Jacques Kallis and the Question of Race in South African Cricket

To have a cricket team whose demographic exactly matches that of the country might be seeking a false equivalence; it is a lopsided view of representation.

The South African team, after winning an ODI series against India in 2015. Credit: PTI

The South African team, after winning an ODI series against India in 2015. Credit: PTI

If the great all rounder Jacques Kallis is “embarrassed to call himself a South African” and insists that there should be “no place for politics in sport,” he is being doubly disingenuous. His reaction came in response to the South African sports minister’s ruling suspending the national associations of athletics, cricket, netball and the rugby union from bidding for major international events since they had not met “transformation targets”.

File photo of Jacques Kallis (L). Credit: PTI

File photo of Jacques Kallis (L). Credit: PTI

‘Transformation’ is how the South African government describes affirmative action or positive discrimination, or simply, the quota system. Its application in sport is both a historical necessity and a practical compulsion. Historically, those deprived for decades deserve an opportunity to come through the system. For over a century, the South African cricket team was a whites-only test team that played other whites-only teams.

Ethical questions apart, in a country where 80% of the population is black and only 8% white, it makes sense to expand the talent pool, and if that means an initial artificial impetus to the disadvantaged, there should be no quarrel.

The question then is for how long and at what cost? To argue that politics has no place in sport is naive. Sport is often politics by other means. Not an ideal situation, perhaps, but a recognition of reality. It is no accident that kings and presidents line up behind victorious teams, that success on the sports field is sometimes seen as a substitute for something similar in politics or the economy.

South Africa’s case is complex, especially in the “white” sports of rugby and cricket. In nearly a quarter century after they were readmitted to the fold following expulsion for their policy of apartheid, South Africa have had a few black players, but only one, Makhaya Ntini, played more than 30 matches.

In the early days, the man behind the re-integration, Ali Bacher, was hesitant to introduce a quota system. He understood the argument for it, but felt that such a move might amount to mere tokenism. I remember speaking to him at length about this on India’s inaugural tour of South Africa in 1992-93 when Omar Henry, a Cape Coloured, was picked to play. Henry, a left arm spinner, was already 40, and the weight of being a symbol sat heavily on him. Every non-white chosen since has had to fight the impression that his selection owed more to quota than to merit.

It was unfair. In 1998-99, encouraged by the African National Congress, the cricket board stated that the starting XI should have at least “four cricketers of colour”. Even many players of colour were unhappy at the prospect of making the national team on considerations other than skill.

An opportunity to put the ruling into practice came soon enough when South Africa led 4-0 in the test series at home against the West Indies. Here was a chance to blood promising players of colour in the fifth test. ”It would be an insult to be chosen because of your race now,” said Reuben Tseladimitlwa, chairman of the Soweto Cricket Club.

The New York Times put it in perspective: “Now that they can smell a 5-0 series victory, even non-white cricket officials who are dedicated to affirmative action start jiggling their feet… For 3-2, one could stand on principle. But 5-nil – hmmm.”

Last year, a group of black cricketers, calling themselves Black Cricketers in Unity, questioned Cricket South Africa’s commitment to transformation, claiming the players were mostly being used as drinks carriers. “If we are not ready for international cricket, stop picking us,” they said.

Cricket South Africa has sometimes handled the issue in a ham-handed manner. During the semifinals of the 50-over World Cup in 2015, a successful bowler Kyle Abbott was replaced by the out-of-form Vernon Philander for the semifinal following a directive from the board: “Pick the team bearing in mind transformation guidelines.”

The government’s recent ban is not of any immediate significance for cricket because there is no ICC senior tournament till 2023 that South Africa can bid for. The government – which asks for a 60% representation for blacks – takes a review annually, so there is time. The domestic rule (six players of colour per franchise) might be increased to seven, but it will take a while before seven players can make it to the international XIs.

And that’s where the problem lies. Sporting contests calls for pitting the best against the best, and if a “mathematical” XI takes the field, the essence of competition is compromised.

One practical way out might be to have quotas at all levels, but to pick the national teams on merit or with fewer quotas. Youngsters taking to sport need heroes to emulate. Currently, Kagiso Rabada, the 20-year-old who claimed 13 wickets in a test against England, and Temba Bavuma, 25, who became the first South African black to score a test century fit the role.

In 2006, when Ashwell Prince became the first player of colour to lead South Africa, Bacher had said the time had come “to do away with the quota system…”

Rehabilitation is important and so is remaining competitive. But to have a cricket team whose demographic exactly matches that of the country might be seeking a false equivalence; it is a lopsided view of representation. Equality of opportunity is crucial, but to stick unemotionally to transformation targets might work against the team.

There are no easy answers here. South African cricket is set for a phase of churning before it can logically do away with transformation. This is a fact that Kallis himself seemed to acknowledge when he softened his stance following his initial reaction, pointing to the good work his foundation does for the underprivileged and clarifying that he is not “anti-transformation.”

Suresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack.