Time was, and not so very long ago, when a South African national side’s ideas about team-bonding involved forcing the players to stand naked in foxholes and sing the national anthem while they had buckets of cold water poured over their heads. Times change. In August 2020, the South African cricket squad got together for a “culture camp” in the Kruger National Park where, according to a statement released afterwards by Cricket South Africa, they spent a week working on their “soft skills” by learning to “feel their way through conversations by using the concepts of storytelling, guided conversation and first-person narrative”.
At the end of week they agreed three new “pillars” for the team, “respect, empathy and belonging”, which, the statement explained, meant: “All teammates must be allowed to be themselves in a team environment and not worry about having concerns of being judged.” So, a year later, how’s that working out?
Quinton de Kock’s decision to walk out on the team after CSA ordered the players to take the knee before their game against West Indies suggests they have a way to go yet. Either the team have failed to agree on exactly what they mean by taking the knee, or De Kock objects to it so strongly that he would rather give up his international career. According to reports, De Kock is planning to release a statement explaining why he did it. And while he is not obliged to explain, he ought to, because his silence isn’t achieving anything. Right now whatever point he is making is lost and left open for misinterpretation and misappropriation.
The last time De Kock spoke about his refusal to take the knee, in the West Indies, he said: “My reason? I’ll keep it to myself. It’s my own, personal opinion. It’s everyone’s decision; no one’s forced to do anything, not in life. That’s the way I see things.”
He will need to expand on that now. On Wednesday morning CSA said De Kock was still working out what he wanted to say. South Africa’s captain, Temba Bavuma, did speak, brilliantly. It’s easy to tease, but Bavuma gave a fine example of exactly those “soft skills” the team have apparently been working on developing. “Quinton is an adult, a man in his own shoes, we respect his decision, we respect his convictions, and I know he will be standing behind the decision he has taken,” Bavuma said. “As much as you have the choice to decide what you want to do, you can’t escape the consequences of the choices and decisions we make.”
It has been reported that De Kock’s gesture was aimed at CSA, which, if that is correct, might explain why the governing body’s statement is taking so long. Its decision to insist players take the knee feels like an admission of its own failure, as if unable to persuade the players to agree to line up behind this cause, CSA had to push them into doing it. In a statement on Tuesday the board said it is “imperative for the team to be seen taking a united and consistent stand”. The statement mentioned “South Africa’s history”, but really this is as much about their present-day problems as their past ones.
In July CSA launched a series of Social Justice and Nation Building hearings into racial discrimination in cricket. There are a lot of good South African journalists who have covered both the crisis at Cricket South Africa and the SJN hearings in depth, and if you’re interested in understanding the background to the De Kock incident, it is worth taking the time to read their work and listen to their words.
The headlines coming out of the SJN hearings have made for painful reading, as witness after witness after witness has come forward to talk about their experiences of racial discrimination in South African cricket. Paul Adams described how he was nicknamed “brown shit”, and spoke about how they used to sing “brown shit in the ring” as a victory song, Roger Telemachus talked about a domestic coach painting a black player’s face white as punishment for having dirty boots, Ashwell Prince mentioned the offensive language used in the dressing room about the team’s own fans, and Aaron Phangiso talked about feeling like he was being frozen out of the side.
They all spoke about a team culture that made them feel unwelcome, a culture that was led by a clique of white players, some of them now high up in South African cricket. Like the head coach, Mark Boucher, who has since admitted singing that song about Adams, and apologised for it.
“We were not only naive but were also ill-equipped to deal with the new environment in which we found ourselves,” Boucher wrote in his statement. “To my certain knowledge there had not been any briefing or discussion by CSA as to how we deal with the legacy of Apartheid, how players and management should deal with the additional pressures placed on them by the country and the media, how we ensure that there is equality, respect, empathy and inclusiveness in the team. There was no guidance, no culture discussions, no open fora and no one appointed by CSA to deal with awkwardness or questions or pressures that were being experienced by the players and, in particular, by the players of colour.”
Whatever else he has to say, De Kock won’t have that excuse.