Driving Racial Equality in South African Cricket

Yesterday Temba Bavuma became the first ever black South African to score a century in Test Cricket. A special moment for Bavuma, and an historic achievement. But amidst the celebratory headlines, there’s a nagging question:

What’s taken so long?

Twenty one years ago, Nelson Mandela donned a Springboks shirt and presented Francois Pienaar with the Rugby World Cup. Apartheid had ended four years previously, South Africa had its first black president, and now South African sport was on the world stage, Mandela showing us how sport could lead the way in redressing the balance and striving for equality. A seminal moment – but a seminal moment that was twenty one years ago.

76% of South Africa’s population is Black African. Yet, of the 29 batsmen who have scored test centuries since South Africa’s test status we reinstated in 1991, just 1 is a black South African – thanks to Bavuma yesterday.

It’s taken too long. And there’s so much further to go. And so to the perennial question, oft debated by South African sport’s (largely white) governing bodies.

How do we get there?

The quota systems that have periodically been employed in South African sport have been highly controversial. Recent opinion polls suggested that a marginal majority of South Africans favour quotas, but those who do not argue vociferously for selection on merit, and point to a talent drain caused by the implementation of quotas (Kevin Pietersen’s move to England a case in point).

The late Clive Rice, a former South African captain, publically argued against the quota system, going as far to describe it as ‘apartheid in reverse’. Yet he also believed it was inevitable that the nation’s top cricketers would continue to come from the most privileged backgrounds: from the predominantly white, suburban, private schools (over 35% of South Africa’s test players since 1991 went to the same ten private high schools).

On the one hand, he was right: with no action, with no investment in grassroots crickets in the deprived South African townships and rural areas, then of course the best cricketers will continue to come from the most privileged backgrounds. To become a top cricketer takes more than just talent, ambition and drive: it takes facilities, opportunities, nutrition – three things that so many of South Africa’s black communities still lack.

On the other hand, we must look for ways to reach the equality that we thought Nelson Mandela’s gesture in 1995 heralded. Black cricketers must be developed from the grassroots up, but in fixing a broken sport in a broken nation, this must be driven from top down. Cricket South Africa is taking steps to do this, including offering scholarships to successful cricket schools for talented township residents. But far more importantly, with the recent increase in the quota imposed on South Africa’s franchise and semi-professional cricket clubs, Cricket South Africa is providing clubs with a clear incentive for wholesale investment in grassroots cricket in the townships.

Those who argue against a quota system will cite the example of Zimbabwe, whose international cricketing performances have plummeted following a strike by white players in 2001-2 after the imposition of a heavy quota. But by having quotas at a provincial, but not an international, level means that the South African national team can still be the best 11 cricketers in the country (and even include those who have opted to play abroad at club level to avoid quotas), meaning that international performance would not be affected whilst inequalities are addressed from the bottom up.

In a utopian world, race would not be an issue in South African sport, or indeed in South Africa itself. South African Cricket would not require quotas, and certainly the system is not without its flaws. But you cannot bury a history; deny a past. Under apartheid football was the only sport which black people were allowed to play professionally: the legacy which this has left will not disappear of its own accord. The division remains clear for all to see, and change remains slow. Temba Bamuva’s achievement is so great precisely because it has come against the odds. He has led the way, but now these odds must change. Managed correctly, domestic level quotas and the consequent investment can have huge positive impact. The direction is the right one – let’s not wait another 21 years for that next seminal moment.

Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting us @SportingSpeak

Alexandra Kyrke-Smith (@wisecrAKS)

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