Jimmy Atkins, South Africa’s best sportswriter of the 1970s, struck a chord among the vast majority of the country’s cricketers and cricket fans who fought so bravely and stubbornly against apartheid sport, when he penned a tribute to Saait Magiet shortly after the great all-rounder’s death in the middle of July.
“I followed hundreds of cricketers in my time, traveled with them, and watched them bring the game to life under sometimes appalling conditions – and Saait ranked up there with the best of them,” Atkins wrote.
“Pace bowlers are a dime a dozen but only a few inspire trepidation among batsmen. Saait was one such bowler…His run-up was smooth and graceful,” he continued, “but his delivery was violent, filled with bad intent and fearsome power. To emphasise what he meant, he wrote: “Think Rabada, Steyn and Ntini in one package.”
And then he added: “Saait deserved better. We shall not forget.”
Sadly, we do forget.
Far too many South Africans who should have known better, have at best forgotten and at worst have callously dismissed the contributions made by countless cricketers, as well as other sportsmen and sportswomen, to the struggle for an equal society.
Contrary to the belief in some (mainly white) quarters, black South African cricket bodies did not only produce Basil D’Oliveira.
Many other disenfranchised cricketers shone brightly, but sometimes far too briefly, on matting wickets, on god-forsaken township fields.
How many South Africans remember a “big-boned” seam bowler named Eric Petersen, who in the opinion of many experts would have played test cricket in any country other than South Africa?
And what about Ben Malamba who also had to contend with coloured racism to become the best he could be, considering all the constraints confronting a black person in South Africa?
And how many remember Owen Williams, a wily left-arm spinner, who rose above the pain of a family split down the middle – half of them white, the other half coloured – by the Population Registration Act?
There were others – players, umpires and administrators, such as: Dik Abed, Lobo Abed, Cecil Abrahams, Neville Lakay, Coetie Neethling, Des February, Lefty Adams, Gertjie Williams, Kosie Williams, Khaya Majola, Braima Isaacs, Vincent Barnes, Hassan Howa, Vincent Farrell and many, many more who remained loyal to the principles of non-racialism in sport and society.
It must never be forgotten that adherence to principles that recognised the right of all South Africans to be treated equally before the law was not a trait of their white counterparts. Discrimination on the basis of skin colour was enthusiastically supported by the majority of the white population.
During the apartheid years, white sports administrators and players openly, willingly and some would say treacherously collaborated with National Party politicians in what was to become an ongoing fight to maintain ties with white cricketing countries such as England, Australia and New Zealand.
In this respect, during the “D’Oliveira Affair”, Arthur Coy, the chairman of the white South African Cricket Association, connived openly with English cricket authorities and the South Prime Minister, John Vorster, to stop the Cape Town born D’Oliveira from touring South Africa with the Marylebone Cricket Club.
Later, after even their “traditional” opponents cut ties with them, administrators such as Ali Bacher and Joe Pamensky had no qualms about endangering cricket’s international future by arranging “rebel” tours – essentially bribing cricketers from England, Australia, the West Indies and Sri Lanka to play test matches in South Africa.
Pamensky hailed the arrival of the English rebels in March 1982 – during the worst decade of repression in South Africa – as a “stand against the hypocrisy and double standards that have kept South African cricketers from taking their rightful place in the international cricket community”.
And Ali Bacher was just as culpable.
The cricketers too were no better. Fanie de Villiers openly supported the concept of rebel tours. So did Clive Rice. So did Craig Matthews. So did every top white cricketer.
White cricket writers too were sickeningly compliant. For instance, on 6 February 1990, Cape Times journalist Michael Owen Smith, later to land a plum job with a unified national body after the advent of democracy, wrote this of a second rebel tour by a team of English cricketers led by Mike Gatting: “In the 15 years I have been covering international sport, I have never been involved in an event in which there has been so much antagonism between the players and certain elements of the media. Hopefully, cricket will come into its own in the next few weeks…Mike Gatting, in particular, has not been given a fair hearing – and fair play does not seem to be a prominent feature of the coverage of this tour.”
It was an incredibly naïve, even stupid, piece of writing given what had happened in South Africa in the preceding few years.
And yet, one of the first things Nelson Mandela did after he was released from prison just five days after Owen Smith’s article was published, was to encourage international tours by South African sports teams (even though most of the teams proved to be white).
South African cricketers toured India and the West Indies. They even played in a cricket World Cup in Australia. Sport formed a key part of Mandela’s commitment to reconciliation.
Cricketers and administrators who were part and parcel of apartheid structures could not believe their good fortune. These new developments were beyond their wildest dreams.
They had sacrificed nothing to get everything.
Administrators like Bacher and Pamensky reinvented themselves in much the same way as many white South Africans had.
Suddenly, no white South Africans had supported apartheid. And just as suddenly most of them became experts on democracy.
Tellingly, the ANC’s share of the vote in the first democratic elections was just over 65 percent, and not closer to 100 percent, given the unanimity with which so many South Africans publicly greeted the demise of apartheid.
The National Party, still pushing the concept of “Group Rights” – apartheid with a smiling face, in other words – polled more than 20 percent of the votes.
Mandela was betrayed. To the majority of white South Africans, he was a jolly good fellow as long as he wore a Springbok Number 6 jersey at a rugby World Cup. When it came to real reconciliation they were just not interested.
But the betrayal of Mandela was nothing compared with what the sportsmen and sportswomen who fought apartheid had to endure. In many ways, their betrayal was worse because they were hung out to dry by the party that claimed to be bringing freedom and equality to all South Africans.
The unity in rugby, cricket and other sports proved to be nothing of the kind. It was a case of black players being absorbed into the white, apartheid bodies.
Sadly, many black administrators went into these structures with their eyes open. It resulted in the calls for transformation having a conclusion that few people would have predicted. The vast majority of those who were “transformed” were black cricketers and rugby players, who had watched from the outside for so long. The white, apartheid way of doing things remained virtually unscathed and, yes, victorious.
This is why great cricketers like Saait Magiet are today virtually unknown to a younger generation of players and spectators. These former greats have been etched – deliberately so – out of the country’s collective memory.
The only way to rectify this situation is to start anew. To begin with, all apartheid records should be sent to an apartheid museum, the heroes of the struggle should be given their rightful place in the country’s history – and all emblems connected with apartheid sport should be scrapped.