Small Platforms for Big Statements

When AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn were selected to make their Test debuts together on December 17th, 2004, they had played just 13 and 11 first-class matches. It is extraordinarily rare for a player to rise so quickly to the highest stage, not so much rising through the ranks as skipping them altogether.

At the same time, and in the same team, there were mumbled questions being asked about the reasons for the inclusion of wicketkeeper Thami Tsolekile and even Makhaya Ntini, incredibly. I wrote an article at the time wondering what doubters might have said about the inclusion of two such inexperienced players – de Villiers and Steyn - had they been black.

They would undoubtedly have been labelled as ‘tokens’ who owed their places to transformation as both were selected on a hunch without anything like enough evidence in their track records to justify selection in the usual way. They were selected on potential. The fact that they became two of the greatest players in history isn’t the point. The prevailing attitudes of the time is the point.

It is a simple exercise to test for bias and one which I discussed with Omar Henry when he was convenor of selectors almost 20 years ago: “Transformation shouldn’t be about numbers and it wouldn’t need quotas if you believed in it if it was in your heart,” he said on a number of occasions. 

Everybody has biases, even if they are subconscious. Years ago a famous philharmonic orchestra was heavily criticised for only containing a handful of female members. The solution was simple. When future auditions were held behind a screen which shielded the musicians from the judges making the quality of their playing the only thing they could be judged on, the percentage of women rose from 5% to 30% within five years. Prejudices exist in all of us but the oldest and most pernicious is racism.      

So much hate and anger in the world usually leads me to ‘lay low’ and avoid the venom but, this time, I’ve heard and read too many things for that to be an option. ‘Silence is violence’ is a shocking phrase, probably because of the truth it carries. Not only is it unacceptable to be racist, it is unacceptable to ignore it or turn a blind eye. I’m firmly in that camp. I have also read and heard from several prominent activists that any platform should be used if you believe in the battle for equal rights and opportunity.

Back in 1996 when the SABC still had some money, a radio team set out on the great adventure of touring India for South Africa’s three Test matches and seven ODIs. One of our commentators was black and so was the most important man on the team, our technician, who had to grapple with the most basic technology and broadcast lines which had been installed in the 1950s. There were two problems. His Indian counterparts were unable to assist without ‘a little something’ for their back pockets and unwilling to converse with Richard, our technician. Because he was black.

Richard made light of it, had a laugh. Said he was used to it. Except in the past, at home, he would be spoken down to. This time there was clearly no chance of a détente. For a while I was attempting to negotiate with an Indian telecoms engineer to enable the broadcast to go ahead, with Richard listening in but receiving no eye-contact. It honestly remains one of the most blatant and humiliating examples of racism I have ever encountered in my professional life.

At the same time, it was also the clearest example of white privilege I’d ever been conscious of – the whole tour was. Later, when we toured Sri Lanka during that country’s civil war and there were army and police road-blocks every 500 metres, local journalists and cameramen would ask me or my fellow white commentator, Gerald de Kock, to accompany them in a tuk-tuk to a press conference or, particularly, an evening meal. There was just so much less chance of a prolonged search and harassment. “We have to carry our passports everywhere we go,” one colleague told me. “Yours is all over your body.”

It is a curious thing that some white people feel threatened and defensive about white privilege as if they are being accused of not working hard or being undeserving of their success. That may be true in some cases, but I do not believe that is the point for the vast majority of people who use the term. It just is. It’s a fact. There would be no need for a Black Lives Matter movement now if we hadn’t had around 300 years of the Black Lives Don’t Matter movement.

So that’s where I stand. I may only have a small platform, but I’ve used it.