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Comment

To be meaningful, follow-up to SJN process must go beyond Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher

Don't forget, the pair does not comprise the totality of concerns raised by the hearings; to benefit from the process, South African cricket must delve into a lot more

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
12-May-2022
AB de Villiers, Mark Boucher and Graeme Smith celebrate the win, India vs South Africa, 1st Test, Nagpur, 4th day, February 9, 2010

The follow-up to the SJN process needs to move past focusing on a few individuals and look at the wider picture  •  Getty Images

South African cricket's relationship with race does not start or end with Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher. The pair has been in the eye of the storm generated by the Social Justice and Nation-Building (SJN) report, but Smith was cleared last week and charges against Boucher were dropped less than a week before his disciplinary hearing was to begin. The word "finality" is doing the rounds. Except that the SJN hearings were never about individuals or drawing a line in the sand. And Cricket South Africa (CSA) now has the opportunity to move the discussion away from two, influential figures and onto the game as a whole.
It's easy to see why Smith and Boucher became the epicentre. As director of cricket and national men's coach, the pair held the two most powerful positions in South African cricket and the manner in which they came to occupy them - in a matter of a few frenzied days in December 2019 - sparked questions of favouritism and fears of a "white takeover".
But how they came to illustrate the totality of concerns raised by the SJN is another matter. Their names were mentioned on the very first day of testimony, when former board member Dr Eugenia Kula-Ameyaw, who conceptualised the SJN, questioned the process of their appointments. Though CSA has acknowledged the flaws which led to positions being filled without advertising or interviews, it also pointed out that those processes were ratified by the previous board and no further action can be taken.
Subsequently, Smith and Boucher were named by several people who testified at the hearings. Occasionally, the ombudsman's assistants asked witnesses whether Smith and Boucher, in particular, were involved in incidents of racial discrimination. But the pair's prominence only become part of the dominant narrative with the filing of the SJN report, in which ombudsman Dumisa Ntsebeza said he felt they could have engaged in racially discriminatory behaviour. He encouraged CSA to investigate further.
Though titled "Interim Report", it is the only document CSA has received from the ombudsman and because it was unable to make definitive findings it left CSA in an impossible position. The board could not responsibly act on "tentative findings", but it also could not ignore the report, having thrown its weight behind the process. The only solution was to follow the ombudsman's advice and embark on a formal process against those named within; and the only processes the board could embark on was against people who worked with CSA. Which is how we come to Smith and Boucher.
The SJN was a flawed report because it was not definitive. It left the door open for only two figures to become the main characters and while their levels of seniority means they may always have been part of the story, they are not the entirety of it
We must remember that Smith and Boucher were not the only people named in the report. AB de Villiers, for example, was one of the most prominent persons to be named, along with a string of former and current players, some of whom supplied written affidavits to the SJN (such as de Villiers) and others who did not. Naming (and shaming, as it were) cannot be the point of an exercise like the SJN because it then loses any chance at real meaning, which involves addressing the macro-issues.
The testimony shared at the SJN covered a period from pre-readmission (Omar Henry's memories of being ostracised by both communities of colour and white is one example) to the present day. But the focus was largely on the national men's team, from readmission to the mid-2010s. That is a period in which Boucher (in his affidavit) said players were unprepared because CSA did not do enough to equip them with how to deal with "the legacy of Apartheid… the additional pressures placed on them by the country and the media, how we ensure that there is equality, respect, empathy and inclusiveness in the team".
There's some naivety in Boucher's statement - which may extend to other players at the time - which suggests they did not assume responsibility for being part of a changing world, and perhaps did not see the need to change with that world. At a professional level, cricket remained a white-dominated sport, even as it began to operate at the intersection of old South Africa and new. In fact, it had more of a foot in the old, simply because more of the people involved were from that side of history and could establish their way of doing things as the norm.
For a better understanding, we need to look a little deeper into the dominant sporting culture at the time, which came from the elite schoolboy system of hierarchy. To this day, the top schools in the country operate in this way, where there is bullying, unpleasant rites of initiation and unspoken rules of who can do what and when. Coming through it is a rite of passage for many young people, who are taught to be tough and have to learn that the hard way.
That's why we get statements like "this is a man's environment" and "harden up" from current Test captain Dean Elgar. It's why it was acceptable for South African fans to taunt David Warner with his wife's intimate history. This is a place where overt displays of masculinity are celebrated and any form of vulnerability is not, and it was even more stark in that immediate post-readmission period.
As a young player, and especially a young player of colour, coming into that space was difficult. Challenging it was unthinkable. Neither Paul Adams, nor Boucher would have been able to say if they found the songs at fines meetings inappropriate. No one would have. Interestingly, no one else who played with Adams or Boucher has said anything about their experience. Adams has subsequently realised he was the target of a racial slur; Boucher has since said he understands the seriousness of the offence caused.
So the actual question we should we ask is whether anything has changed?
Boucher, in his statement on Tuesday, maintains that the team environment is "inclusive", something which players including white-ball captain Temba Bavuma have confirmed. The current crop of players have been through several culture camps and have established three pillars which they consider the core of their approach: respect, empathy and belonging. In terms of buzz-speak that sounds good.
They still hold fines meetings, they still sing songs, and they still use stereotypes in a half-jest, half-mocking way. Is that just part of the bonding exercise all teams go through? Or is it something that needs deeper consideration and more thought, especially in a society like South Africa's? Those are the questions this current group of players needs to answer as it seeks to move forward, from the old days where Boucher and his ilk were unsure how to deal with each other, to a time when it can embody the idea of unity.
The SJN has made us think and talk about this, beyond just cricket's circles. It gave a voice to the likes of Adams, who said that he had never before had the opportunity to talk about his experience, while providing a platform for those accused to reply. Smith and Boucher chose not to do that in person, instead providing written submissions. That was their right, but it may have robbed the process of a necessary level of humanity, or the opportunity to allow people to understand each other better.
At the same time, the SJN was a flawed report because it was not definitive. It left the door open for only two figures to become the main characters and while their levels of seniority means they may always have been part of the story, they are not the entirety of it. Only once we start to confront the offshoots - the issues around development, the women's game, school structures, support staff concerns and everything in between - will see the full benefit of a process such as the SJN. That was the firestarter; now the flames must catch.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent