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Affirmative action? Or discrimination?

“Why have I been dropped from the school team, Dad? I took three wickets last match.”

“I’m sorry, Son, but it’s because of the colour of your skin.”

“What’s wrong with the colour of my skin?”

“Nothing, buddie.”

“But I don’t understand, Dad. It’s not fair.”

“No, it isn’t. But that’s just the way it is.”

This was not a conversation between father and son from 1960s apartheid South Africa. It occurred a month or so ago and was relayed to me at by a man I met in the bar at the Western Province Cricket Club at Newlands during the recent Test match against England. What made the story more pertinent – and poignant – was that the home side had just taken a severe mauling at the hands of Ben Stokes. The South African team looked lost and deflated, not at all worthy of their No 1 status in the world ranking, and the state of the domestic game was very much in the minds of the disgruntled and vocal members of the club. Their take on what was going wrong with their national team was interesting. And alarming.

At the heart of South Africa’s fall from grace, so seemed the prevailing opinion, was the vexed problem of quotas. And quotas in sport is inextricably linked to politics. And, as we know, sport and politics have always been uncomfortable bedfellows in that country. The history of apartheid, the Basil D’Oliveira Affair, South Africa’s sporting isolation and its reinstatement back into the international fold are well enough known not to revisit them here. It hardly needs saying that apartheid was an iniquitous – and illogical – system and most cricket lovers rejoiced when Nelson Mandela’s release and election as president paved the way for a bright future for his new Rainbow Nation. Given the years of neglect and repression of the black communities under their white masters, it is hardly surprising that the new bosses and administrators of the game of cricket, amongst others, should feel sensitive about the matter of race, and it is wholly understandable that they should seek to right the wrongs of the past.

Quotas was the answer. This would encourage black players as they would get more exposure to the game, money for facilities and coaching would be poured into the townships, talented youngsters would be fast-tracked and soon the national side would more fairly reflect the diverse racial sub-divisions of society.

“But that is to attack the problem from the wrong angle,” stated my drinking partners in the Western Province CC bar. The old system under apartheid was hateful, of that they were all agreed. The trouble is that there is no culture of cricket among the black communities, they pointed out; football is their game. The inaugural first-class cricket match in South Africa took place at St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth in 1889; the whites have been playing the game for a long, long time. All right, they maintained, we cannot wait a century for things to change. Things must be hurried along, of course they must, but you can’t run before you can walk.

But quotas it was and quotas it would be. What exactly were the quotas, I wanted to know. The national side was meant to field four players of colour. I looked out of the window at the South African team toiling in the sun as Stokes and Bairstow hit them all round Newlands. “There’s Amla,” I said, “little Bavuma and the fast bowler Rabada. That makes only three. So those are only guidelines, eh?”

My companions sighed. One rolled his eyes. “You don’t know the half of it, Pommie,” he said.

In domestic, first-class cricket, the quotas imposed by Cricket South Africa, the governing body of the game in the country, are far more prescriptive. Each team has to be composed of at least three black players and three coloured (mixed race). “It’s designated first-class,” my informant said, “but that’s a joke. I remember playing club cricket 20 years or so ago. The standard was high. I tell you, man, my side would’ve whupped any of these so-called franchise sides of today. There are players scoring hundreds and taking five wickets who have no right to be designated first-class cricketers. And on the back of those inflated performances, they get picked for the Test team. Is it any wonder we look a shambles out there?”

The South African side did look a shambles out there but I would argue that any bowling attack would have wilted in the face of such a relentless bombardment as they were enduring that day. And it has to be said that it was England’s turn to suffer the following day. Amla confirmed his status as one of the leading batsmen in the world with a defiant double hundred and whose heart was not stirred by the diminutive Bavuma’s maiden Test century, the first by a black player in South African colours? And to my eyes, the 20-year old Rabada looked a real handful, raw but with genuine pace. Nobody could deny they were worthy members of the team.

And yet….. and yet… The conversation about quotas reverberated in my mind. It’s not just in the professional and semi-professional game that it they have been imposed, I was told; it is closely regulated in schools cricket too. “Three black boys and three coloured boys in each team, at all levels, that is the rule,” another of the disgruntled group told me, “It doesn’t matter if they’re good enough, they have to play. And often, a better player has to be left out, just because he’s white. Furthermore, a black or coloured kid has to open the batting and the bowling, come what may. And they come round, you know, and check the scorecards and want to know why it hasn’t happened. They’re like the thought police.” Who ‘they’ were, it was unclear but it did all sound so horribly familiar. Were there not menacing knocks on doors in the dead of night from faceless agents of the regime back in the bad old days of apartheid?

I was left confused and troubled. What the answer is to internal South African politics today I have no more of an answer than when I was playing in that country in the 1970s. Is reverse apartheid creeping up on everybody, state imposed, one high-handed diktat following another? Or is the quota system the only way forward, to reverse the inequalities of the past? In 1971, Don Bradman, at the time the chairman of the Australian board of control, announced the cancellation of the tour to his country by South Africa, thereby consigning them to 21 years of isolation, with these words, “We shall not play South Africa until they choose a team on a non-racist basis.” I wonder what the (white) young lad whose story is at the beginning of this piece would make of that. I am reminded of one of my mother’s favourite sayings when mediating on a sibling spat between her two sons, ”Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Or, in this case, two wrongs cannot make it right.

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