South African cricket’s truth is closer than its reconciliation

South African cricket’s conversation about race, currently fluent and febrile, is to be formalised. That could staunch the passion and prejudice that has been poured into public discourse in the past few weeks. But many will hope for the opposite outcome: that official intervention only fuels the healthily ungovernable discussion that has caught fire since July 6, when Lungi Ngidi voiced his support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Painful testimony and opinions for and against have raged on many platforms, prompting Cricket South Africa (CSA) to launch the Social Justice and Nation Building (SJNB) project, which had its inaugural gathering on Sunday. State television broadcast an interview with Cricket South Africa (CSA) president Chris Nenzani on Thursday in which he elaborated on the meeting between 30 and 40 black and brown former players and members of board.

“We are willing to and we are going to take action,” Nenzani said. “We made a commitment to the [former] players that this is not going to be a talk shop. We are going to take action. There is going to be a plan of dealing with the past to ensure that it does not again happen.”

CSA have promised to appoint, by the end of August, a transformation ombudsperson who will conduct hearings that offer hope for healing. “Players are going to state their experiences,” Nenzani said. “They’re going to recount their unfortunate stories within our system.”

That will provide an outlet for decades of hitherto silent suffering, as well as produce allegations that could be construed as damaging, even criminal. “Those who are named or mentioned in those hearings will be given opportunity to respond to those accusations or those statements that might have been made against them,” Nenzani said.

“Based on that, the office of the ombudsman, which is going to be properly capacitated and resourced, will have to make investigations. And then make findings and recommendations. Based on those recommendations CSA will have to take action.”

This will sound familiar to South Africans because it is similar to what happened at a broader level in the aftermath of apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) identified 22,025 victims of human rights violations committed between 1960 and 1994. But it received only 7,111 applications for amnesty. So, sadly, it exposed exponentially more truth than it realised reconciliation.

The TRC is held up across the world as a model for how the oppressed should deal with their oppressors. But in South Africa it is remembered chiefly for the image of Desmond Tutu, the courageous clergyman, Nobel Peace Prize winner and TRC chair, laying his head on the table in front of him as he wept. That was in reaction to testimony he heard in the East London City Hall on April 16 1996, the second day of what would be more than two years of hearings, from Singqowakana Malgas – an activist who suffered strokes after being repeatedly tortured by police, who burned down his house and murdered his son by pouring acid on him.

CSA are unlikely to have to hear of such horrors in their attempt to uncover the truth about racism in the game. But it is undeniable that cricket, as run by whites, was a cog in the machine that led to atrocities like that. And so, just as the TRC couldn’t give most of those it heard what they deserved, CSA’s attempts to facilitate restorative justice face an uphill battle.

“You’re dealing with the legacy of a system that was in place for centuries – discrimination is not new in South Africa,” Nenzani said. “Our view has always been to say that inasmuch as you transform society you should not polarise society.

“Many of the possible culprits or perpetrators are no longer part of our system. But what has happened now has given credence to the fact that there’s a body of players in a group that’s very large, and we’re inviting more – surely there are more who are not part of this group currently – to say come and share your experiences.”

CSA are in deep financial trouble with losses projected to reach more than USD59-million by the end of the 2022 rights cycle. How will they pay for the SJNB, much less entertain seriously thoughts of compensating financially those who have suffered?

“We many not have the money at this stage but we have not yet quantified the cost,” Nenzani said. “We are busy drafting the terms of reference. We are busy going through a process of saying what resources are we going to need, and how do we then ensure that we can afford these resources.

“The issue may not necessarily be money. Restorative justice does not necessarily mean that you are going to pay somebody something. But there has to be a sense that a person’s dignity has been restored, and that the system is acting in a way that ensures it does not go back to the unfortunate past. Whether that [restorative action] will be monetary or otherwise is going to be determined by the outcome of the process.”

Nenzani has been CSA president since February 2013 and is due to vacate the position on September 5. Significant ethics and governance lapses at various levels of the organisation in the last two years of his tenure will overshadow previous progress in several areas – not least in making South Africa’s teams more representative of more of the South Africans who play and follow cricket. Thus some racial realism has been brought to a game that at an everyperson level has always been more black, and less white, than has been proclaimed. But, as with the TRC, transformation has bred more truth than reconciliation.

“CSA does not stand for black players,” Nenzani said. “It does not stand for black people. It does not stand for white people. It does not stand for white players. It stands for the people of this country; for all those who play cricket, for all those who support cricket, for all those who are fans of cricket. It includes everybody.

“Therefore when black players have concerns we must address those concerns. When white players have concerns we must address those concerns. Inasmuch as we would want to create an organisation that moves with perfect synchrony, there are challenges in the system because we are part of a South African society that has been divided for many years. Therefore we cannot escape the vestiges of that legacy.”

Cricket is as much a victim of racism in South Africa as it has been a vehicle for spreading and entrenching racism. So it is unsurprising that the wave of wildness that has broken in the wake of Ngidi’s comments has not risen from official sources. Taming that wave by channeling it into the committee room shouldn’t be attempted if the requisite rawness of the moment is to grow strong enough to turn the tide. But here we are, doing exactly that.

Not that this swell will be easily quelled. Neither will it be ridden except on its own terms. Reckoning with racism reduced Tutu, a titan among titans, to tears. What might it do to the far more mere mortals at CSA?

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