Graeme Smith has assured South Africans of all races that he is committed to transformation after he was criticised by the Black African Cricket Clubs (BACC), who held a meeting at the Wanderers on Friday. The group, which formed in 2011 after a racially charged split in the Central Gauteng Lions, aim to reposition and grow black African cricket and expressed their mistrust in the current administration's ability to do that.
Smith was not present at the meeting, nor has he been directly approached by the BACC yet. South Africa's new director of cricket was working in Centurion, venue for the first Test with England, but when asked for comment, he issued this statement saying he understood concerns among the black community about putting "their trust in a white man of my background".
"I'm fully aware that in times of change in any organisation there will be instances of uncertainty and distrust from members of certain groups," he said. "I'm also well aware that in South Africa, it will take a lot for some members of the black community to put their trust in a white man of my background. I can assure them however that I fully intend to do my best to advance the transformation agenda of Cricket South Africa and ensure that young black African players are given the opportunity that they deserve to reach the highest levels in all areas of the game."
Smith's acknowledgement of his own privilege came in response to an accusation that he does not fully grasp the black African experience, which is steeped in the legacy of Apartheid segregation. In cricket terms, that is best illustrated by national representation where only eight black African players have been capped at Test level, out of the 107 players since readmission, which speaks to the differences in opportunity and is the BACC's main concern.
"You are sitting with a director of cricket who has the responsibility to develop everyone," BACC chairman, Ntsongo Sibiya, said. "I am not sure what he understands about a kid in Soweto or in a rural area. I don't think he understands those dynamics. If you were a black man and Graeme Smith becomes director of cricket, would you trust him to develop your side? I am saying Graeme Smith, the position, not Graeme Smith, the man. I am talking about the director of cricket position. It is a critical position. It needs to be managed. It needs to make sure it does what this country needs. It needs to be someone that thoroughly understands."
In an effort not to concentrate the conversation on race alone, the BACC put forward other names for the director of cricket position, who they believe have more experience in transformation. "Had you said Adrian Birrell or Greg Hayes was the director of cricket, none of us would have complained. They have a track record over time of producing black cricketers," Lewis Manthata, a BACC member, said.
Birrell and Hayes are both from the Eastern Cape, the heartland of black African cricket, and have worked in rural cricket programmes for many years. While Hayes was instrumental in Makhaya Ntini's development, Birrell has worked as recently as 2017 as the national assistant coach. Smith, despite captaining his country for 11 years, has not worked in development.
To produce a bowler, all you need is a pair of spikes. To produce a batter, you need a R10,000 bat. How do we make sure any boy with potential can come through?BACC chairman Ntsongo Sibiya
"There is no one currently in the system who understands how to develop a black African child," Sibiya said. "We have a lot of players who have come through the system but they don't make it all the way, not because of ability but because the system halts them and does not allow them to go to the next level."
He pointed to economic issues, such as the differences required in equipment for different kinds of cricketers and the dearth of facilities in townships, as examples. "To produce a bowler, all you need is a pair of spikes," Sibiya said. "To produce a batter, you need a R10,000 (US$700) bat. You need support. If you look at Temba Bavuma, he has got that support. How do we make sure any boy with potential can come through?"
Essentially that speaks to a class issue, which is inevitably tied up with race in South Africa. Bavuma and Kagiso Rabada are both from wealthy backgrounds, while even the likes of Ntini, Lungi Ngidi and Andile Phehlukwayo, who are from more modest beginnings, received scholarships to top schools, where they excelled.
Therein lies the BACC's greatest concern - they want to be able to produce a cricketer from an underprivileged area, who is also allowed to develop there. They have called on the government, CSA (despite its debt forecasts), and the corporate world to provide the funds for this to be made possible. "How do you expect players of colour to come through if there is no investment?" Manthata said. "Government has a responsibility to invest but they have far more important issues to deal with. It's the responsibility of federations and those with monopoly power."
That presents a conundrum. South Africa's past has created a present where the wealth of the country is more prevalent in some demographics (ie. non-black African), but for transformation to succeed it needs the buy-in of all races. The BACC, whose names suggests otherwise, claim their meetings, which will be taken around the country soon, are open to all. They also said their agenda covers all players of colour even though it is most concerned with black African players.
"The meeting said anyone that has vested interests in black African people can attend," Sibiya said. "We had white people, we had coloured people. It was a black African agenda but not necessarily a black African meeting. We are looking at transformation generally and black Africans in particular as the most marginalised group from the past."
South Africa went into the Centurion Test - the first since Smith took the director of cricket job and appointed Mark Boucher as head coach - with only four non-white players, including one black African, which is shy of the transformation target of six and two, although injuries to Bavuma and Ngidi have limited the selectors' options.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent