The South African national team should never again be a place where players experience isolation or feel unable to express their feelings, and should foster respect, belonging and empathy in the future. Those resolutions were the major outcomes of the 32-member South Africa squad's culture camp which was held in the Kruger National Park last week, in the aftermath of the myriad stories of racial tensions
that emerged from former players in recent weeks.
Although none of the current crop of players have indicated that they have been subject to discrimination, stories from players as recent as Aaron Phangiso - who last played for South Africa in February 2018 - have exposed divisions in the set-up, which Cricket South Africa (CSA) is now aiming to address. The culture camp had been planned for several months ago but its occurrence at this time
has allowed players to review their environment and identity. As a result, the "Protea Fire" brand, cultivated under Graeme Smith in 2010, has been put on pause and may make way for a new mantra which speaks to the existing needs of the squad.
"We need to create a space where people will be able to share how they feel, be able to put themselves in somebody's shoes, be supportive and always make sure they don't see things only from their side. This allows for the value of absolute equality," Khomotso Volvo Masubelele, the team manager, said.
Unlike a skills-based camp, the men's team spent most of last week in "regular conversations and soft-skills work," which Masubelele said is "as critical to the team as on-field strategies". Given the diversity of backgrounds in the squad, areas like communication were addressed in detail, with CSA making use of outside facilitators to lead activities.
"The players have demonstrated the capacity to learn, to have hard conversations and how to prioritise and to listen to understand but not to respond," Masubelele said. "They have learned to move away from arguing their way through conversations to feeling their way in each conversation by using concepts of storytelling, guided conversation and first-person narrative.
"We went from addressing issues to engaging people, from contention to conversation, from moving against to moving with as a collective, and it highlighted the need for education."
The process of reflection yielded three pillars that will form the foundation for the team going forward. "The first one was respect. We have to understand that we all have our own unique history and we need to be more mindful of how that influences the views and beliefs of your team-mates and to create full understanding on how to ideally work with one another," Masubelele said. "The second one was belonging. All team-mates must be allowed to be themselves in a team environment and not worry about having concerns of being judged. That creates the inclusive environment and this will allow them to represent themselves to their full capacity on the field and off the field.
"The third value was empathy. That was actually one of the most critical ones."
The men's team has no confirmed assignments to date, so it is unclear when the players will be able to showcase their new values. A T20I series against India, touted for August, may not take place in the current financial year, given the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the rest of the FTP is yet to be resolved. South Africa are also due to host Sri Lanka and Australia this summer.
The South Africa women's team has not had a camp of the same description, nor have the same issues cropped up in public. Instead, a 24-member squad, sans captain Dane van Niekerk who is injured, will meet for a six-day camp from tomorrow with the main aim at preparing those who will be traveling to the WBBL in Australia in October. Though the women's team was denied permission
to travel out of the country for a proposed series against England next month, individual players are allowed in and out, subject to their being Covid-19 compliant, which has allowed several men's players to fly out to the UAE to participate in the IPL and will see women's players head to the WBBL.