The success of Lungi Ngidi on debut against India, in which he ended up with match-winning figures of 7-90, put to rest those naysayers who'd rather see black players carrying drinks, says the writer. Picture: James Oatway/Reuters
Over the past few weeks, much has been made of the rise of black Proteas stars Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi as bulwarks of cricketing transformation in South Africa.

Independent Media sports writer Zaahier Adams wrote in his column last week that Ngidi vindicates Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) transformation policy. “It shows what is possible when equal opportunities are afforded to everyone.” Likewise, Nkosinathi Shazi wrote in the HuffPost that 21-year-old Ngidi is a “shining example of the black excellence that former minister of sport Fikile Mbalula envisioned”.

Little can be further from the truth. Ngidi, Rabada and even Andile Phehlukwayo attended ex-model C or private schools. Their success as black players has everything to do with the schools and their proximity to good facilities not accessible to the majority; their strength, confidence, and ability to fit into the Proteas change room has more to do with their access to white spaces as schoolboys and not the transformation of elite cricketing culture in this country.

The success of Ngidi on debut against India, in which he ended up with match-winning figures of 7-90, put to rest those naysayers who'd rather see black players carrying drinks.

But it has also seen extraordinary claims of mounting black excellence in a sea of change. For instance, nine out of the 15-man squad at this year's u19 World Cup were white. 

With surnames like De Klerk and Coetzee dominating the playing 11, you’d be forgiven for thinking we were still in the 1980s. It’s great to have Ngidi, Rabada and Phehlukwayo in the Test team, but to posit them as beneficiaries of a changing system and not the anomalies that they are, is unfair to them and dishonest to the public. And in cases like Temba Bavuma, spotted in a township and then reared for first-class cricket, this is a complete rarity.

The ruckus over Ngidi’s success made me revisit historian Ashwin Desai’s arguments made in his remarkable book, Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid, published sometime in 2017.

Desai writes that cricket is a parallel narrative to post-apartheid South Africa: ambitious. Transformed in name. Romanticised. Loved and lionised. And overall a massive disappointment.

If you’re familiar with Desai’s work, a professor at the University of Johannesburg, you’d know that his words take few hostages.

The story of cricket in South Africa after the Mandela democratic moment is dripping with compromise, contradiction and dishonesty.

Desai says that cricket administrators, like our politicians, prioritised “unity” and so-called progress over justice and equality. Black cricketers from the apartheid years were mostly erased when the different cricketing bodies united. A narrative of white excellence as a standard took root. Black players became “quotas”.

But there is more. So many players and administrators in the 1980s who organised and participated in rebel tours during the economic and cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa became administrators, commentators and often moderators of cricket, and gatekeepers of black excellence in the “new” South Africa.

Take English cricketer Robin Jackman, who toured the country in the '80s. He became an SABC commentator in the new South Africa. Or Geoffrey Boycott, that old Centurion tank known for never biting his tongue, mysteriously metamorphosed from apartheid apologist to liberal supporter of the new rainbow nation. Then there is Ali Bacher, who comes in for special punishment throughout the book.

Bacher is depicted as a cunning chameleon and opportunist who managed to reinvent himself from apartheid apologist to non-racial cricket proponent. As the winds changed, so did Bacher transform as well.

“Bacher wanted to break the back of non-racial cricket while creating a web of patronage under his control,” Desai writes.

During apartheid, Bacher promoted rebel tours, promising that black cricket would develop in the townships. This never happened. And with the transition, he was able to spin a new role in the new cricketing administration, desperate for international relevance, and desperate not to scare away white South Africans.

Why does any of this matter now, you might ask.

A tremendous amount of effort was put into steering cricket away from politics during apartheid. The great annual Wisden is said to have pushed for cricket tours during apartheid, underpinning the bigotry and prejudice on part of journalists.

Even Bob Woolmer, who in spite of his strong political views in the 1980s, was adamant that cricket and politics made odd bedfellows when he became the coach of the Proteas. A cursory reading of his 1984 biography would make white supremacists giddy.

If it had been up to Woolmer, cricketers like Makhaya Ntini or Herschelle Gibbs might never have played. Woolmer had not been convinced of their ability. He had to be instructed to include them. And it is not just Woolmer. Our coaches and captains have traditionally battled to look beyond their prejudice that sees black cricketers as “quotas” and not players.

So ingrained is this narrative of white excellence that each time a black player performs extraordinarily well we take it as an opportunity to smash the “quota myth”. In so doing we place undue pressure on these players to prove almost immediately they are not quotas. International sport is tough and complex. It took years for Jacques Kallis to adapt to become the force he was in international cricket.

Today, whether it is in cricket or in life, it is still white people who decide when black people are good enough to join their ranks or enter their spaces.

White excellence is still seen as the standard. The massive resources, infrastructure and economic jump-start that white South Africans have enjoyed are still seen as separate and unrelated to apartheid. When we fail to acknowledge that the black players in our team are anomalies in a system that hasn't changed we once more engage in creating a “spectacle of transformation”.

Like the democratic compromise that failed to change the material reality of the majority, cricket has still undertaken a superficial transformation and we shouldn't fall for it.

* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Read more: Everything Ngidi has achieved vindicates CSA’s transformation policy