South African cricketer Quinton De Kock and team captain Temba Bavuma make their way out to bat in a T20 World Cup match against Australia. Photo by Gareth Copley-ICC/ICC via Getty Images
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South African cricket furore points to deep-seated and unresolved issues of racism

It’s important to guard against empty gestures. Taking the knee represents a start. But on its own it won’t bring meaningful change to the lives of black people.

South African cricketer Quinton de Kock recently withdrew from an International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 match against the West Indies. His decision came after a directive from Cricket South Africa, the sport’s governing body, that all players must take the knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. De Kock reversed his decision the next day and is back in the South African team. The Conversation Africa’s digital editor Ozayr Patel asked Kamilla Swart to shed some light on the saga.

What do you think about management telling teams to take part in acts of solidarity?

The saga of not taking the knee underscores the fact that contestation over sport policy, social transformation and sport development remains the most troublesome and divisive issue for post-apartheid sport in South Africa. This status quo is still apparent today and has been brought to the surface once more.

Cricket in the country still faces a systemic problem of a lack of transformation. The directive of Cricket South Africa management needs to be seen within this broader context.

Last year new light was shed on racism in cricket after one of South Africa’s star players Lungi Ngidi came out in support of Black Lives Matter. His stance led to heated exchanges, as well as verbal attacks. This led Cricket South Africa to launch a project to look into racism in the sport. A number of current and former players came forward with stories of abuse and discriminatory behaviour towards them.

Their testimony showed that racial exclusion and racism in South African sport continues to be a challenge.

In a recent paper my colleague and I looked at the impact that the Black Lives Matter movement has had on South African cricket.

We found that it had served as a catalyst for the voices of black cricketers to be heard. And that it had created a platform for institutionalised racism and transformation in South African cricket to be addressed.

What role can sport play in shifting entrenched views, such as racism in South Africa?

I grew up during apartheid and played non-racial sport, a movement initiated in the 1980s that supported the principle of “no normal sport in an abnormal society”. The aim was to drive home the message that sport couldn’t be “normal” while people were living under apartheid’s racist laws.

This movement, together with the international sport boycott, played an important role in the demise of apartheid.

The experience led me to believe that sport can – and should be – a vehicle for progressive social change.

Having said that, I have to say that I don’t believe that Cricket South Africa managed the situation well. It issued a last-minute directive – the players were notified of its decision just hours before they were to due to play a match. I don’t believe an approach like this helps the cause for meaningful change.

De Kock argued that he was not opposed to taking the knee. But that he felt his rights had been taken away when Cricket South Africa issued its directive.

Sport organisations, especially in South Africa, should be part of the change. They should encourage education and dialogue.

Taking the knee should not be an empty gesture.

Do you think individuals should have a choice in matters like this? Or should team solidarity prevail?

Ordinarily, I would say individuals should have a choice. But I can also see the merit in team solidarity especially where we find ourselves globally, and in South Africa, in relation to racism and racial inequalities.

Sport teams and personalities are role models. If they can use their platforms for the greater good they should be encouraged to support the cause.

But it’s important to guard against empty gestures. Taking the knee represents a start. But on its own it won’t bring meaningful change to the lives of black people. A more concerted effort is required by administrators and players to address the structural and systemic racial inequities that exist. Engagement and collective action across the South African cricket ecosystem (and all other sports) is required to truly transform sport.

Are there any precedents when acts of solidarity in sport have shifted the dial on big issues?

South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement is a case in point. Sport was used as one of the lines of attack to bring down the racist system.

Globally, using sport as a platform for protest has a long history on many fronts. For example, Muhammed Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War inspired the Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Ali’s stand also had an impact on the anti-Vietnam movement in the US.

Then there’s the example of athletes like Arthur Asheand Magic Johnson who played a big role in de-stigmatising HIV/AIDS.

And Billie Jean King advocated for gender equality in tennis, heralding a host of changes for women in the sport, while professional basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar raised issues of race and religion.

There was a resurgence of activism by athletes in the US in 2016, notably basketball player LeBron James and American footballer Colin Kaepernick.

The murder of George Floyd by a US police officer in 2020 led to host of athletes from across the globe expressing their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

These included Naomi Osaka and Lewis Hamilton. This support also extended to international teams and leagues such as Bundesliga teams and the West Indies cricket team..

I believe that sport is a microcosm of society. This means that sport teams and athletes play a critical role as symbols of social change and as advocates for reforms.

Athletes have the right to freedom of expression. But with dialogue, education and understanding they will know how to exercise this right in a responsible way so that they contribute to a more responsible sporting world.

Understanding lived experiences and listening to more voices provide an unprecedented prospect to broaden these conversations to a point where joint action can foster racial and social justice worldwide.The Conversation

Kamilla Swart, Associate professor, Hamad Bin Khalifa University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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