South Africa's mixed BLM messages epitomise the country's moral maze

Refusal to take a knee during England series comes across as tone-deaf given Apartheid history

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
David Miller takes a breather during South Africa's World Cup clash with Pakistan at Lord's.  •  Getty Images

David Miller takes a breather during South Africa's World Cup clash with Pakistan at Lord's.  •  Getty Images

You already know that South Africa's players will not take a knee in their upcoming white-ball series against England but maybe not exactly why or how they came to that decision. And you may also wonder how a team that represents a country with a long-divisive history and a slew of racial issues have chosen not to display support for the defining global antiracist movement of the day. And you may also ask why that same team is not willing to engage in more discussion around the issue, having refused to take the question at a press engagement on Tuesday.
If not South Africans, then who would be best-placed to talk about the evils of racism and its legacy, having experienced it in legal form until less than 30 years ago? Shouldn't South Africans be at the forefront of inclusion, as promised by the rainbow nation vision?
The current crop say that, at their core, they support BLM, as they showed at the exhibition 3TC match in July, which took place at the height of cricket's engagement with the movement. All 24 players and every member of support staff including director of cricket Graeme Smith took a knee and wore an armband with the BLM logo. That, they say, was enough.
Now that South Africa are taking the field as a national team for the first time since BLM resurged over the winter, they want to turn their attention to other causes. They are likely to wear black armbands to show solidarity with the fight against gender-based violence (GBV) and to mourn more than 20,000 South Africans who have lost their lives to coronavirus. Flags at Newlands will fly at half-mast, heeding South African president Cyril Ramaphosa's call for five days of national mourning from November 25 to 29, a period that immediately precedes December's 16 days of activism against GBV which takes place every year ahead of the festive season.
South Africa is a complex country, with myriad, inter-related social issues and a history of violence. It came out of colonialism only to be enveloped in legalised racial segregation in the form of Apartheid. Its transition to democracy was bloodless, but it remains for many, an unsafe country: Gallup ranks it the fifth most dangerous in the world.
The legacy of inequality looms to the extent that almost three-quarters of the country's land is owned by a minority white population and 57 people die as a result of violence every day, including a woman every three hours. In short, this is a country where there are many causes to be concerned about and racism, poverty, crime and femicide are chief among them. In 2020, you can add Covid-19 to that list.
At one level, it feels as if the national team is demonstrating a degree of tone-deafness after a fractured winter in which race issues were front and centre, both globally and at home. From what we can tell, they believe they discussed race at their culture camp in the Kruger National Park, where they decided on a new team culture that involves embodying empathy, respect and belonging.
That's an internal thing, with which the general public cannot engage, so how then is the South African team going to show South Africa, whom it represents, what they are about? Not explicitly, according to Boucher: "It's not something you have to continue to show. It's something you have to live."
Boucher's point is one that is being made worldwide. Despite the repeated takings of knees, such as those we have seen in the English Premier League and Formula 1, it's debatable whether any tangible change is being achieved. There are no crowds for us to be able to gauge whether racist abuse continues towards players of colour, but just last week a tabloid newspaper ran a story about Manchester United's Marcus Rashford which the player himself saw as a racially-profiled piece on excess, while Lewis Hamilton is still the only driver of colour on the F1 circuit. Wouldn't it be better if instead of taking a knee, people took action? It's even been argued that taking the knee constantly diminishes its significance. If that is what South Africa means by living, not making gestures, they could have explained it as such, although they would then leave themselves open to questions over why they are then making gestures against GBV.
All we can actually deduce from that is South Africa are willing to make some gestures but not others, and they won't say why or who has made that decision. When Kagiso Rabada was asked about it on Monday, he said it was a "team decision", and that "Mark stated the team won't be kneeling", but that he remained "100%" behind the BLM movement. When Rassie van der Dussen was asked on Tuesday, CSA stepped in and said it was "drawing a line" under the BLM issue.
That is significant for two reasons. First, that line may not be CSA's to draw, but society's. CSA needs only look at the ECB attempting to do the same thing after England stopped taking a knee in their summer - and Michael Holding's subsequent criticism of their explanations as "flimsy" and "lame" - to understand that this is a narrative cricket cannot control.
Second, van der Dussen was the first current white international to come out in support of BLM, immediately after four former white players had criticised Lungi Ngidi for asking his team-mates to join the rest of the world in "making a stand". Van der Dussen was followed by Faf du Plessis, Anrich Nortje, Dwaine Pretorius and Marizanne Kapp and all but the absent Kapp took a knee alongside others at the 3TC. Neither Boucher nor South Africa's white-ball captain Quinton de Kock were present at that match either (for personal reasons) and neither of them have made any public statements over BLM, including explaining how the team agreed not to take a knee.
Whatever the reasons, ESPNcricinfo understands that it was not a unilateral decision and that there was a difference of opinion in the squad, with some players uncomfortable with taking a knee for religious reasons. This is something du Plessis hinted at when he posted on Instagram in July and wrote, "As a person and a Christian, I believe it's my responsibility to strive, to treat every person I come across with the same respect and not judge them. We are all equal and loved the same way by God. There are no exceptions… The knee for me means it's time to take action." English rugby player Billy Vunipola touched on similar themes in explaining why he opposed the stance.
Vunipola stood for his club Saracens, as did eight South African players, when the Sale Sharks took a knee in August. No reason was given for the South African players standing but the country's sports minister Nathi Mtethwa asked the South African Rugby Union to look into the matter. No action was taken against the players. But Mthethwa has also been keeping a close eye on cricket and, though he cannot compel the team to take a knee, he could ask the question of why they do not, and he may have more luck getting an answer.
Our own beliefs aside, whether they are the same or not, we can probably all agree that the act of taking a knee is one form of expression against racism. Maybe South Africa's cricketers will show us others in the coming weeks. Maybe some of them will take a knee and some won't (which may be divisive in its own way, but it would be honest) or maybe the gesture will quietly go away. The issue of racism will not, especially not in South Africa, and especially not yet.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent