Rebuilding, reforming and renewing a broken institution is the task of Sisyphus. Two pushes of the heavy ball up a steep hill, at least one roll back down. Ask Cyril Ramaphosa. Or Franklin D Roosevelt. Or Lawson Naidoo, the still relatively new chair of Cricket South Africa.
American magnate Warren Buffet once famously quipped about business that “it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” In politics – and apparently in sporting politics too – you can reframe the proposition: it takes 20 years to destroy a reputation but a lot longer than five minutes to rebuild it.
Ask Ramaphosa. Again. Or Naidoo. Again.
They are both trying to rebuild, reform and renew broken institutions – the South African democratic state, looted and captured by Jacob Zuma and his racketeering criminally-enabled network; and, the governing body of the beautiful game of cricket, listing dangerously after many years of neglectful governance and incompetent leadership.
One of their biggest challenges is the drag factor of a broken reputation. It creates a massive credibility gap. So even when, like Ramaphosa in the State of the Nation Address in February, you announce serious and sensible steps to address major problems, few people believe you can get it done.
The jaundiced view predominates. In radio interviews after the address I could not “sell” Ramaphosa for love or money. His stock had fallen so far, not because people think he’s corrupt or dishonest or not serious-minded, but because they judge today by the standards of the recent past, which can cast a surprisingly long as well as dark shadow.
So, because Ramaphosa was preceded by Zuma, who is widely understood to be the primary cause of state capture thanks to Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s protracted judicial commission of inquiry, and because Zuma and his miserable mob continue to distract and obstruct wherever they can, and because they are all part of a political party that many South Africans have now concluded is beyond repair or redemption, whatever he says or does is often cynically dismissed.
Naidoo’s problem is similar. For years, CSA has been plagued by maladministration and mismanagement – often with a particular focus on narrow self-interest. The current board is quite different – majority-independent, highly skilled in numerous areas, and focused only on the game. But regardless of what Naidoo says or does, a certain group of cricket observers will ignore the facts, and context, and lash out belligerently.
This is as unfair as it is ahistorical and acontextual.
Now, let me quickly declare an interest. Naidoo is one of my closest of friends. And we have plenty of common professional interests. So my positive view of his impeccable integrity, of his passionate devotion to the game of cricket, as well his deep commitment to social justice, may well be unduly prejudiced in his favour.
But hear me out, because my defence of what is unfolding in CSA, and especially with regard to the Social Justice and Nation-building (SJN) process that led to disciplinary and other proceedings being brought against both coach Mark Boucher and director of cricket Graeme Smith, has little or nothing to do with Naidoo’s character or even his judgement, but everything to do with a proper reading of both the facts and fair process.
Apartheid was a deeply racist system. It had deep cultural roots that permeated every nook and cranny of South African life. Uprooting it and its legacy is a long process – another Sisyphean task.
Moreover, some of its entrails are insidious. Take the team culture that apparently prevailed within the Proteas for a long period beyond the democratic transition in 1994. White privilege and discriminatory attitudes and acts – some of them directly discriminatory and some of them indirectly so – pervaded the dressing room and its organisational surrounds.
Numerous black players have said so and many of them gave evidence at the SJN hearings.
Now, it would seem that there are plenty of white people who are unwilling to accept this. Instead, they seem to relish the opportunity to lambast the CSA for what they perceive to be its clumsiness and poor timing.
I recall a typical Tweet in February during the ODI series between the Proteas and India. It went something like this: “Proteas win a glorious test series victory and are one nil up against India in the ODIs. All is well in the world. Hold my beer say CSA: let’s launch disciplinary proceedings against the coach”.
This is typical white South African privilege at work. And it is sickening. Never mind the racial injustice of the past, never mind that individual black players were the subject of racist slurs from among their own white teammates, never mind that the current coach was one such player – and accepts that he used such language and that it was wrong – to the white privileged Tweeter it is an annoying inconvenience.
Get out of my way, I’m trying to watch the cricket.
This blinkered, selfish, ahistorical, acontextual, and plainly racist view of life still prevails in some quarters. Those in power have a responsibility, moral and legal, to continue the job of vanquishing it from South African life – in politics, in government, in the economy, in society and in sport.
More power to their elbow.
But back to the facts. It was not the current board of CSA, appointed under a new, reformed governance regime in which non-executives are in the majority, but a previous board that launched the SJN and appointed its chair, the Ombudsman Dumisa Ntsebeza SC.
Ntsebeza is a national treasure. Truly independent, quirky at times, but with a profound commitment to justice. He has served his country with great distinction and devotion to duty.
The SJN hearings were well set up and managed – at least in my own direct experience, having given evidence before Ntsebeza on issues of organisational governance and strategy. In one passage of my written submission, I stated the following:
“…since sport is one of the most accurate mirrors of society, it is not surprising that while significant advances have been made since 1994, there is still a very long way to go in order to achieve the constitutional vision of a society in which everyone can live with dignity, in which there is substantive as well as procedural equality in all walks of life. The fact that there is a great deal more to be done applies to the game of cricket in South Africa. In my view, the facts speak for themselves. The fact that, for example, since 1994 only one black African batsman of international quality (Temba Bavuma) has emerged is inexplicable, inexcusable and unacceptable. It is equally clear to me that white players, in general, continue to get more chances to prove themselves, and are treated differently from black players. Again, Bavuma is a good example: he has been in and out of the team, moved up and down the order, and when he was dropped in late 2019, Proteas’ coach Mark Boucher’s comments, in which he claimed to “understand the need for transformation” but then undermined his statement by the way in which he sought to justify his decision, patronising Bavuma, by then an experienced player with around 40 Test caps, in a way that was borderline racist or at least a ‘classic’ example of an ‘inarticulate premise’ held by some white people that black people/players are perennially or permanently ‘young’, ‘inexperienced’, ‘learning the game’, or ‘transformation selections’. This was a very revealing moment, indicative of a prevailing prejudicial attitude in leadership structures in the Proteas set up and more broadly in the game in South Africa.”
So, in my view, the SJN hearings were a good thing. And I have reason to believe that many members of South Africa’s black cricketing community believe so too, including those who gave evidence and were carefully listened to by Ntsebeza – playing the same role that Archbishop Desmond Tutu played with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Ntsebeza provided a safe space for black players to come forward and tell their truth.
But the reality that cannot easily be said by anyone is that although the SJN hearings were an important and very valuable exercise, the report that emerged was not so helpful. The notion of a “tentative finding” is legally troublesome. What is one supposed to do with that? Is it a finding or not?
Well, now we know, following two independent inquiries, that the answer is “not”. As a result of the inquiries, Smith was cleared of allegations of racism and disciplinary charges against Boucher have now been dropped.
Smith and Boucher are greatly loved by a segment of the South African cricketing public, in whose eyes they can do no wrong. Challenging or criticising them is apparently an act of treason.
So, the current CSA board has borne the brunt of fierce criticism, even though it neither appointed Ntsebeza and nor can be held responsible for his “tentative findings”. But the fact that they did appoint the two independent inquiries that have cleared things up in relation to their two peerless cricketing heroes goes unrecognised.
Imagine if they had not done so. It would have been disastrous for CSA, for Smith, for Boucher and for South African cricket.
Sport encourages one-eyedness. When the whistle blows many of us will suspend our usual quest for reason and balance in favour of passionate partisanship. It is a motive force within the addictive escapism that sport can so often inspire, whether playing or watching.
It is one of the major reasons we love it so much. If opera requires suspension of disbelief, then often to enjoy sport to its rhapsodic full requires the putting aside of habitual standards of what is fair and reasonable.
But those who sustain such a cock-eyed approach beyond the game itself and into the corridors of sporting governance can do great harm to the game itself. Administrators should be held to account, and often they are very far from perfect in the execution of their responsibilities, but context is everything, and a fair appraisal of the facts is necessary.
Like Ramaphosa, Naidoo has mountain to climb. Because of what history bestowed them both, it will clearly take a long time to restore trust and credibility in their respective institutions. However much impatience is justified, they are equally deserving of a balanced estimation of their performance while in office.