Friday, January 21, 2005

"Race" And South African Cricket

Weather permitting, the final test match between South Africa and England gets under way at Centurion today. As I've said before, I have no great love for either team but it's been a compelling series - the two sides are quite closely matched and fortunes have swayed to and fro. The last game could go either way.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the little-known Malay cricketing diaspora and its South African connections. Of course the marginalisation of Malay (and all non-white) cricket was predicated on the racist policies of the South African state. All this is well known. It's the reason why so many South African friends supported other teams during the apartheid years - most black South Africans simply loved the swagger and style of the rampant WIndies team of the 1970s and 1980s.

I've now come across a fascinating new book that not only fills in some important gaps in cricket history but reflects intelligently on the politics of "race" and sport in South Africa today. The book is Andre Odendaal's The Story of an African Game: Black Cricketers and the Unmasking of One of Cricket’s Greatest Myths, South Africa, 1850–2003. Odendaal has already written well-received studies on the origins of black protest and the place of rugby in South African society. The new book discloses a simple yet compelling point: non-racial cricket has been around for more than 150 years and Africans have always played the game beyond the white boundaries.

Odendaal's narrative is a living thing. It combines a sure grasp of the history of colonial and apartheid violence with individual and family testimonies. He convincingly shows us how the struggle over cricket's racial boundaries was a part, albeit a small one, of the wider struggle against injustice. New cricketing heroes emerge from this story - players like Wilson Ximiya and Eric Majola. Odendaal has a lovely account of Gerald Majola (Eric's son and today the head of the United Cricket Board of South Africa) watching a one-day international in Barbados in 2001 and seated next to the legends of the WIndies game - Gary Sobers, Clyde Walcott, Everton Weekes, Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Lance Gibbs and Desmond Haynes. Majola remembers his emotions thus:
I recalled the image of two cricket-playing fathers watching their children play street games in New Brighton 40 years ago. Could Wilson, who named his first born Walcott Weekes and another one Sobers, and Eric have dreamed in those deep Apartheid days that one of their own boys would go to the West Indies one day as the head of South African cricket?
Despite Gerald Majola's leadership of the UCBSA and its Transformation Charter, designed to ensure "equal representivity" for black players at all levels of cricket there is still a good deal of official and unofficial prejudice in the South African game. The sport - at least at national and provincial levels - remains largely white. Suddenly former supporters of "separate" sporting development - unapologetic racists - splutter about the need to select only on the basis of merit and talent. Let the cricket development programme in the townships work away at the grassroots for a while (another decade perhaps) and then we'll have another look - this seems to be their meretricious argument.

Odendaal is having nothing to do with this. Beyond its historical scholarship, the inestimable value of the book is to make the point that the Transformation Charter's aim is not to take cricket into the black communities. Rather, it is to enable South Africa's majority peoples to officially represent their nation, provinces and clubs in a game through which they have expressed themselves
for a century and-a-half.


Blogger Ken said...

I'm afraid I can't agree with positive discrimination in any form. As soon as you discriminate for someone on the basis of race, you discriminate against someone else on exactly the same grounds. And I feel that promoting unmeritorious players to the national team will work against the aims of trying to promote a greater racial harmony in the country - instead only helping to enhance divisions.

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