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Absent Bavuma highlights South Africa's ever-present transformation issues

CSA has recommitted to transformation targets but the absence of black African players remains glaring

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Temba Bavuma reaches his century, South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Cape Town, 4th day, January 5, 2016

Temba Bavuma scored his only Test hundred at Newlands in 2016  •  AFP

Temba Bavuma's ears must be burning. Though he is not involved in the Newlands Test and is not even in Cape Town after being released from the squad, everyone in South African cricket is talking about him.
This was the venue where Bavuma scored the only hundred of his 39 Test career to date, against this opposition, so naturally there were going to be throwbacks. But it doesn't end there.
Some use that hundred as evidence Bavuma has what it takes to play at this level, others point to the absence of any others to say that he doesn't. There are those who believe Bavuma should return to domestic cricket and break down the door with runs and those who believe his presence, regardless of form, is essential for purposes of representation. And then there is CSA.
The board's press release on Saturday, reaffirming their commitment to transformation and denying that the recent ream management overhaul is a whitewash, may not have been intentionally about Bavuma, but it was.
It came two days after Faf du Plessis said the team does not see colour, which sounds like a nice statement but is naive in the South African context. This country has, since 1652 when the Dutch East India Company arrived on its shores, seen colour. It saw colour through slavery, colonialism and Apartheid and sees colour even more in democracy. But the rainbow nation is not without shades of grey.
The key takeaway from the statement was the reassurance given to black Africans that they still have a place in the game in South Africa. There is a difference in this country between black and black African and it is both problematic and necessary. While all black people were affected by the evils of the Apartheid regime, the black African population were the most severely marginalised and mistreated. They are also, by far, the biggest majority. Redressing the wrongs committed against them is non-negotiable but where does that leave other black people, those who are coloured, mixed-race or of Indian descent?
Recently, here in the Western Cape, the Cape Cobras wilfully missed their transformation target when they went into a fixture with two instead of three black African players but seven players of colour overall. The Cobras communicated their decision to CSA and one of their arguments was that in offering opportunity to players of colour and not discriminating between the different black races, they were doing their bit for transformation. As far as the Cobras were concerned, CSA did not disagree with them, especially since the subject had also been discussed at the coaches' conference last year.
CSA, who were still governed by the Thabang Moroe administration at the time, were due to have an enquiry into the matter but since the crisis and changes in the executive, the whole saga has quietly gone away. Now it seems CSA may not be so lenient.
"Transformation targets have been set for all our teams below the international level that have to be implemented on a game-by-game basis," Chris Nenzani, CSA's president, said. "This is an obligation to a very important bottom-up approach. The CSA board is mandated to enforce these policies without exception and to take corrective action where non-compliance occurs."
That means the differentiation between players of colour and black African players will remain rigidly in place at domestic level, where teams are required to field a minimum of six players of colour, of which at least three must be black African. The national team also has a target - six players of colour of which at least two must be black African - but theirs is calculated on average over a season, "to give team management the flexibility to select teams based on the unique match-to-match requirements and in line with obtaining objective realities," according to Nenzani.
So South Africa's new management are not in any trouble yet. They have gone into the first two Tests against England with only four players of colour (Zubayr Hamza, Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj and Kagiso Rabada) of which one (Rabada) is black African, and will need to make up the numbers in other fixtures. Part of the reason South Africa have fallen behind the target is because of injury - Lungi Ngidi would almost certainly have played ahead of Anrich Nortje if he did not have a hamstring injury. The other part is form. Bavuma, who started the summer with a hip niggle, was declared fit for Newlands but dropped. And that's what people are angry about.
We are just crossing fingers that Rabada doesn't get injured otherwise there will be no [black players] left
Makhaya Ntini
The Black African Cricket Clubs (BACC), who held a meeting last week during the Centurion Test, make up some of those people. They questioned whether CSA's acting director of cricket, Graeme Smith, could be trusted with on development, given his background. When they spoke about Bavuma, they referenced the support - financial and otherwise - that he has had in becoming an international batsman, which requires significantly more resources than becoming a bowler. Bavuma is from a middle-class family and went to an elite school, St Davids, essentially walking in similar shoes to a white player. The BACC asked what happens to people who do not have those advantages and at the moment, very few people have the answers.
CSA has hubs situated in townships and programmes aimed at nurturing players from diverse backgrounds but very few of those players come through. The bulk of the country's cricketers (and rugby players) are produced from a handful of Model C - the highest-quality government school formerly reserved for white children only - and private schools. Those who can afford to access the structures that can turn them into professional sportspeople, do and those who can't, most of whom are black African, are lost. For that to change, CSA and the government have to work together to increase facilities and therefore opportunities for all at grassroots level.
The trouble is that there is an impatience, perhaps a justified impatience 29 years post-unification of sports across the racial barrier, for change to happen at all levels, not just the bottom.
The country is demanding black African heroes. In 2019, rugby delivered with Siya Kolisi the captain of the World Cup-winning side. At the start of 2020, cricket has regressed, according to some, with only one black African player in the Test XI. "We are just crossing fingers that Rabada doesn't get injured otherwise there will be none left," Makhaya Ntini told ESPNcricinfo.
Ntini knows what it's like to be the only black African in the side, the flag-bearer for a nation carrying the weight of expectation on his shoulders alone. It is what turned him into the loudest and most boisterous member of the squad, a persona that could not be criticised. He also knew that as soon as his performance dipped, even a touch, "I would be gone, just like that."
Ntini played his entire career under pressure to perform and fear of being dropped. He survived because success stalked him and because he did not talk about the challenges. Now, nine years since he retired, he is more willing to address the issues that came with being a representative for things much bigger than himself, and he thinks asking Rabada or Bavuma to shoulder the same burden would be "unfair".
The same word could be used to describe the circumstances of players on the other side. Those who are chosen ahead of black African players can become targets for the anger of people who feel underrepresented and disenfranchised. Rassie van der Dussen is an example of such a player. He knows that there is a groundswell of support for Bavuma to return, and he would be forgiven for looking over his shoulder rather than at the next ball. But he isn't doing that.
"Growing up, it [transformation] is something we have been aware of, it's something that is a reality in South Africa, not only in sport but in all aspects of life," van der Dussen said. "As a white player, as any player, you are there to do a job, to put in performances and win games for your team. It's not about thinking about this guy must play or that guy must play. You get an opportunity and you can't do much if you don't get the opportunity and you work hard for the opportunity and you've got to try do everything in your power to make sure you are ready when it comes."
Simple. Or maybe not.
Equality of opportunity for players of colour, and specifically black African players, is what South Africans want, but that can only be achieved if there are enough people to offer that opportunity to. There are currently no black African batsmen in the top 23 run-scorers on the first-class charts (Wandile Makwetu is 24th). Eight of the top ten batsmen are white. There's more representation in the bowling department where Malusi Siboto sits second, Lutho Sipamla joint-seventh and Tshepo Moreki joint ninth.
The real question South Africans need to be asking is why they aren't more players of colour on the domestic circuit who can provide the national team with options. The answers will lie in the same historical injustices previously mentioned and in the steps that need to be taken to spread the game to various different parts of the country and its people. It has been 29 years, but they are still not close to being fixed. Instead, talk in South African cricket centres on Bavuma, in whom this complicated scenario is encapsulated.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent