FILE - Aaron Phangiso bowls during a practice session ahead of the first ODI against the West Indies in 2016. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP
FILE - Aaron Phangiso bowls during a practice session ahead of the first ODI against the West Indies in 2016. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP

It’s a lonely world for South Africa’s black cricketers

By Stuart Hess Time of article published Jul 18, 2021

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JOHANNESBURG - Black cricketers endured, and suffered with that loneliness. The Social Justice and Nation-building hearings, being chaired by Adv Dumisa Ntsebeza, last week heard painful testimonies from black players who’d donned the Proteas jersey.

“There was no one to talk to in the camp. You’re stuck by yourself in your hotel room. You cannot share your frustrations with anyone,” left-arm spinner Aaron Phangiso said about his experience at the 2014 T20 World Cup in Bangladesh. Phangiso did not play a match in that competition.

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“At that World Cup, it was myself and Lonwabo Tsotsobe, but we couldn’t talk that much because he was going through the same thing. It was so frustrating. It was the longest month and a half you could ever live.”

Tsotsobe did play in South Africa’s first three games of the competition, but was dropped for the final group match and the semi-final.

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Phangiso was also selected the following year for the 50-over World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand, where he infamously did not start a game either, the most controversial being the ‘dead rubber’ encounter against the United Arab Emirates in Wellington, with South Africa having already qualified for the knockout stages of that competition.

“I was happy to go to that World Cup, thinking I would get a chance to contribute,” Phangiso testified. “Going to that tournament as the only African player was also tough. Again, a lot of the public don’t understand how tough it is to be the only person of your own race … you are away from home, no one can relate to a lot of things, we are talking about your beliefs, there is a whole lot that goes into it. Again we are there for a month and three weeks. All alone, no game time, no nothing and you’re getting the same excuses all the time (about why you’re not getting picked).”

ALSO READ: SJN Hearings: Black players deserve the same chances as their white counterparts, says Aaron Phangiso

Those excuses were the same phrase, ‘be patient and wait your turn,’ a line Phangiso heard often, and which he repeated on numerous occasions to Ntsebeza and his assistants to emphasise the challenges he faced, while part of a team and event that really should have been a highlight of his professional life.

“You come home and the hardest thing is disappointing your family again,” he said.

Phangiso mentioned how explaining himself to friends, family and the media in the days that followed that tournament, would lead to what he described as “a mental state, that I wouldn’t say is depression but it’s exhausting”.

Ntsebeza, previously one of the commissioners at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where he often heard depressing testimony about horrors endured during apartheid, intervened, describing what Phangiso felt as “self doubt”. Phangiso agreed.

In reflecting on South Africa’s lack of success at World Cups, the past week provided evidence that those South African squads were never good enough to win those competitions, because they were never unified enough to do so.

Omar Henry admitted he wanted to leave the tournament after an argument with then captain Kepler Wessels in 1992.

Henry said that he went so far as to inform the then United Cricket Board of SA president, Krish Mackerdhuj, that he wanted to go home. “(Mackerdhuj) said I can’t go home because there were bigger issues at play,” said Henry, who was the only black player in that squad.

Lessons weren’t learnt from that incident, because at the 2007 World Cup, Roger Telemachus also wanted to leave the squad, informing the coach Mickey Arthur, the captain Graeme Smith and the team manager Goolam Rajah, that he would pick up the tab for his own ticket. “Basically (Rajah) told me I can’t. I know why he said so, because if I had to leave, Cricket SA would have been in big trouble – just to see one of their players arrive back in SA by himself at his own cost, that would have been a disaster.”

By 2015, Phangiso was in despair too, with no one to turn to.

He testified that South Africa’s cricket system, and the way it treats black players, continues to fail. While evidence before the commission may prove otherwise, anecdotally at least, black players still feel sidelined, with Phangiso explaining the mental and emotional damage it has wrought.

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As explained by Prof. Richard Calland in the first week of the hearings – sport holds up a mirror to society – and in the case of the differences Phangiso outlined, that is the case. While many white players have ‘generational wealth’ to fall back on, Phangiso explained that for black players and their families, the opportunities they thought cricket would provide, are not as beneficial as they had believed.

“You know what that leads to? I’ll tell you. When you can’t talk to anyone … it leads to frustration for black players.

“It leads to black players behaving in a way that people go ‘they are out of order’, but they don’t know what is going on in that person’s mind,” said Phangiso.

“Literally with whatever he has, with whatever is in his account, he drives from Soweto to the Wanderers everyday and his money is finished on petrol. And this guy is supposed to go home and be happy and act all professional at work.

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“This guy is frustrated, this guy is going to go to a place and find what he believes is a little bit of peace of mind. Where is that place? That place, a lot of people don’t understand, I’ve lived in that place, it can lead you to actually getting into a place where you are doing the wrong things.

“It is psychological. People say ‘he indulges in this’, but they do not know what is going on in your mind.They do not know that, your mum goes: ‘you are playing for the Lions, you are playing for this, can I please have a thousand rand, to buy a bit of groceries?’ And you’ve used what you have because you need to live.”

The hearings continue tomorrow.


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