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Flawed but necessary: SJN hearings reveal no heroes, no villains

Extensive grassroots development and a detailed transformation policy that goes beyond mere numbers are now a must

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
16-Dec-2021
The South Africa players line up for their national anthem at the 2021 Men's T20 World Cup  •  ICC via Getty

The South Africa players line up for their national anthem at the 2021 Men's T20 World Cup  •  ICC via Getty

Cricket in South Africa is institutionally racist. Cricket South Africa is institutionally racist. South Africa is institutionally racist. Whichever way we arrange these words, they're not telling us anything we didn't already know.
South Africa was the last bastion of legalised white supremacy in the world. Apartheid officially ended only 27 years ago. When this website began in 1993, the majority of the South African population - people of colour - could not vote. But they could and did play cricket. The national team was readmitted into the international game two years earlier, in 1991, with an all-white team even though there were established leagues among players of colour. A white national team was chosen, as it had always been, emphasising cricket's legacy as a sport of empire, promoted by prime minister Cecil John Rhodes and played by the head of his department, William Milton, who was once Test captain.
We only need to look at the treatment of people of colour in the United States to know the shadow of discrimination is long and can last hundreds of years. It's unsurprising that South Africa and cricket in South Africa still battles these demons of discrimination. The Social Justice and Nation Building (SJN) hearings and report have laid bare some of these demons, which constitute some of the gravest issues in the game over the last 30 years.
The report has found that CSA, as well as some of its biggest names and at times its selection policies, have often been prone to racial bias. At the heart of the findings is that the champion team of 2012, who lifted the Test mace at Lord's, has been stained by an exclusionary team culture. That was a team led by current director of cricket (DOC) Graeme Smith, that had just seen the retirement of current head coach Mark Boucher and was headlined by arguably South Africa's greatest batter, AB de Villiers. All three are central to specific instances where their conduct was thought to be prejudicial.
The SJN has revealed a nuance that establish no outright heroes or villains and no decisions that were simply right or wrong
At the same time, the report also makes judgements against them which might seem to lie outside its remit. Ombudsman Dumisa Ntsebeza found that the appointments of Smith and Boucher were procedurally flawed, in essence because they were headhunted. But CSA's HR operations were never meant to be within the mandate of the hearings. Ntsebeza was led in that direction, however, because the pair hold positions of power in the game today. The decisions they make now impact players in the current set-up and could those in the future.
Still, it's worth remembering that Smith and Boucher were roped in at a time of great turmoil in South African cricket, two weeks before an incoming tour by England, with then CEO Thabang Moroe suspended and no one in the position of head coach. Moroe had courted Smith for the role of DOC for months, only for Smith to withdraw from the process. Then-CSA president Chris Nenzani approached him and eventually convinced Smith to sign on. Smith then hired Boucher, his friend, but also a franchise coach. Both Moroe and Nenzani are black. They were the men making decisions that saw white men appointed, and not just any white men but Smith and Boucher. All these men have made some good decisions and some bad decisions, as we all do.
The SJN has revealed a nuance that establish no outright heroes or villains and no decisions that were simply right or wrong. Thami Tsolekile is perhaps the best example. His career was derailed when he was not given the opportunity to play for the Test team in 2012, despite being contracted as Boucher's replacement, and only because de Villiers decided he wanted to keep wicket. de Villiers remained in the position until 2014, when Quinton de Kock arrived. Tsolekile was sidelined and would eventually be embroiled in the corruption scandal of 2015-16.
That same summer, Khaya Zondo was denied a debut in an ODI series in India, in favour of Dean Elgar, who was not even part of the original squad. Testimony from former selector Hussein Manack claimed de Villiers pressured him into making the decision to play Elgar over Zondo, which de Villiers has never denied. But de Villiers maintained he was only considering "cricketing" reasons. The report found de Villiers' conduct in that incident to be discriminatory, which he strongly objects to.
What we can see from these examples is that selection is not straightforward. There is a good case for why Tsolekile should have been the Test keeper - he was averaging over 40 in first-class cricket at the time. There is also a good case for why de Villiers should have - he allowed South Africa to field seven specialist batters. There is more of an argument for why Zondo should have been included - he was in the squad as a reserve batter - and not Elgar, who was flown in earlier because he had more domestic cricket experience.
What makes these cases significant is that they pit a black African player against a white player; the most discriminated against, and the most privileged. And so when a decision is made, it has to consider cricketing as well as transformation imperatives. Right answers are rare. On occasions such as the 2015 World Cup semi-final, when a half-fit Vernon Philander was picked ahead of Kyle Abbott, decisions can hurt everyone almost immediately. On others such as the exclusions of Tsolekile and Zondo's the hurt only emerges over time. And none of that can be changed.
So where do we go from here?
The debates around selection aired at the SJN should prompt a more detailed policy for national and provincial teams, which does more than just laying out transformation targets (currently domestic teams have to field at least six players of colour in every XI, of which at least three must be black African, and the national team must field at least six players of colour of which at least two must be black African) and also contains detail on how to meet them and how to resolve disputes when two players of similar potential are competing for a similar spot.
An example of how difficult this can be could come as early as the upcoming Test series against India. South Africa have eight quicks in their 21-player squad, with Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje set to be certain starters, Lungi Ngidi and Duanne Olivier to compete for the third seamer spot and the rest as back-up. So how should the selectors decide between Ngidi and Olivier?
On precedent, Ngidi should play, because the spot was his the last time South Africa played Tests, in the West Indies, and he performed well. On form and fitness, Olivier should play, because he is the leading wicket-taker in the first-class competition while Ngidi hasn't played red-ball cricket since June or any competitive matches in five months. Further clouding the issue is the fact that not that long ago, Olivier chose to end his career in South Africa by opting for a Kolpak deal. He's only back because Britain's exit from the European Union means his agreement with Yorkshire is no longer in place.
Some may argue that from the perspective of variety, neither should play and that the left-armer Marco Jansen should be capped and unleashed on India as early as possible. Others will feel Glenton Stuurman's consistency will serve South Africa better. The selectors will have to factor all of these things in when they make their decision. Not everyone will be happy with whatever decision they make.
The SJN has opened a door. Like the country, it has been flawed, but it has also been among the most necessary things that have taken place in cricket, in sport, in society and in South Africa.
The SJN highlighted that there are still remnants of the belief that transformation and excellence are considered mutually exclusive. This is a notion that was birthed in whiteness and allowed to flourish under the misguided idea that people of colour were less capable. It masked the injustices which denied them access to resources and facilities to compete on a level playing field. Ultimately, extensive grassroots development a should be a focus of cricket, big business and government, even if it may not easily change the entrenched mindsets of white privilege that the SJN highlighted. Money can be ploughed into townships but if people in positions of power don't ensure players of colour are picked and backed the system will not change.
Almost every player of colour has a story to tell about how they were treated poorly, overlooked, othered or excluded; from South Africa's first, Omar Henry, who was denied opportunity at the 1992 World Cup, to one of South Africa's best, Hashim Amla. More's the pity that Amla, who is notoriously private but said on his resignation as Test captain that, "the first time you play Test cricket everybody doubts you because of the colour of your skin," did not make a submission at the SJN. Neither did Makhaya Ntini, despite numerous interviews in which he detailed why he would run from the ground to the hotel rather than sit on a bus with team-mates who avoided him, or Philander. This trio are South Africa's most successful players of colour and their stories would have added extra weight.
Similarly, none of the former players facing the brunt of these allegations gave oral testimony before the ombudsman. Smith, Boucher and de Villiers submitted written affidavits as did a slew of others. What they did not do was take the opportunity to show their humanity by appearing before the ombudsman and thereby begin a two-way conversation which may ultimately lead to greater understanding. That may yet come when the dust settles.
Though much of the SJN's timing has been inopportune, with parts of it running through the T20 World Cup campaign, the report was released on the eve of South Africa's Day of Reconciliation: December 16. This day was celebrated by the Afrikaner community in commemoration of their victory in the battle of Blood River in 1838, and by the African National Congress, as it marked the founding of their militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, in 1961.
Historically, this was a day of violence. But in 1995, December 16 was chosen to signify unity and racial healing. South Africa, and South African cricket, are very far from either but the SJN has opened a door. Like the country, it has been flawed, but it has also been among the most necessary things that have taken place in cricket, in sport, in society and in South Africa.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent