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Why did Quinton de Kock refuse to take a knee?

Outrage has dominated both sides of the debate

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Mixed messages at the South Africa vs Pakistan warm-up game  •  ICC via Getty

Mixed messages at the South Africa vs Pakistan warm-up game  •  ICC via Getty

It may be tempting to think that Quinton de Kock's refusal to take a knee ahead of the match against West Indies earlier this week is out and out racism, but ignorance of racial inequalities that have resulted from slavery, colonialism and apartheid might be what caused him to not comply with Cricket South Africa's directive, and to consequently withdraw himself from the match.
That's not the soft view, nor one that seeks to justify de Kock's continued inaction over antiracist gestures, but rather one that aims to add nuance to the ever-complex conversation around race and sport, and especially race and sport in South Africa.
Outrage has dominated the narrative locally on both sides. On the one hand, there is the argument that the right to freedom of speech and expression, which is enshrined in the South African constitution, must be respected, and that CSA should not have made taking a knee mandatory. On the other is long-brewing dissatisfaction with the national team's inconsistency over their approach to antiracism, which is now embodied in de Kock's refusal. And all this is happening while CSA conducts Social Justice and Nation Building (SJN) hearings, where some of those who have appeared, including former team manager Mohammed Moosajee and South African Cricketers Association CEO Andrew Breetzke, have called for the national team to have a unified approach to taking a knee.
As a collective, South Africa have swayed between a steadfast approach to doing nothing, as was the case in the lead up to the 3TC event last July, to doing everything, when all players and support staff took a knee. (de Kock missed this last event because of a Covid-19-related issue.)
They then planned to do nothing in the series against Sri Lanka, before deciding to raise their fists in the Boxing Day Test. Then there was a three-pronged approach on their tour to West Indies this winter, where some team members, all of colour, as well as Rassie van der Dussen and Kyle Verreynne, took a knee; others - all white, like Test captain Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram, raised a fist; and others, also all white, like Anrich Nortje, stood to attention. de Kock did nothing and has continued to do nothing. One of the issues is that no one yet knows why.
de Kock is not against gestures. Historically, he has joined the rest of the team in wearing a black armband to commemorate a death, and the pink shirt at the annual Pink ODI to raise awareness for breast cancer. He has also made individual gestures. On scoring a century in the first Test against West Indies in St Lucia, de Kock displayed a bat sticker in favour of rhino conservation. And he made a finger gesture in support of a friend who had lost a digit. You might argue that de Kock made his own decision in all of these, but it would be interesting to see the reaction if he opted to wear a blue shirt on that all-pink day. The point being that employers often expect certain commitments from their employees. Very seldom do they impose expectations on them.
The gesture is a way to tell South Africans, the majority of whom have suffered under racial segregation, that there is recognition of what they have been through
CSA went as far as imposing expectations only after more than a year of the men's national team umm-ing, ahh-ing and half-gesturing. In that time, the board has been imploding: it changed from an interim board to a permanent one, and has had to deal with a significant lack of senior staff after suspensions over the last two years. It is plausible that the collective response to antiracism has not been top of mind, and the seriousness of the division in South Africa's appearance only occurred to them when they saw the opening match of the Super 12s, where Australia took a knee together and their own team presented a mish-mash of posturing.
Two images caught fire on social media. One was of members of the team on the sidelines that showed Keshav Maharaj, Tabraiz Shamsi, Kagiso Rabada and van der Dussen taking a knee; Dwaine Pretorius, Aiden Markram and David Miller raising a fist; and Anrich Nortje and Heinrich Klaasen standing to attention. The other was of Temba Bavuma taking a knee and de Kock standing with his hands on his hips. CSA board chair Lawson Naidoo confirmed that was the spark that forced CSA to act, but to do so five hours before the next game was risky.
Perhaps CSA thought it had called the team's bluff and the speed of the command would ensure it was obeyed. Then de Kock called the board's back. When the team arrived at the ground in Dubai, he made himself unavailable without even telling his team-mates why. In so doing, he put his captain and his team-mates in a difficult position.
Bavuma said it was the toughest day of his captaincy, as he had to do without de Kock the batter and de Kock the senior player. Reeza Hendricks would have been told at the last moment that he was going to open the batting. Heinrich Klaasen would have been told he would have to take the gloves, after having done so just once in a T20I in the last six months. He went on to drop the first chance he got. Bavuma was run out for 2 after failing to beat Andre Russell's arm. Had South Africa gone on to lose, doubtless focus would have been on those three players and it's likely the blame would have been laid on them. Luckily for them, they didn't.
The act of taking a knee has been described as a gesture of antiracism, rather than a gesture in support of Black Lives Matter, and that is another significant point. Although BLM has become synonymous with the fight against racism, the two do not have to be the same thing, especially in a country like South Africa, where the right for racial equality predates the BLM movement. The BLM organisation is seen by some in South Africa (and elsewhere) as a radical political, and even Marxist, movement rather than a civil-rights activist collective that speaks to global issues of exclusion. This is the kind of movement that white South Africa has in the past been afraid of; they have had terms to describe being overrun by the disenfranchised majority as "black danger" (swartgevaar) and "red danger" (rooigevaar). And therein may lie part of the explanation for why taking a knee has been difficult for some of South Africa's white players.
Although none of the members of the current side are old enough to have lived through the horrors of apartheid, all of them will have had parents or caregivers who grew up then. van der Dussen was influenced by a father who was part of the African National Congress to take a knee.
Which is where Michael Holding and Carlos Brathwaite and Daren Sammy and Kieron Pollard's calls for education come in. All of the last three have been part of a West Indian set-up that has been unrelenting in their consistency in taking a knee, and who have spoken at length about the experiences of being black in a world, especially a cricketing world, governed by whiteness.
As South Africa readied to collectively take a knee, sans de Kock, on Tuesday, Sammy was on air. "My mother always told me, 'You've got to stand for something or you will fall for anything'," he said. "It's good to see players united over something that has affected so many people across the world."
Pommie Mbangwa went further: "Some will say it is being political but I cannot shed my skin. I hope that the discussion at the very least can be about how to be united about something that everybody agreed on. This is also in the hope that there is agreement in that regard."
The pair referenced de Kock's absence before Sammy expressed his disbelief at those who struggled to support antiracism. "Sometimes I don't understand why is it so difficult to support this movement if you understand what it stands for. That's just my opinion because of what my kind have been through. There are a lot of issues affecting the world, but I don't understand why it's so difficult."
Brathwaite, speaking on BBC Five Live, understood the significance of South Africa taking a knee together and de Kock not being there. "I'm not an advocate of forcing anyone to do something that they don't want to do. But I also understand where Cricket South Africa is coming from," he said. "There are a lot of conversations and a lot of education that still has to happen around why you take the knee, what it signifies, but more importantly, for things to change in society, taking a knee has to be a start and not the be-all and end-all."
Talk to some around de Kock and they will say this is the exact reason he does not want to take a knee: because it achieves nothing. The footballer Wilfried Zaha has argued similar. What that does not acknowledge is the simple fact that human beings can walk and chew at the same time. They can gesture publicly and they can act behind the scenes. The gesture is a way to tell South Africans, the majority of whom have suffered under racial segregation, that there is recognition and understanding of what they have been through. The rest is what shows our education in action.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent