I am writing this on June 16th, Youth Day in South Africa but better remembered, by those of us old enough, as Soweto Day. Thirty-two years ago, schoolchildren began to protest in Soweto township and were met by police bullets, a landmark moment in the resistance which led to our liberation in 1994.
An icon of that struggle, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, gave the Spirit of Cricket lecture at Lord’s last week. More than anyone else, Tutu has been our post-apartheid moral conscience. A cricket fan since his teens, he is the first fan to be asked to give the annual lecture. Since this is a fans’ blog, it seems entirely appropriate for this debut piece to be a homage to him.
The headlines after the lecture focused on Tutu’s support for a cricket boycott of Zimbabwe, though his lecture was not explicit about this. Nonetheless he is right, even if official South Africa – and the ICC - disagree. Our president is notorious for insisting on ‘quiet diplomacy’. Our cricket board sent SA and SA ‘A’ teams to Zimbabwe last August, and included Zimbabwe in our domestic competitions last summer, as used to happen in the 1970s when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia.
The old anti-apartheid slogan ‘No normal sport in an abnormal society’ applies. Six-digit inflation? People dying of starvation? A ruling party that threatens to take up arms if it loses an election? Zimbabwe is an abnormal society, a society at war with itself.
Neither is Zimbabwe’s sport ‘normal’. Read the poignant piece on Zimbabwean cricketers resorting to illegal and desperate means of survival because inflation has dissolved their salaries, or the story of the SA ‘A’ team in Bulawayo last year – no food in their hotel, they went to get dinner at a chicken fast-food outlet. But the restaurant had no chicken, or anything else to eat.
There is an irrefutable moral case for a cricket boycott. Is there a political case too? Will it make a difference? Not directly. Unlike white South Africa, neither Mugabe nor his supporters seem to care much about cricket, sport generally, or their image in the West. Only a serious economic boycott in which South Africa participates will really impact on Zimbabwe. But the lesson from ending apartheid is that this needs an international social movement to force the hand of reluctant political leaders who don’t really want change – like Margaret Thatcher then and Mbeki now. A cricket boycott will help build this social movement, even though it is very late to be starting.
Tutu’s main concern was a much deeper disagreement with Thatcher, who famously denied the existence of ‘society’ and thought only in terms of ‘the individual’. Tutu argued that humankind is in essence a social being: the individual does not exist outside society. For him cricket epitomises this interdependence: more than most other games, it is a series of struggles between individuals which have meaning only in the context of the wider struggle between their teams and are only resolved with the help of their teams. Batsman and bowler always play for both themselves and their teams.
Cricket is shaped by the same economic, political and social forces which impact on the rest of society. Having enjoyed the Warner Stand at Lord’s in the 60s while a student in England, Tutu would have been forced to sit in a rudimentary ‘non-white’ enclosure at the Wanderers after his return home. What a way to be reminded that even if the cricket world – players and administrators – tries to keep the real world at bay, it cannot succeed, if only because its fans are necessarily part of that real world.
Cricket is facing big challenges which forcibly remind us that it is not just a game, from affirmative action to failed states, from the power of money to the tension between technological progress and social organisation (aka the third umpire). In my contributions to this blog, I plan to take up these issues while also writing about cricket on the field, like why Jacques Kallis is an all-time great, and what it feels like when South Africa beat England (hopefully) and Australia (really hopefully).