewellyn, and he played 15 Tests for South Africa at the turn of the last century.

But there were others who would have played for South Africa had it not been for the poisonous reach of racial prejudice.

Krom Hendricks, for one, was a bowler of frightening pace, who played in the 1890s. Attempts to pick him to play for South Africa were scuppered by the Prime Minister of the Cape, Cecil Rhodes.

Perhaps most famously, there was Basil d’Oliveira. A South African-born coloured player, he had moved to England to further his cricketing career in the 1960s. He became a regular in the English side, but his inclusion in a team to tour South Africa in 1968 led to the cancellation of the tour. South Africa only played one more series, against Australia in 1970, before being banished from international cricket for two decades.

Even then, the change was slow. Consider that when South Africa returned to the brave new world of international cricket in 1991, only five players who weren’t white were selected to play Test cricket for South Africa over the next decade, to 2000. So, it is unsurprising that quotas or targets were introduced, partly due to pressure from the government.

In the years since, the thinking around quotas has been muddled, with the racial targets being introduced, retracted, and reintroduced at various times, most recently in 2016. And now, they have again been scrapped.

The widely welcomed announcement by CSA chief executive Thabang Moroe that there will be no racial ‘targets’ for the World Cup XI could be the thin edge of the wedge which will allow South Africa to begin moving away from its obsession with race

Two key questions arise; are quotas even necessary at the highest level, and can quotas broaden participation in the game to include those who would like to play but lack the opportunity and resources?

There is no doubt that the squad that will be selected to go the World Cup would have met – or have been very close to meeting – any target or quota imposed by CSA. Kagiso Rabada, Andile Phehlukwayo, Lungi Ngidi (assuming he recovers from injury), and Imran Tahir, have all but booked their tickets to Heathrow, and they’ll likely be joined by JP Duminy, Hashim Amla, and Tabraiz Shamsi, among others.

But even here the absurdity of classifying people by race is obvious. Imran Tahir was born in Pakistan, and settled in South Africa after meeting his future wife on tour in this country. Would Tahir be classified as a ‘player of colour’ or not? Employment equity regulations do not recognise foreign ‘people of colour’ as equity candidates. Should it be different for our national squad? And when it comes down to it, people playing for the Proteas or on the fringes of national selection are a relative elite. They are likely either to have a fairly affluent background or to have attended a school where they received coaching sufficient to match the performance required at the higher levels of competition. Phehlukwayo and Ngidi both come from poorer backgrounds, but were lucky enough to attend good schools, while Rabada and Amla are both the sons of doctors.

A case can certainly be made for quotas at lower levels of the game, but the issue should be moot once we are selecting 15 South Africans to bring that elusive trophy back to these shores.

And even if the entire squad was made up of players of colour, this would not improve the lot of a young boy or girl from a poor household in Motherwell or Mitchell’s Plain who would like to play the game. Cricket is an expensive sport, and it requires a large amount of space to play it formally. The reality is that only a small number of those who want to play the game can do so. Consider that fewer than 1 500 out of South Africa’s nearly 25 000 schools even have a cricket pitch. Quotas for the Proteas won’t change this.

Moreoever, most South Africans are opposed to applying quotas in the  selection of our national teams. New polling data from the Institute of Race Relations, to be released later this year, shows that more than 80% of South Africans (and more than 80% of black South Africans) want merit to be the only basis on which we select our national sides.

And when it comes down to it, if we finally win the World Cup, very few South Africans will be looking sulkily into their Castle Lager, upset that the team did not meet some arbitrary race quota. Except for the most ardent race nationalists among us, such as Dan Roodt and Andile Mngxitama, the rest of us will be only too happy to have ended our long national nightmare of not being able to win a Cricket World Cup, and without having to give any thought to the race of those carrying the trophy home.

The Proteas look as if they may be moving away from the vexed issue of race – perhaps South Africa will follow suit.

Marius Roodt is head of campaigns at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom. Stand with the IRR by clicking here or SMS your name to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).