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The many shades of black on cricket’s grey, unlevel playing field

Dorothy Tsotsobe is formidable. Not solely because she is a woman, nor because she is a black woman. And from the Eastern Cape, no less, where South Africa raises, from the depths of hardship, giants in all areas of life. Neither is she celebrated only as the wife of a fine rugby player, nor as the mother of three children, two of whom carved careers in international sport. Tsotsobe is, in her own right, in her tall, confident, focused, serious, smiling self, in the very fact of her life, formidable.

As someone who was born into a time when millions like her had their lives systematically broken by evil engineered to do exactly that, she had no choice. She had to stand tall, confident, focused and serious or, like so many others, be broken.

So did another Tsotsobe, Anthony, who was among three members of uMkhonto We Sizwe, or the Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the then outlawed, now ruling African National Congress (ANC), who were condemned to death for high treason in 1981 after, in 1980, attacking a police station and a state-owned oil-from-gas installation. Their sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1983, when they were moved from death row to Robben Island, the infamous prison off the coast of Cape Town where Nelson Mandela, the world’s most renowned political prisoner, spent 18 of his 27 years behind bars.

The head of the snake was chopped off in 1994, when for the first time South Africans of all races exercised the right to vote. But apartheid’s scaly carcass writhes still, its coils stunting the lives of the generation born of those it had lawfully subjugated, violated, imprisoned and murdered.

Living while black in South Africa’s cities remains an unfairly heavy burden, and exponentially more so in the black residential areas, where the mass media rarely go, where police are part of the problem rather than the solution, and where politicians pitch up only every few years trying to secure votes with promises and T-shirts, both of questionable quality. Anthony Tsotsobe is a case in point. He was released in 1991 and served as a bodyguard for Mandela and other ANC luminaries. On September 2, 2001, the night before what would have been his 47th birthday, he was shot dead in front of his house in Soweto.

Authority and needs don’t disappear because they have been abdicated and unmet. Sometimes they end up in the wrong hands. Other times good people stop the buck. People like Dorothy Tsotsobe, who in 2004 capped her career in sport by becoming the first woman to serve on the South African Rugby Union’s presidents’ council, the game’s highest authority in this country.

Three years earlier she achieved something more impressive. Prejudice has poisoned all of South Africa’s communities, not just the white component. Women playing rugby? In the Eastern Cape, where black men have kept rugby’s heart beating for longer than anyone has been alive? Who did she think she was establishing rugby for women in KwaMagxaki, a black area in Port Elizabeth?

“Some men [on club executives] don’t want to be told by a woman what to do,” she said in 2017. “They are holding on to the African mentality that women have no say; only men must speak.” In 2012 parents were in her firing line: “When a child is in a [formerly white] model C school the parents will attend all the activities. But if the child is in a [black] township school you hardly see parents watching their own kids playing or attending meetings. We will always complain that there is development in other areas while we are not promoting sport and events or programmes in our areas, and complaining about crime and substance abuse. What are we doing to combat these challenges?”

Tsotsobe’s daughter, Nomsebenzi, played in South Africa’s inaugural women’s rugby international, against Wales in May 2004, and was named captain for the next match of that series a week later. Now 41, she became the team’s manager in May last year.

She was an imposing presence on the flank. Her father, Toto, sped down the touchline on the wing for the Leopards, the black national team during South Africa’s racially riven past. He played against the British and Irish Lions in 1974, for an Invitation XV against France the next year, and against the All Blacks the year after that. Also in 1974, he was part of a squad that – unusually for black representative teams of that era – was let out of the country. Toto Tsotsobe scored three tries in the six games the Leopards played in Italy.

These are a few of the bare bones in the immense body of work the Tsotsobe family has done for sport, much of it against the grain of what it meant and still means to be black in South Africa. To be born healthy, to grow up strong, to garner an education, to earn decent money, to forge a life – simply to survive – was and is far more difficult for black South Africans than it is for whites. Democracy has succeeded apartheid as the law of the land, but not as the everyday reality. We have achieved little in the past 26 years besides making a pitifully small percentage of blacks as affluent as most whites.

Not only did the Tsotsobes survive. They prospered, in a community rather than a material sense. And so others prospered, too. If a Tsotsobe was involved, you knew what needed to be done would be done. And done well. They are firmly among the giants the Eastern Cape has produced, an honour roll that includes Mandela.

But mention the Tsotsobe name outside of the province now and none of those good things are evoked. Instead, because of the choices made by a single member of the family, there is cutting disapproval and the stink of fecklessness.

Here it comes, what you might have been waiting for since the second word of this piece: Lonwabo Tsotsobe was a lazy, uncommitted, failed fixer who was lucky to get away with an eight-year ban for his part in South Africa’s 2015 T20 spot-fixing scandal, which cost seven players their careers. He admitted to 10 charges, among them an attempt to manipulate a match – Cricket South Africa said no fixes were successful – and there is evidence to support the other claims made against him.Lonwabo Tsotsobe was mistrusted for his entire career, for reasons that have not been properly exploredLonwabo Tsotsobe was mistrusted for his entire career, for reasons that have not been properly explored ©AFP

In 2011, while on a short contract with Essex, Tsotsobe tweeted: “I’ve never felt like this ever. This is the worst two months of my life. And you know when you start regretting yourself it ain’t good. It’s just impossible to work in this environment.” The county promptly sacked him, with coach Paul Grayson telling the BBC that Tsotsobe’s “attitude and work-rate are not to the standard of an international cricketer”.

Tsotsobe shouldn’t have vented on social media, and not only because in three first-class matches for the county he had taken five wickets at 77.60. Maybe he shouldn’t have signed to play for a team in damp, dreary England in the first place. Or perhaps he was expected to be grateful that a country built on the profits of enslaving blacks, that colonised his, that had been instrumental in establishing, maintaining and protecting apartheid and entrenching systemic racism, that has done much to ensure that black lives don’t matter as much as others, had seen fit to exploit him.

It’s difficult not to go there in light of some of Grayson’s other comments at the time: “We’ve given him a great opportunity to come and play county cricket and what he has said about us is downright rude. He has got to take a look at himself. He has not made the most of this opportunity. To hear the things he said about our dressing room, it’s very annoying.”

Two years later Tsotsobe was again in the headlines for questionable reasons. Having upped sticks at the Warriors, where he spent his first six seasons as a senior player, he went to the Dolphins, playing nine list A games in four weeks but nothing else in his only summer there. In 2013, after he had left Durban, his coach at Kingsmead, Lance Klusener, told us what he really thought of him: “He is unfit. Bottom line, plain and simple. Just look at him. I’m a big fan of ‘Lopsy’. I think he is a very good bowler when he is fit. That’s why I was so excited to get him to Durban, but all in all I was generally disappointed with his attitude and his workload with us.”

Earlier that year, coaches and reporters waited almost an hour-and-a-half past the appointed time at the Wanderers on a grey off-season day. When Tsotsobe eventually turned up for his net session, he offered a veiled admission as the reason for his move to the Lions: “This is about my career. If I stay in the same place and slip into a comfort zone I become lazy. I wanted to associate myself with a team that’s good in all formats. I’m not saying the Dolphins weren’t – the coach and the players were great – but I need to get out of my comfort zone.”

Heads nodded. At his first two franchises he had earned a reputation for going missing – he played no first-class cricket from January 2012 to February 2014, but not least because he featured in 50 games for South Africa during that period – and for being indulged by administrators – he was in the squad that toured Sri Lanka in July and August 2013 despite falling short of the required fitness levels. But, that day at the Wanderers, it seemed he had finally wised up to what was expected of him. He was 29. It was not too late…

Alas, it was. Tsotsobe was hounded out of the game two years after that with the disgust of the nation burning his ears. Long expected to come to a sticky end, he duly did. Let his fate be a lesson to all. But what is that lesson?

Tsotsobe has admitted that his work ethic was not what it should have been. Tellingly, more than that has been held against him. He was mistrusted for his entire career, and for reasons that have not been properly explored. Besides, it’s not as if working hard is any guarantee of opportunity.

Thami Tsolekile did plenty of that as Mark Boucher’s understudy, series-in, series-out, tour-in and tour-out. When Boucher had to be replaced after his career was ended by an eye injury on the first day of South Africa’s tour of England, in 2012, Tsolekile wasn’t given his chance. He was there, he was ready, he was able, he had spent years preparing himself for the moment. And yet Boucher’s place went to AB de Villiers.

That undoubtedly strengthened South Africa’s batting. De Villiers’ genius was such that he had taken guard everywhere from No. 1 to 8 in the 125 Test innings he had had by the time he settled in behind the stumps at the Oval in the first Test of that series. If you could find a spot for him, you did. If someone had to make way for him, tough. But what did denying Tsolekile say to all of South Africa’s players who were not in the Test XI, particularly if they were black?

At the time Makhaya Ntini, South Africa’s original black Test player and still the only one among the nine with more than 50 caps, dared voice what many thought: “Tsolekile would have been playing if he was white. People will say we are talking politics but we need to say these things.”

The converse applied in Tsotsobe’s case: people said he was picked for South Africa because he was black. Unlike other black and brown cricketers who reach the top in South Africa, he was not an emphatic player. He had neither Ntini’s relentlessness nor Kagiso Rabada’s outrageous ability. Herschelle Gibbs cut sixes for fun. Hashim Amla set himself to bat for days. Paul Adams fetched a bowling action from the far side of human physiology, and has somehow retained a straightish spine. Mfuneko Ngam and Monde Zondeki were similarly freakish in the load they put on their bodies, but their bodies couldn’t cope.

“I needed to bowl at 150 kilometres an hour for people to notice me,” Ngam said in 2013. “I got injured because I had to work harder than the white guy next to me. It’s always a survival situation for black cricketers. Talent alone is not going to make it happen.”

Why hark back to what Ntini and Ngam said long ago? Because South Africa have capped 33 players in Test cricket since Ntini made his assertion, and only four of them are black. Eight are brown. The rest – 21, or almost two-thirds – are white. Arching over that awkward truth is another: that South Africa is, economically and socially, the most unequal society in the world. Mike Marqusee, a cricket-loving American activist and author, was never more right than when he wrote that “the level playing field is enclosed within a society which is anything but equal. Access to the level playing field has always been unequal.”

From that inequality came Tsotsobe. Discounting his batting inability and unwillingness to put in the hard yards, he was a left-arm facsimile of Shaun Pollock: accurate, canny, subtle; a player who thought as much as he bowled, who always had a plan. Thus he wasn’t what South African cricket expected, and still doesn’t expect, of black players. Aaron Phangiso also didn’t fit the mould. Nor does Andile Phehlukwayo. Will they share, along with their initials, a career curve that droops into disappointment? Will cricket waste the keen intelligence of Temba Bavuma because, while easily good enough, he is not stupendous enough? Did Ntini play as many as 101 Tests by sheer force of will alloyed to an outsized public persona?

Accordingly, to silence his critics, Tsotsobe couldn’t be merely good enough to play international cricket. He had to be super good enough. For a while, he was. The No. 1-ranked bowler in ODIs? Tsotsobe, for six months in 2012. The fastest South Africa bowler to reach 50 wickets in ODIs? Tsotsobe, in 26 games. The record stood until March when Lungi Ngidi – another out-and-out black star – got there one match faster.

And yet, despite Tsotsobe’s talent and skill, the progress he made, and the granite grounding given to him mostly by his mother – his father died when he was nine – he faltered in a way that is, for many, unforgivable. Tsolekile went the same way, and is similarly despised.

Less so Hansie Cronje, whose family are as prominent in sport in their community as the Tsotsobes, and who worked as hard at his game as Tsolekile. From what we know, Cronje was significantly more crooked than Tsotsobe or Tsolekile. But, 21 years after his corruption was exposed and 18 years after his death in a plane crash, honesty about Cronje’s fall from grace is difficult to find.Despite being significantly more crooked than Tsotsobe or Tsolekile, Hansie Cronje's fall from grace was far more cushionedDespite being significantly more crooked than Tsotsobe or Tsolekile, Hansie Cronje’s fall from grace was far more cushioned ©AFP

Either his innocence is steadfastly proclaimed or his guilt is explained as an act of nobly “taking the fall” for others, who are never named. Or it is accepted faithfully that, as Cronje wrote in a confession he faxed to his pastor, Ray McCauley: “In a moment of stupidity and weakness I allowed Satan and the world to dictate terms to me. The moment I took my eyes off Jesus my whole world turned dark.”

Unlike Cronje, Tsotsobe and Tsolekile have not had their misdeeds cushioned. Instead they have been branded, simply and simplistically, as bad. After their banning they faced uncertain futures at every level. So did the ringleader of the 2015 scandal, Gulam Bodi, who sold vegetables to get by in the wake of his expulsion.

That’s another contrast with Cronje, who at the time of his death was working as a financial manager for an earth-moving equipment company and was studying towards a MBA. His life was back on track, his respectability largely restored. How can his whiteness not have been an important factor in his blithely accepted rehabilitation? How can the blackness of Tsotsobe and Tsolekile not be part of their ongoing vilification? What difference might being able to hide behind and lean on the privileges of whiteness have made to their lives before, during and after they transgressed?

We cannot know, and that is the real sadness. Whiteness has stood in the way of truth for centuries, and so well that many blacks believe the lies conjured to keep them in chains. “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction,” Toni Morrison wrote. “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

This article was commissioned a month ago, a dozen days after George Floyd’s lynching lit a righteous fire that roared around the world. Even though the piece was always going to involve many more words than other articles, and despite the unusual challenges presented by the requisite complexities, it should have been published before now. But it has faced another hurdle: the writer is white, the relevant sources black.

There can be no constructive discussion on what whiteness has done to blackness, and how to begin to try and repair the damage, without talking to blacks. But who can blame blacks if they are tired of talking? Some 494 years after a Portuguese ship left the shores of Africa bound for Brazil to mark the first voyage in the transatlantic slave trade, 213 years after slavery was outlawed in the UK,156 years after it was abolished in the US, and 26 years after apartheid was officially scrapped, blacks are still having to argue that their lives matter.

It is the necessary duty of the rest of us, not blacks, to make that case and to ensure it is won and stays won. This is a white problem, not a black problem. Maybe that was why several blacks in cricket who have for years been happy to talk on and off the record on a range of subjects – some political, others not – found reasons to, politely, demure.

Lonwabo Tsotsobe was approached, told the premise of the piece, and asked for his mother’s number, which he kindly provided. Dorothy Tsotsobe was briefed on what was to be discussed with her, but did not respond to two messages. Asked if he would agree to be interviewed, Lonwabo Tsotsobe said: “No. I don’t want to talk about that.”

Happily, not all the doors knocked on remained shut. Omphile Ramela is another of those black cricketers who reject the boxes others try to squeeze them into. For one thing, he is a batter. For another, he holds a Masters in economics from Stellenbosch University, one of the country’s best and previously a bastion of white academia. He has toiled away at a decent first-class career, playing for the Cobras, the Lions and South Africa A, without reaching the senior international stage. At 32, that now seems unlikely. But, as a senior pro, he has given the game much that is not fully appreciated except by those in his dressing room. The game needs solid citizens like Ramela, and the fact that he is the serving president of the South African Cricketers’ Association (SACA) is testament to his status as exactly that.In my view, meritocracy arguments are used to insinuate that black players are not competent relative to their white counterparts. And they often hide racism: Omphile RamelaIn my view, meritocracy arguments are used to insinuate that black players are not competent relative to their white counterparts. And they often hide racism: Omphile Ramela ©Getty

He declined to be interviewed, but offered a written statement. Here it is, unabridged: “In 2011 it was a pipe-dream for South African domestic cricket to have one black African cricketer per team. In other words, on a weekend with all six franchise teams playing you would have fewer than six black players on show.

“In fact, my estimates suggest that for a period spanning 20 years since unity in 1991, black African representation was around 4% to 5% in four-day professional cricket. In international cricket, for the same period, black African representation was at an estimated 10%. In Test cricket, for the majority of 20 years, Makhaya Ntini was the dominant black African representative.

“From 2012/13, government insisted that CSA take action against the lack of transformation within the game. Gradually, each team would be compelled to play one black African for year one; next season two per team. The targets settled at three black Africans per team. This radically shifted black African representation from a low base of 4% 5% to a minimum of 27% in three years. International cricket would similarly move from a low base to 27% black African representation. This policy implementation coincided with the buoyant national mood for transformation under former president Jacob Zuma’s administration.

“I, fortunately, was a beneficiary of the policy. In all fairness, without the policy, I would not have had the privilege to play professional cricket, be president of SACA and even write this. In fact, many black African players that fans have come to admire would never have made it.

“What does the future hold? We have had approximately eight years of targeted transformation for greater black African presentation. More specifically, we have had five years of stable implementation of this policy, at three black Africans per team.

“However, there are already two opposing schools of thought. The cricket community is divided: one group believes targets should be done away with and often cite meritocracy as their defence. The other group says without a transformation policy the system would gravitate towards its discriminatory nature. In my view, meritocracy arguments are used to insinuate that black players are not competent relative to their white counterparts. And they often hide racism. The reality is black African cricketers have had five years of affirmative action. It goes without saying that it is not enough and it is clear that cricket was unable to self-transform and lead the process. As a country, if we are serious about transformation, we will demand more of it. And we will demand that the system gives us the best version of ourselves.

“I’m sharing this chronology of events in the hope that it is self-evident that, firstly, cricket was struggling to self-transform, and, secondly, the need for transformation given the inherent discrimination within the system.

“However, despite the upward trajectory in transformation at a professional level, there has been significant decline in grassroots and developmental cricket within the township and rural areas. The throughput rate of quality is lower. Young people are getting less exposure and opportunities to showcase their talent. This is symptomatic of our times, where black lives matter only if they propel administrators’ careers by serving the elite – professional cricketers – while the majority of black cricketers, young players and amateurs, are left in the wilderness to fend for themselves.”

Not all of us are capable of offering arguments as impeccably reasoned as Ramela’s. Not all of us are as formidable as Dorothy Tsotsobe. Not all of us have Anthony Tsotsobe’s patriotism and sense of duty. Pray none of us suffer his cruel, unfair end. None of us have Ntini’s inexhaustible energy. Few of us have had the privilege of his company when he is alone and earnest and out of the cocoon of craziness he wears like a shield. All of us should know that Rabada has a razor-sharp mind, which he applies to cricket and a lot more besides. And that Bavuma is a philosopher in pads wising up the world one well-considered word at a time. Also that some of us, like Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Tsolekile, will veer off the straight and narrow and be disproportionally punished.

It’s tempting to represent these lives as shades of grey. That would be wrong. They are, each of them separately and all of them together, a handful of the myriad and varying black lives that have given the world so much, had so much taken from them or not been given so much of what is rightfully theirs.

All lives should matter. Millions of black lives do not. That must change, and keep changing. Until there is no them. Only an us.

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