Sport - Jason Cowley on racism in South African cricket

Apartheid, not the ruling regime, brought race into South African cricket

Should South Africa ever again be represented by an all-white cricket team? The feeling among many white sports fans I have met since arriving here in the Western Cape is that the national cricket team - and, indeed, the once-indomitable rugby team - is losing too many matches because of what the former South African cricket captain Clive Rice calls the "dreaded quota system", under which all school and provincial sporting teams are required to include at least five players of colour. The quota system does not extend to the national team.

"But I can't imagine that any South African sporting team will ever again be all white," Gerald de Kock, head of media relations for the South African cricket board, told me when I spoke to him.

The irritation of many white supporters is compounded by the case of Kevin Pietersen. Pietersen, who is 24, is South African, from KwaZulu/Natal, yet he plays for England. In the absence of the injured Andrew Flintoff, he has assumed the role of the batting cavalier in the England one-day side. The talented and brash Pietersen qualifies to play for England because he has an English mother and has lived for four years in England. In person, he is, like many young white South African men, aggressively confident. He would be the last to doubt his own ability and right to play for England.

When he left the country of his birth he complained, predictably enough, that he had been forced out by the quota system. "I could not see how I would ever have a chance to play international cricket if I stayed in South Africa," he said. Now he has angered locals by complaining that too many of England's opponents, in a warm-up game against South Africa A, "could not speak English properly".

The South African captain, Graeme Smith, was less than impressed. "He [Pietersen] ran out when things got tough," said Smith. "We all know that South Africa went through a transformation that was important for the country. We had to come from apartheid and move on. There was always going to be a difficult stage."

South African cricket, like the country itself, remains in complicated transition. For too long the country had an English team for an English game, as Desmond Tutu recently put it. Today the national squad, with its mix of the sons of English settlers, Afrikaners, Cape coloureds, the Asian Hashim Amla and the black fast bowler Makhaya Ntini, is more representative of the ethnic mosaic of the country at large. But the team is no longer as successful as it was in the 1990s under the relentless captaincy of the late and disgraced Hansie Cronje.

This has nothing to do with racial quotas. South Africa's one Test victory, at Newlands, Cape Town, in the recent five-match series against England, occurred when there were four players of colour in the team - Ntini, Amla, and the Cape coloureds Herschelle Gibbs and Charl Langeveldt - more than at any other time in the series.

De Kock told me that, if two players of equal ability were competing for a team place and one of them was a person of colour, the person of colour would be selected. But de Kock seemed exasperated by having to explain the racial classification of each player. "It's all very complicated now, but it's a hell of a lot better than it was here 20 years ago," he said.

It was, after all, the white supremacists of the apartheid government who politicised ethnicity in the first place, not the ruling African National Congress.

If cricket is to flourish in South Africa - and indeed survive in Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe, countries where its hold is increasingly fragile - it must embrace indigenous Africans, especially as their preferred sport is football. More urgently, what South Africa needs is not another Kevin Pietersen, but a black cricket captain - and one who, like Ntini, is in the side on merit alone. His emergence may take a generation, but he will come. Are white South Africans prepared to wait that long?

Jason Cowley is editor of Observer Sport Monthly

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Push here