THIRTY years ago, this week, an all-white South African cricket team was given a free pass out of apartheid sports isolation when it toured India.
The team set off for the sub-continent before the first democratic elections in South Africa – with the blessing of the soon to be president of a democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela.
This development came as a bitter shock to those who had fought so hard to keep isolated those who had always been happy to lap up the advantages apartheid had given them over many decades.
But Mandela, naively, had reckoned that sport could play a key role in his dream – and then his quest – for reconciliation among all South Africans.
He was wrong.
White South African sportsmen (and yes, in the beginning it was just men who went traipsing around the world to places they would never have been allowed before) were interested only in renewing contacts with other ‘traditional’ white countries and establishing new ties with black countries.
But in South Africa itself they refused to make even the smallest sacrifice in other ways to bring white and black together in communities that had always been kept apart by apartheid legislation.
In many ways, white South Africans were given permission to put into practice – unhindered – what they had always argued: ‘Don’t mix politics with sport.’
The tour by the South African team to India was masterminded by Ali Bacher, the archenemy of world cricket, the man who had organised a series of ‘rebel’ tours by English, West Indian, Sri Lankan, and Australian teams to South Africa.
These tours, backed by the apartheid government, politically and financially, and sponsored too by corporate businesses, came close too tearing world cricket apart.
But did the white South African Cricket Union, with Bacher and Joe Pamensky at the helm, care?
Not a damn.
And were the white players who played these mercenaries, these dregs of the world’s national cricket bodies even slightly embarrassed?
Of course not.
Mandela, who for a long time was the person white sports administrators ran to every time their plans to play in other parts of the world encountered political problems, showed himself to be sadly out of touch, even ignorant, where sport was concerned.
For instance, in something that should never have happened, his agreeing to give his name to the foreword to Bacher’s biography, ‘Ali – the Life of Ali Bacher’ by Rodney Hartman, Mandela wrote that race relations had changed ‘almost unrecognizably from our divided past….
‘Sport was an important social agent in this process, and leaders in different sporting codes will be remembered for their role in this period of epoch-making change in our country. And amongst those leaders Ali Bacher, for so long Mister Cricket in South Africa, will occupy pride of place.’
Even if Mandela did not write this piece himself, it was vomit-inducing, nevertheless.
As was this paragraph….
‘His [Bacher’s] cricketing achievements are many, locally and internationally. Even in those years of seclusion on Robben Island, we took note with pride, although we were naturally opposed to the racially exclusive nature of the team, how he led South Africa to victory against Australia.
‘Ali Bacher is a great South African who has brought pride to all of us….’
Since the Indian tour in 1991, so much has happened to prove how insincere (and, often, stubbornly racist) white South African cricketers have been: there was a bitter, racist Clive Rice who, in addition to believing that black players in top-level teams were quota players keeping out more deserving white players, predicted that a then young Hashim Amla would get hurt against quick bowling at the highest levels of the game – because he was not good enough.
There was Darryl Cullinan who, although clueless against the Australian legbreak bowler, had much to say about the lack of ‘quality’ of the South African legspinner Paul Adams, although Adams claimed one hundred test wickets quicker than most other SA bowlers.
Brian McMillan, as bitter about the South African game as Rice was of it, was equally dismissive of Adams.
And then there was Pat Symcox, one of the most mediocre players ever to play test cricket, who also tried – and failed miserably – to become a sports-political analyst and to give advice to black cricketers who were far better than he ever was.
Up to a few months ago, South Africa was still wrestling with the question of white attitudes and their stubborn insistence that any black South African cricketer is still a ‘quota’ cricketer.
The solution, of course, is simple….
What is needed is a bold declaration that any aspirant administrator or coach who refuses to accept that sport and politics will continue to be entwined for years to come should not expect to serve cricket at the highest level.