Rhodes' colonial demons follow him to his grave, 126 years later
Cape Town - The governors of Oriel College, Oxford University, voted to remove the controversial statue of benefactor, Cecil John Rhodes, saying it is a symbol of imperialism and racism.
Almost coincidentally, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) finally acknowledged the long-festering truism that cricket is not immune to systemic racism, pledging to bring “meaningful and long-term change” to the English game.
Both have been brought screaming and kicking to their belated actions on issues which have been smouldering for decades. The racism in sport debate comes against the backdrop of global protests, spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement, since the death last month of African-American George Floyd.
One might wonder what the heck has the statue of Rhodes got to do with racism in cricket.
It has plenty to do, for it was Rhodes as the premier of the Cape Colony between 1890-96 who set the template for institutionalisation of racism in cricket when he barred William Henry “Krom” Hendricks from inclusion in the all-white South African team to tour England in 1894 purely on the grounds of his race.
History has a knack of hiding its secrets. Had it not been for the forensic feat of Jonty Winch and Richard Parry, the compelling story of Hendricks and the nefarious shenanigans of Rhodes would not have been unearthed in their fascinating book Too Black to Wear White.
Hendricks’s story has been buried or deliberately excised from the perfidious annals of Empire as if he never existed, with the callous collusion of that “Axis of Evil” – the maverick Rhodes, the powerful Afrikanerbond and the self-serving Western Province Cricket Union (WPCU).
Hendricks was classified “coloured” in the lexicon of race identity of Empire and apartheid.
The reality is that Hendricks was the first sportsman to be formally barred from representing South Africa on the grounds of race, which paved the way for the institutionalisation of racism as part of government policy in sport for the next century.
How revealing that even Basil D’Oliveira, who was forced to abandon the beloved country in search of Test cricket in England, was not aware of Hendricks.
As such can sports transformation in South Africa really move forward unless these past demons in the colonial cupboards of empire and later the apartheid era is systematically exorcised?
Parry, who spent 16 years at the OECD in Paris as a tax expert on emerging countries and with a special interest in politics and history of cricket, and Winch, an accomplished sports journalist and historian, agree that revisiting old racist sporting narratives in South Africa is vital to correct past wrongs and to help shape transformation for the next generations.
“Cricket and sport in South Africa,” maintains Parry, “has always been divisive. We need to look harder into history for the means to unite a still significantly divided society.”
Winch concurs that only a part of this cricket history has been recorded: “Discrimination in sport did not begin with the National Party and apartheid in 1948. The first to suffer were not D’Oliveira and his group of players.
The ‘misdeeds’ began with Rhodes and early cricket administrators forcing their class-based ideology of social segregation upon Cape sportsmen during the 1890s.”
The real culprits were the politicians. Hendricks and others of colour were caught in a political machine that dehumanised them. To Parry and Winch, “Hendricks’s de-selection for the tour of England in 1894 by Rhodes, the arch-imperialist bestriding southern African politics and finance, fixed the colour bar in cricket.”
Rhodes acted within a broader political alliance with JH Hofmeyr, the Afrikanerbond leader, with the knowledge of the Foreign and Colonial Office in London, ironically five years prior to the onset of the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1899.
“Driven by labour demand and a class-based belief in social segregation, the Cape formalised racial exclusiveness into a concrete system of segregation that 50 years later would be ideologically encapsulated on apartheid,” they explained.
This narrative to them is about how Hendricks became “the central figure in the genesis of sports segregation in southern Africa,” and how it “rescues this most elusive of cricketers from historical anonymity.”
Institutionalised racism in South African sport has been an integral part of the politics of Empire, race and segregation.
Enter William Henry Milton, scion of English public school, Marlborough College, cricketer and England.
“Milton’s sense of ‘fair play’, or lack of it,” stress the authors, “was shaped by prevailing assumptions of the
moral and physical superiority of the White English race. He was influenced by Dean Farrar, whose book, Aptitudes of Races “gave clear expression to Semitic and Aryan superiority over the Mongoloid, and lower still the Negroid.”
Milton’s mandate was to develop the imperial games in South Africa based on imposing English values and hegemony.
He headed Rhodes’s office while at the same time the WPCU, and also “captured” the administration of rugby, promoting racist administrators such as Billy Simkins and Louis Smuts opposed to a liberal tradition that had previously allowed mixed-race sport.
That “holy” trinity – the Oxford decision, ECB investigation, unbundling the legacy of racism in cricket – shows that society cannot take anything for granted and that history has the potential of being a great educator and equaliser.
What would Hendricks, arguably the outstanding fast bowler of his generation, have made of the Oxford and ECB decisions and of “Too Black to Wear Whites? Is he turning in his grave or smiling wryly thinking: “It’s bloody time! I have been waiting for 126 years for something like this to happen!”
Parker is a writer and economist and is based in London