Temba Bavuma has called for South African cricket to take a "collective" decision on how it will approach anti-racism gestures going forward, and said the pressure mounted on the team to take a knee is "sometimes a bit unfair," given the myriad issues facing ordinary South Africans.
Bavuma, who led the team at the T20 World Cup, where they were instructed by the Cricket South Africa board to take a knee ahead of their second match for the duration of the tournament, is unsure whether the national side will continue making the gesture but believes the values of inclusion should translate into daily behaviour.
"The important thing for me is, how does this translate into our everyday life," Bavuma said. "That for me is the cream on top. We can all go out there, raise our fists, go on the knee, but if deep down in the heart, you're not really for the cause, and what it stands for, and it doesn't show in your everyday behaviour then I guess it brings into question the authenticity of it all.
"As a South African cricket side, we have been put under immense pressure around this whole topic, more than any other international teams, more than any of our other local teams, for whatever reason that may be. I think that the work and the effort that has gone behind the scenes does not get enough attention or acknowledgement probably because of the fact that people from the outside don't get to see or hear the conversations that we have. Sometimes the pressure that is mounted on us is a bit unfair.
"Going forward, a decision is going to have to be a collective one. That's an important thing. We want to avoid a situation where things are being dictated or instructed towards players. Importantly, how does it show in our everyday behaviour? Not just in our Proteas team, but within the country as a whole. Our country has big big big problems and that's where the energy, in my opinion, should really be spent."
CSA has said it will consult with the players on this issue, but wants them to show a unified face. "The position of the board is clear that we want to team to take a unified stance against racism," Lawson Naidoo, the CSA chairperson, said. "We will engage with them. But we want a clear and consistent approach."
The Proteas are the only South African national team who have become embroiled in controversy around the knee. Neither the Springboks nor Bafana Bafana have taken a knee, despite playing several fixtures since the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement last year, but neither rugby nor football have had issues of race in the recent spotlight as much as cricket has. CSA held Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings from July, aimed at providing a space for those who have experienced racial discrimination to air their grievances and allowing anyone implicated, including current national coach Mark Boucher and current director of cricket, Graeme Smith, the right of reply. The transformation ombudsman, Dumisa Ntsebeza, will furnish CSA with his report by the end of this month.
With Smith and Boucher both part of the current structures, the SJN testimony directly affected the national set-up, where it was initially decided not to take a knee late last year. CSA opted for black armbands and banners in the stands, then moved to raised fists and then gave players options of taking a knee, raising a fist or standing to attention. That changed at the World Cup, where the board made it mandatory for everyone in the national set-up to take a knee. The next steps are yet to be decided.
"Originally what was decided was the team would take the opportunity to show their gesture in their particular way. Things changed within the World Cup," Bavuma said. "As a team, we haven't spoken yet [about what we will do from here]. Everyone will have to get together. A guy like (Test captain) Dean Elgar will have to be a part of the conversation to see how we are going to do things going forward. A conversation there still needs to happen and I would assume all decision-makers, all role-players will be involved in that decision. You will find a situation where it's the team, the board, probably Graeme Smith and then a decision will be made on that."
At the World Cup Quinton de Kock was the only member of the touring party who refused to do so at first and sat out the game against West Indies as a result. It was left to Bavuma to explain the situation and, despite not being asked to handle the post-match press conference at first, he decided to address the media, where he delivered impressive answers. "Everything happened quite quickly. There was no real time to consult with anyone from my side. I found myself in a position having to weigh up both sides of the story and then be able to express my opinion," Bavuma said "Sometimes, that's the best way to go about something - when you don't really have a lot of time to think about it. You can really just speak to the merits of what is at hand. It doesn't have to be premeditated or scripted and fake."
Bavuma recognised the situation as something that "is very hard for one to prepare for," and that it could have caused the entire World Cup campaign to unravel. "There were matters that happened off the field that put us under pressure and there were challenging times as a team. It was moments that could have broken us or brought us together as a team. There's a lot of growth as a team," he said. "I was tested as well. I was put in situations that are very hard for one to prepare for. I am grateful that I was able to get out of those situations. I am a lot more confident. In terms of the trust, in terms of the backing of each other and the confidence in each other, we are in a better space as a team going forward."
South Africa went on to win the match against West Indies and their next three, but missed out on a semi-final spot on net-run rate and Bavuma could feel a shift in the way South Africa are perceived. "Before heading to the World Cup not a lot of people had much faith in us. Those were people within our own circles as well. The type of messages I got were along the lines of go and enjoy the experience. There wasn't much about really setting our sights on winning the World Cup," Bavuma said. "As the tournament unfolded, the sentiments changed. Us qualifying became a bit more of a realistic goal until Australia beat Bangladesh the way they did.
"The off-field matters with Quinton and how all of that unfolded and how it was dealt with, that helped increase people's confidence in my ability as captain. There's been a bit of a shift. A different type of energy. That's quite warming."
But, although Bavuma's stocks have risen, he does not expect things to get easier. "Me coming in as the captain, the responsibility was always going to be a big one, there was always going to be pressure and expectation from all angles," Bavuma said. "If I look at my Proteas career, there has always been some type of pressure around me, and rightfully so. As an international cricketer, that's the environment that you operate in. Over the years, I have learnt ways to deal with that pressure, to try to put aside emotions and deal with the issue at hand."