Hashim Amla. File picture: Punit Paranjpe

His appointment to lead the Proteas is the latest example of the irony that defines our nation, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.


This is a country of ironies. What is otherwise a milestone, signalling progress, is also a statement of relative stagnation. Hashim Amla, the cricket player, is the latest example of the irony that defines this nation.

Amla has just been appointed captain of our national team.

This makes him the first black player to lead the Proteas since the beginning of non-racial sport more than 20 years ago.

Upon hearing such news, one could be tempted to assume there were never any blacks before Amla deserving of the captaincy. That is why it took more than two decades to have a black captain. But that assumption would be false.

Black cricket didn’t begin with the onset of non-racial sports in the early 1990s. Black cricket is as old as white cricket in South Africa. It dates back to the 1800s. Our own Sol Plaatje, for instance, whom we mostly celebrate as the founding father of African nationalism and a formidable intellectual, was once a secretary of Eccentrics Cricket Club based in Kimberley.

Cricket came with missionaries and quickly developed a reputation among locals as a gentlemen’s sport. One couldn’t be civilised, as the missionary graduates thought of themselves, and not distinguish oneself in cricket. I must admit though that Plaatje, at least according to his biographer, Brian Willan, never quite played the game. But he was a fine official – like most folks who can’t play the sport.

My point though is that, once ingrained in black society, cricket never left. Non-racial administrators that went to the townships as soon as Nelson Mandela left prison, didn’t discover black cricket, which they had to nurture into maturity. It had been part of black life for more than a century.

Appreciating this history makes one realise how much of an anomaly Amla’s appointment is. After playing cricket for more than 120 years, it’s only now that a black person is appointed captain. One of course accepts that no black man would have ever been appointed into that position during apartheid. Non-racial sport was outlawed and officials had a low opinion of black people. If prejudice suppressed black talent during apartheid, what’s the culprit now? Isn’t race not supposed to matter today?

Obviously the troubled history of the so-called non-racial sports unmasks their non-racial veneer.

There’s just no justification for the paucity of black cricket players. It boils down to prejudice. Any honest follower of cricket knows this. Even those who expressly deny the prevalence of racism, inadvertedly concede its saliency through their choice of words. The contrasting reaction to Amla’s appointment, for instance, was quite revealing of this denialism.

Calling radio stations, blacks expressed unqualified celebration. White callers applauded too, but went further in justifying their endorsement – that it was merit-based. This implies that a black appointment is not always based on merit. It’s as if Amla’s captaincy came as a shock, and had to look at his track record to calm themselves down. In other words, they felt that Amla had proven himself worthy of being captain. But a track record is not always the major consideration in such appointments. Amla’s predecessor, Graeme Smith, was made captain largely on potential, not on his demonstrable track record. Amla is a lot more accomplished now than Smith was when he got the position. Words like “potential” and “merit” can easily mask prejudice and preference. Unguarded, individuals are prone to believe the best about those with whom they identify either on the basis of gender, ethnicity or race.

That is why diversity in workplaces and positions of authority is critical. It opens doors to others, who would otherwise not be allowed in because they are not “known”. The reason they are not “known” is that they look different, and therefore have to prove themselves. And their white counterparts, because they look similar to those in positions of authority, are assumed to possess potential, for the decision-makers see themselves in them. Corporate South Africa is rife with such coded language that only serves to perpetuate exclusion and maintain privilege.

Academia must be careful that it doesn’t adopt similar coded language. Developments at two of South Africa’s premier universities – Wits and UCT – are worrisome. The two universities are apparently considering underplaying race as a criterion in the admission of students. This would signal a radical change from their affirmative action policy, which had reserved a certain number of spots to black kids and were scored differently to white kids.

This is based on one’s socio-economic background. White kids perform better because of their superior school facilities, access to educational resources at home and a generally supporting environment. Many black kids lack most of these resources and those that achieve good results have potential to do even better under favourable circumstances. Hence their admission requirements are lower than their white counterparts.

Wits is apparently proposing to use class as a dominant selection criterion instead. The reasons are reportedly twofold: firstly, race is no longer a proxy for disadvantage. This means that black kids from wealthy households cannot seek preference on account of previous socio-economic disadvantage. Secondly, a race-based policy reinforces racial agony and consciousness. I sympathise with the first reason, but don’t share the second one.

Preference on account of deprivation of course shouldn’t apply to wealthy kids. That’s a no-brainer. One must be careful though that in privileging class over race, the scale doesn’t tilt too much in favour of well-to-do families, who’re largely still white. A sprinkling of wealthy black people can never conceal the fact that blacks are predominantly poor, unemployed and low-income earners.

Our university intake must prioritise kids from poor and working class backgrounds. This is justice in recognition that these people are socially deprived due to circumstances not of their choosing. But were deliberately impoverished to become labourers and were kept in that state of servitude over generations. They don’t live in posh neighbourhoods, nor did they inherit property or wealth. They are dirt poor and education is their only route out of poverty.

So, even if we are of the privileged class, we must have a bias towards poor and working-class kids. This will facilitate upward mobility, which is necessary in a highly unequal society such as ours.

If we don’t, then we run the risk of not only reproducing inequality, but also widening it even further. Already kids from working-class families, as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu first argued in the 1970s, find it hard to break out of their working-class background.

Unlike their middle-class counterparts, their class location denies them of cultural resources that are necessary to excel at school and enhance their sense of aspiration.

In other words, disrupting the reproduction of inequality requires that we focus even more on the black poor and working class.

It is understandably not fashionable these days to talk race. It is apparently backward in what is supposed to be a progressive, race-free society. But one must stop to wonder why the sudden impatience with race when everything we are and some of our experiences are a result of race and prejudice. The intention is to guilt victims, while freeing beneficiaries of the obligation towards racial redress. It is a farce meant to legitimise racial inequality.


* Ndletyana is head of the Political Economy Faculty at Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra).

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

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