Nationalism & Sports : Apartheid in South African Cricket & Quota for Coloured

“What has made sport so uniquely effective a medium for inculcating national feelings…. is the ease with which even the least political or public individuals can identify with the nation as symbolised by young person excelling at what practically every man wants… to be good at. The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”

Eric Hobsbawm

Commonly sport is considered as an ideal, something distinct from the discolouring qualities of greater society, mere amusement and pleasure and outside the concerns of the state. The competition and conflict that flow from sports are considered healthy because they are distinct from social and economic issues. But what actually happens is that it is not so in reality. Sports associations are ultimately subject to the sovereignty of the legitimate power, that is, Parliament. Its regulations therefore, have to respect and be subordinate to the greater legislation of the state. Now the question that really need to be answered is why sports is important for the state and hence the political process? As can be shown from the words that I quoted of Hobsbawm sports is one of those ‘gelling’ substances which binds people from different social, racial and religious backgrounds together. Furthermore, all authorities seek legitimacy- it is a fundamental prerequisite in the claim for ultimate sovereignty, the key element that distinguishes government from other powerful groups in the society. Sport can assist this claim, especially on international circuit. That is why International Olympic Committee struggled with the questions of two China(s), two Korea(s) and two Germany(s). It is about the recognition of one political control over another as legitimate. If sport can justifiably be studied in a political and social context, it stands that a political examination of an individual country can include scrutiny of sport as a means of relating the effects of political authority. Sport, as a means of transmitting the values of the ruling group, is a component of the dominant hegemony. As we see that in western societies, sport is a reflection of capitalist interests. Sport is controlled by big business and dominated by money, a tool for extracting incredible riches from the sports-hungry populace. The date and time of competition are selected to satisfy the television and business interests. In view of all these arguments I will be trying to look into the reconciliation process in post-apartheid South Africa through the lens of cricket.

The new democratic South Africa faces the same problem as other states in the global community, namely that of finding common factors around which it can unify its disparate inhabitants. A politically diverse population would prove difficult to unite around political notions such as ‘national liberation’ and ‘democracy’. The downside of democracy is that in a racially divided society it may lead to the unending dominance of the majority’s favoured party which in our case is the ANC (African National Congress). And more expectedly we see first few free elections since 1994 being contested with electorate divided along the racial lines, indicating that ideological differences will take generations to mould into any form of unity. Sport, however, is something that can potentially draw people from all sectors of society together. Cricket is in somewhat advantageous position in this respect. It has traditionally strong following among English-speaking, coloured and Indian populations, is becoming more popular with Afrikaner community (four of the 1992 World Cup squad), and has always attracted players of African descent. No other sport in South Africa can claim such a reservoir of potential to build nationally representative team, with rugby more popular among Afrikaner and football among African community.

Before going into the present problems that South African society faces, we should take a look of how we have arrived to the times we are living in. In 1948 elections the National Party defeated the United Party on seats, though with a smaller share of vote. Afrikaner nationalism took centre stage as the state policy and racial superiority was the visible feature of it. New government’s official sports policy explicitly stated;

  • Whites and blacks should organise their sport separately;
  • No mixed sport would be allowed within SA;
  • International teams competing in SA would have to be all white;
  • Black sportsmen from overseas would be allowed to compete against blacks in SA;


Under such circumstances, all-white SA cricket team used to play against only white English, Australian and New-Zealand team but not with coloured India, Pakistan and West-Indies. Questions were being raised on the policy of apartheid by these countries in ICC (then, Imperial Cricket Council) the governing body of cricket, but England and Australia who enjoyed a veto would not let a complete boycott of SA till 1970 when SA denied English team to tour on the issue of Basil D’Oliviera, a black cricketer, being included in the team. With this started a long exile of SA cricket team from the international arena. Which ended in 1991 after the President F.W De Klerk released Nelson Mandela and talks for the new constitution started. In December 1990 the black South African Cricket Board (SACB) and the white South African Cricket Union (SACU) agreed to merge as the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCB). 

UCB in its initial statement of intent hoped ‘to formulate strategies to redress urgently imbalances in regard to separate educational systems, sponsorship and facilities’. It also aspired ‘to contribute, through cricket, to the creation of a just society in South Africa where everybody democratically has a common say and a common destiny’. It clearly tells us that the task of creating a strong cricket team was subordinated to something more important: the reconstruction of the nation, built upon the notion of equality of opportunity. As has been stated earlier also sport has a complex and important interaction with nationality and the phenomenon of nationalism. It allows for the symbols, flags and anthems to be displayed or performed. Conversely, it provides an arena where these symbols can be challenged and reformed. So, when whites secured their return to the international cricket they did so not with the previous symbol of Springbok but by the South Africa’s national flower protea. Was this merely the triumph of image over substance? A just society and the fostering of national identity will require more than supposedly unifying symbols such as anthems and flags.  This requires not only political changes but economic changes too, especially in the area of poverty relief. As Thabo Mbeki argues a process of national reconciliation seems unachievable without fundamental socio-economic transformation. Nelson Mandela took the stand a bit differently, when speaking on the issue of participation in cricket World Cup he stated that sports and politics are different and the slogan that normal sport cannot be there in a racial society seems extremist to him. For a matter of fact, it was Hasan Howa of ANC who in the 1970s raised the slogan of,’ NO NORMAL SPORT IN AN ABNORMAL SOCIETY’. He even protested that the first ever tour of India by SA cricket team in 1992 was dishonest as team consisted ‘only those players who enjoyed great benefits of racial discrimination. It was not a SA team but a white SA team. Rushdi Magiet, the first black on SA selection committee, also accepted that ‘a lot of African community did not agree with the unification’. Here we can see a marked disagreement over the issue of reconciliation and unification within the ANC camp. And, we saw it conceptualizing in the way policy of reconciliation got a shift after Mbeki came to power after Mandela. Taking into account of the position that Mandela took over the issue of sports it seems quite similar to the one taken by the so-called bridge builders who in 1980s urged the international community to ignore politics and allow SA to compete in sporting events. He was now calling the stand of ANC himself the extremist.

Twenty years on and the reconciliation process still generates a fierce debate. Have black players really advanced? Or, has it proved beneficial to only those for whom it might have been beneficial even before also? In 1998 an article in South African daily independent complained that all the “reconciliation”, “forgiveness”, “understanding”, “compromise” and the “rainbow-nation” stuff has come from the black cricketers only. Not all is well with reconciliation process in South Africa, there is this dissent among blacks that actually not much has changed in socio-economic conditions for the except for legal sanctions put over them in the past. As we see in the way Mbeki puts it in The Economist in 1997;

The white population I don’t think has quite understood the importance of this challenge…. if you were speaking of national reconciliation based on the maintenance of status quo, because you did not want to move at a pace that frightens the whites, it means you wouldn’t carry out the task”

The point which should be kept in our minds is that, for most of the whites not much has changed in South Africa. They have kept their maids, houses and cooks, and still enjoy a decent standard of living. Yes, they have had to sacrifice the vote, but it has not been at the expense of their disproportionate share of the national income. Statistics show that human development index for whites in SA are comparable to western European nations while that of blacks with any other African nation like Swaziland. So the stand that ANC and it affiliate sporting bodies took in 1970s and 80s, that ‘no normal sports in an abnormal society’ still holds good. South African society still has all those disparities and inequalities which qualify it as abnormal. In 1998, when SA toured West Indies selection of an all white team led to an obvious criticism from within the South Africa. Here, it should be kept in mind that blacks in South Africa always held West Indian cricket team with special affection. They were the symbol of sporting capabilities that black race can achieve in a white dominated game. In the townships role models were not any South African cricketer like Pollock at that time but black West Indians like Lara. Then South African sports minister, Steve Tshwete even stated that it would be difficult for him to support the national team in the set up that it had. It led to the introduction of target policies in September 1999, which provided with a least stipulated quota for coloured cricketers. It divided the cricketing community in South Africa, where some described it as an attack on the generally conceived ethos of cricket of ‘fair-play’ and merit. Voices were raised over the inclusion of Makhaya Ntini as ‘token’; it was quite late when he became a regular feature in the team just to climb as the best ranked bowler in the world. Same was the treatment with other cricketers of colour in general and black in particular. Some white players like Peterson, even migrated out of the country in the protest that white are being discriminated upon and there are fewer opportunities for them in South Africa. Today it is argued that because the political apparatus of apartheid has been dismantled, ‘merit will once again become the only criteria by which players will be judged and selected’. This presupposes a rather narrow definition for politics, associating equality with the right to vote. Here lies the crux of the problem: South Africa has never been a society in which merit was the sole criterion for the selection of professional sports team. There has always been a barrier preventing members of disadvantaged community which prevents them from competing on level playing field. Previously these were legal now these are only social and economic but barriers are still there. That is why we see introduction of new policy of targets in 2013, which stipulated for at least one black in all teams national and provincial as necessary. After two decades such legislations are still being needed points to the extent reconciliation process has really touched the general populace in South Africa.

Through this essay what I really want to put forward is the view that if SA cricket can become free from racial dogmas only if the talented players of the colour have been provided with the means and opportunities to represent their schools, provinces and ultimately country. How can we expect a child who has to fight with hunger with someone who is at the top of economic structure? As I have stated earlier also, sports reflects the whole society, its imbalances, skewed relations and inequalities ingrained in it. Why still till today, we don’t have many African players coming into the squad. In the name of coloured even we have a Pakistani born player. It gives us a clear indication of how the society is divided in South Africa in terms of economic opportunities which in turn translates into the team composition. Also, we see that there is a clash within the black community over the issue of reconciliation. Still there is a long way to go for South Africa. Mbeki also warned that if government does not close the disparities then people will rebel against the democracy, “Because it hasn’t brought them anything”.

(Author is a well known Historian)

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Saquib Salim

Saquib Salim is a well known historian under whose supervision various museums (Red Fort, National Library, IFFI, Jallianwala Bagh etc.) were researched. To his credit Mr. Salim has more than 400 published articles on history, politics, culture and literature in English and Hindi. Before pursuing his research and masters in modern Indian History from JNU, he was an electrical engineering student at AMU. Presently, he works as a freelance/ independent history researcher, writer and works at

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