Kids play street cricket at Helenvale

Street cricket in Helenvale township, Port Elizabeth

© Getty Images


The faces of transformation

Stories, more than arguments, illuminate the complexities of South Africa's racial quotas

Tristan Holme and Luke Alfred  |  

Happy hour starts at 4pm in Langa. The club's Under-11 cricket team is already out on the field, where a stiff-looking batsman is having his back-foot retreat coached out of him, when a stream of beaming children come flooding through the gates. Some of them stop to make conversation: "I play cricket for the U-9s, but I also play soccer and hockey," says one, revealing the extent to which sport runs through Cape Town's oldest black township.

The vast tract of land set aside for games in a neighbourhood where space is at a premium reflects this too. The club hosts two large cricket grounds, their outfields a fertile green even at the height of a particularly dry Cape summer. There is a full-size AstroTurf hockey pitch and a set of cricket nets, all of them recently renovated by the City of Cape Town. On the far side scores of young children make use of a five-a-side soccer court with artificial turf, and a dusty patch of ground that serves as a larger pitch. In the background looms the grand spectacle of Table Mountain and Devil's Peak.

"Actually Langa is a very small township, and when I was growing up we had nice structures and good, qualified coaches. Langa people took cricket seriously, very seriously," says Thokozani Peter, one of the community's most recent graduates to provincial level. "We had Thami Tsolekile, Temba Bavuma, Malusi Siboto, Siya Simetu, Nono Pongolo. Some of the guys play franchise cricket now, some of them play first-class cricket [at semi-professional level], including me. Langa Cricket Club was a big team in those early days. Even now it is huge."

If a shepherd boy from the rural Eastern Cape could rise to triumph on cricket's most hallowed turf, surely a wave of black talent would follow in his wake?

Peter came into Langa's first team in the 2004-05 season at the age of 14 - the youngest person to play competitive cricket for the club, he says - at a time when pride in the township's sporting prowess was swelling. Tsolekile had already become the first black hockey player to earn national colours, and had turned out in three Tests for the Proteas that summer. Tsolekile's brother, Lungile, had just broken into the South African hockey team. Their feats continue to inspire the next generation.

In the clubhouse, Thami Tsolekile's signed Test shirt has pride of place, and franchise shirts from Bavuma, Siboto and Simetu adorn the square room. In one corner is an ageing photograph of a net session: taking strike is Ben Malamba, the Langa cricket hero who toured Kenya in 1958 with the non-racial Springboks under Basil D'Oliveira and who was also a rugby Springbok.

The quota evolution

Franchise cricket

2004-05 to 2012-13: Four players of colour

2013-14: Four players of colour, with at least one black African

2014-15: Five players of colour, with at least two black Africans

2015-16: Six players of colour, with at least three black Africans

Provincial cricket

2004-05 to 2012-13: Five players of colour

2013-14: Five players of colour, with at least two black Africans

2014-15: Six players of colour, with at least three black Africans

2015-16: Six players of colour, with at least three black Africans

"Players of colour" refers to all non-white players, including those from the Coloured, Asian and black African communities

To see how close-knit this group of local icons was, one only needs to wander out of the club's front gate, turn left and follow Washington Street. First left takes you into Rubusana Avenue where the Siboto family's concrete-brick home and the Bavuma family's more modern affair are three doors from each other. One block up, on the corner of Washington and Harlem Avenue, is a pale grey house with smart aluminium windows. "Thami Tsolekile, Cricketer, Lives Here" reads the disc on the wall.

Cricket's roots in Langa are deep: Bavuma has three uncles who played cricket; one of them, Tengo Sokhanyile, attended an academy alongside Andrew Hudson and Daryll Cullinan in the late 1980s, while Tsolekile's grandfather turned out for Western Province.

Those roots bore fruit this summer when Bavuma became the new poster boy for black cricket in South Africa. Prior to Bavuma's Test debut against West Indies in December, the Proteas had fielded just one black Test player* since Makhaya Ntini's final Test in December 2009 - and never a black specialist batsman. Yet Bavuma's selection was not an effort to polish these statistics: it was based on merit, a reward for his ability to conquer each level of the game along the way.

Seamer Thokozani Peter, another Langa graduate, made an immediate impact following promotion to Western Province

Seamer Thokozani Peter, another Langa graduate, made an immediate impact following promotion to Western Province © Lauriane Holme

As the sun sinks slowly towards the iconic mountains and happy hour draws to a close, the question that comes to mind is: if such pride and enthusiasm for the game exists here in Langa, then why do so few of South Africa's black cricketers reach the top?

In a previous conversation, Thokozani Peter didn't want to talk about racial quotas in cricket. Asked for his thoughts on the subject, Peter, a 24-year-old fast bowler, shifted uncomfortably in his chair, drew air through his teeth, and said: "I'm scared of answering that question." Frankly, no one can blame him. Nothing divides the South African cricket community quite like quota policies because few issues define the country and its most pressing conversations quite like race.

Rather than having open discussions that would encourage transparency, the issue is either forgotten or conveniently ignored - as it was in the debate around Ryan McLaren's exclusion from South Africa's World Cup squad. Commentators and journalists asked whether McLaren should have cracked the nod ahead of Farhaan Behardien or perhaps Wayne Parnell; the reality is that the selectors are committed to picking seven players of colour - including one black African - in a 15-man squad, and so McLaren's actual competition was among the eight white players selected.

It was a symptom of confusion. The policies have changed many times over the years but have been hidden in phraseology, which created the quota debate's most public blowout in 2008. Mickey Arthur, the coach, was part of a selection committee that named just four players of colour in a 14-man squad; it was vetoed by Cricket South Africa's president Norman Arendse because the team was expected to have seven. Arendse accused Arthur of "cocking a snook at his employers' policy of transformation"; the coach replied that the guideline was "a target and not a policy".

Where Border was once a wellspring of both black and white talent, now it is neither. Rainbow politics and rainbow coalitions seem to be relics of the past

These troublesome shades of grey remain at the national level, and raised their head again after South Africa's World Cup semi-final exit. Many supporters were already wondering why Kyle Abbott - South Africa's best bowler in the tournament in terms of average - had been left out in favour of Vernon Philander when reports surfaced that the selection was politically motivated. CSA officials continually denied interference, but it was instructive that most members of the public and the media came to learn about informal selection targets at the international level only because of this saga. The lack of full transparency has affected the Proteas' image in the past, and seems likely to do so again and again in the future.

At domestic level, at least there is some certainty. The 2013-14 season saw CSA introduce playing XI quotas of one black African player at franchise level, with financial incentives for fielding a second, and two at semi-professional (or provincial) level. Last season, the number was increased by one at both levels.

In the 2013-14 season, CSA statistician Andrew Samson recorded 308 black African appearances out of a total of 1926 in franchise cricket, and 919 out of 3610 in the provincial game. While some teams struggled to meet the requirements, others were positioned to take advantage of the financial incentives. In terms of percentage, appearances by black Africans in franchise cricket (15.99%) exceeded the quota (9.09%). Similarly, with some provincial sides already fielding a healthy number of black Africans, the percentage of appearances (25.45%) exceeded the requirement (18.18%).

Twenty-three years after: Temba Bavuma became South Africa's first black Test batsman since readmission

Twenty-three years after: Temba Bavuma became South Africa's first black Test batsman since readmission © Getty Images

Last season the numbers rose again because of the quotas - but the positive sign was that percentages remained ahead of the requirements. Going into the final weekend of franchise cricket, black Africans represented 23.46% of the total appearances at that level (bettering the target of 18.18%), and in provincial cricket they represented 32.79% (higher than the necessary 27.27%). Urged on by the government, CSA is eager to grow the numbers, and so in March it confirmed that franchises will need to field a third black African next season.

Quotas for players of colour have been in place in domestic cricket for the past 11 years (see sidebar): last season the number required in franchise playing XIs rose from four to five, and in provincial competitions it climbed from five to six. The fresh focus on black Africans acknowledges that many Coloured players - those of mixed ethnicity - are now coming through the system, itself a sign that the community has been the second-most privileged section of society under both apartheid and affirmative action, but that the country has produced a shockingly low number of black cricketers.

Back in August 2003, when Ntini knelt down to kiss the Lord's pitch one Sunday evening, it felt like a seminal moment in South Africa's cricket history. Here was the rainbow nation's first black African player conquering the very home of cricket with a ten-wicket haul that took his team to an innings victory. If a shepherd boy from the rural Eastern Cape could rise from such humble beginnings to triumph on cricket's most hallowed turf, surely a wave of black talent would follow in his wake?

Asked for his thoughts on racial quotas, Peter shifted in his chair, drew air through his teeth, and said: "I'm scared of answering that question"

Yet, 12 years on, that magical moment can be viewed as a scene of personal triumph rather than the signs of a wider movement. Ntini remains the only black player to have turned out regularly for South Africa. His 101 Test caps seem freakish, despite two decades of talk about South Africa's desire to transform its cricket team to one that better represents a population with almost 80% black Africans. The new quotas at domestic level are the latest attempt to set this right.

It is therefore impossible to relate the story of Peter's cricket without acknowledging that he would not be telling it if it were not for quotas. There is nothing inherently wrong in this. The problem is that the q-word has developed such a stigma that it is difficult to sit down and have an honest conversation about what it means for the players directly influenced by it and whether it is having the desired effect of uplifting a community that was deeply disadvantaged under apartheid. This seems a pity given that Peter and his former team-mates from Langa provide an enlightening showcase of the various routes that black African talent has found itself on, and many of them presumably have some insights to offer.

For example, Siya Simetu's recall to the Cape Cobras side was hardly flattering. Picked to play in the one-day competition in October 2013, Simetu, a left-arm spinner, was given the ball for just 23 overs in four games and was the only player in the team without his name on his shirt. This was the initial face of the new transformation policy, with some players picked for no other reason than to fulfil that policy's requirements. In short, it had put Simetu on the field but not in the game.

The national cricket team doesn't come close to reflecting the country's population, which is 80% black

The national cricket team doesn't come close to reflecting the country's population, which is 80% black © AFP

Cobras' lack of genuine commitment to the cause was even more explicit in the T20 competition that season, where allrounder Aviwe Mgijima batted at No. 9 or 10 and bowled just 12 overs, even as he played all 11 games for the franchise. This was not what CSA had in mind, and it cost Paul Adams the Coach-of-the-Year award despite the fact that Cobras were far and away the team of the season. Prior to the last campaign, Cobras partially overcame their lack of black talent by poaching left-arm seamer Mthokozisi Shezi, a budding Protea, from the Dolphins.

Peter got his big break after the introduction of slightly heavier quotas lower down the ladder. At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, frustrated by the lack of upward mobility at Langa, whose first team had slowly sunk to the fourth division over the years, Peter moved to Green Point Cricket Club, a well-off establishment a stone's throw from the famous Cape Town Stadium. "I was nowhere," Peter recalls. "I'd played for Langa for almost my entire life, and I just told myself that I needed a change to see what happened, because if I wanted to be successful and if I wanted to play with the best then I needed to go and play for one of the best teams in Cape Town."

This was how Western Province coach Faiek Davids, a member of South Africa's touring squad to India on the historic 1991-92 trip (as one of three additional players sent for experience), came across Peter. Davids was in sudden need of some black cricketers to fulfil CSA's new transformation quotas. He began rummaging around for active cricketers who had represented the province's age-group teams. Peter had once been picked for Western Province U-13s before falling out of the system, and his good form for his new club came up on Davids' radar. In January 2014, Peter was called up by Western Province, with surprising results - in the five remaining three-day games Peter took 20 wickets with his seam bowling, at an average of 12. His new team stormed to the title. "A diamond in the rough," was how the captain, Sybrand Engelbrecht, described his new fast bowler at the end of the campaign.

Yet Peter, who took just nine wickets in eight first-class games for Western Province last season, faces an uncertain future. His dream has been ignited, but he has no illusions about the task in front of him. "I'm trying to make a name for myself, and hoping to play for the Cobras one day, and then South Africa," he says. "I wish to get to the top; that's my goal."

It is instructive that South Africa's two great hopes at the moment, Temba Bavuma and Kagiso Rabada, both went to top private schools

Lucky Pangabantu - "Rasta" to his mates because of his shoulder-length dreads - has no such ambitions. At 34, as a fast bowler, his prospects of reaching the top are more remote than the region of South Africa where he grew up. Masingata, a small township outside King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, does not show up on Google Maps, but the region around it is rightly seen as the cradle of black cricket in South Africa. Ntini learned to play on the surrounding sun-bleached hills. If you barrel down the roads to Healdtown or Fort Beaufort or even Peddie, further afield, there is a reasonable chance of spotting a scratch game on the side of the road - little boys in oversized shorts heroically wielding a bat too big for them.

Pangabantu's story is not one of hope for the future or regret about the past. Rather it is one of satisfaction that he is able to get by on the salary that bowling cricket balls gives him. After years of playing club cricket, his big break came in 2005 when he was picked for an SA Country Districts team. "We went on tour to Argentina," Pangabantu remembers. "That season I also made my debut for the Border senior team. For five years I was on a match fee plus incentives - R1000 [US$83 at current exchange rates] for a three-day win, R500 for a loss or draw. We were also given R500 for a 50-over win and R250 for a 50-over loss."

A street in Langa, the township that has produced Test cricketers Thami Tsolekile and Temba Bavuma

A street in Langa, the township that has produced Test cricketers Thami Tsolekile and Temba Bavuma © Lauriane Holme

The money did not allow Pangabantu to make even a remotely decent living (he still doesn't own a car) although he had gained a foothold in the system. While he was something of a talisman and a hero in the community for making it as far as he had, he was unable to force his way into the Warriors franchise to play top-tier cricket. Border, by contrast, is a semi-professional side, theoretically acting as a feeder for Warriors.

In 2010, Pangabantu's professional life changed once again for the better. He was awarded a formal contract by Border, which earned him R5000 per month through the year, plus win bonuses. There were other minor perks, such as subsidised transport to and from King William's Town to Buffalo Park in East London, and subsidised accommodation there. This year his salary was increased to R6500 ($540) per month. He looks forward to the win bonuses, as his earnings look after his two young children, from different mothers, Inomusa (seven) and Unam (six), his grandmother and his unemployed mother. The only other income in the family is his granny's old-age pension.

"I'll keep on pushing until the injuries block me from going any further," Pangabantu says. He is running counter to the recognised purpose of the semi-professional system, which is to provide young players with a small stipend while they try to crack a franchise contract. By the age of 25 or 26, those who have not made it usually move on to find a career that offers a real salary; in both a cricket and an economic sense, Pangabantu has no alternative but to carry on playing.

Cobras' lack of genuine commitment was explicit in the T20 competition, where Aviwe Mgijima batted at No. 9 or 10 and bowled just 12 overs in 11 games

But gone are the days when Border were a force. In 2000-01, the Border Bears played in the final of the SuperSport Series, then the premier first-class competition featuring 11 teams. Their side in the final had an exceptionally white look, with only one local player of colour - Dumisa Makalima - slightly different to today's scenario in which the racial demographics have been almost entirely reversed. Home-grown products like Ntini, Mfuneko Ngam, Mark Boucher and Justin Kemp added to the playing and intellectual capital. Such capital is not in existence any more.

Standards have dropped and white cricketers in the province appear to have been alienated from the game. Border Cricket Union has recently suffered several administrative crises and a high staff turnover. Those in favour of transformation would point to the inevitability of alienation, the price one needs to pay for change. Where Border was once a wellspring of both black and white talent, now it is neither. Rainbow politics and rainbow coalitions seem to be relics of the past, much like King William's Town's old colonial buildings with their turrets and wrought-iron fences.

Can Pangabantu's experience, though, be summarily dismissed? Cricket has given him a livelihood and a direction. He might not have been afforded such an opportunity under a different system, like the one under which Bears competed in that SuperSport Series final. On the day before our interview at the Wanderers, he had taken his 200th first-class wicket. It was an achievement about which he was extremely proud and had every reason to be.

Pangabantu and Peter may be at opposite ends of their careers, and come from different parts of the country, but they still have much in common. For a start both are Xhosa, a tribe that, it is often forgotten, has been playing the game for decades - far longer than the Zulus or even the Afrikaner community, which now has a robust representation in South Africa's national cricket sides. This is a point conveniently overlooked by the conservative apologists who offer the view that cricket is just not a black game.

Wicketkeeper Thami Tsolekile was an inspiration to many when he played three Tests for South Africa in 2004

Wicketkeeper Thami Tsolekile was an inspiration to many when he played three Tests for South Africa in 2004 © Getty Images

More pertinent is the fact that neither of the two seamers played cricket in high school, which is the real sorting line for South Africa's sporting talent. Whereas AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis famously went to Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool, a breeding ground for rugby Springboks and professional cricketers, with its superb facilities and coaches, Pangabantu and Peter attended schools that did not offer a cricketing education.

In answering the question of why so few black cricketers rise to the top, it is instructive that South Africa's two great hopes at the moment, Bavuma and Kagiso Rabada, both went to top private schools. Tsolekile, Siboto and Simetu also attended strong cricketing schools, most of them on a bursary. This is where the crux of the matter lies. Langa's young cricketers may have a club with reasonable facilities and qualified black coaches to bring them up, but only the ones who make it into privileged schools are likely to keep up with their white counterparts.

More recently, CSA has partnered with sponsors to give bursaries to children from underprivileged backgrounds who show promise, with 21 players benefiting from the programmes for the current year. It is an encouraging sign, as is the decision to set up Regional Performance Centres and supporting hubs around the country that will arrange more competitive fixtures for government schools identified by CSA as promising.

Unfortunately these programmes reach just a fraction of the country's children, and so South Africa's cricket prospects remain corralled in its private schools and a handful of good government schools - too expensive for most black families to afford. This outsourcing of development to the schools means CSA is both hamstrung and partially reliant on a system it has very little control over. Until the game floods into township schools in a meaningful way, it is difficult to see a wave of black talent coming through.

The real barrier to transformation, then, is economics. More than 20 years after Nelson Mandela came to power, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, and that inequality is still largely along the lines of race. Last year Oxfam reported that the country's two richest businessmen, both white, had as much wealth as the bottom half of the population, almost all black.

When the majority of black South Africa is growing up in poverty, it means that by the time most black players are exposed to a decent level of cricket they are profoundly disadvantaged compared to players from privileged schools. As much as CSA has tried through quota policies, no governing body can remould history into the ideal image of eight or nine black Proteas that easily, particularly after something as deeply divisive and traumatic as apartheid. On the one hand, the governing body deserves criticism because its attempts at transformation over the past two decades can be seen as nothing more than a design to show the country's politicians enough black faces in teams. This lack of spiritual commitment to genuine change is in turn played out at the franchises.

On the other hand, CSA's mandate is to spread cricket; it is not tasked with building functional schools and ensuring that every young child who wants to play the game is adequately fed. As much as the politicians like to hold CSA to account in parliament, so the cricket body should be able to hold South Africa's incompetent and corrupt government to account on service delivery. Because the sad fact is that until South African society can be genuinely transformed, cricket will continue to lag behind in its own evolution.

*An earlier version of this article stated that the Proteas had not fielded a black Test player since Makhaya Ntini's final Test

Tristan Holme is a freelance cricket writer who covers the game in South Africa and Zimbabwe. He is working on a book about Zimbabwe cricket. Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg and author of When the Lions Came to Town