The fight for justice for England cricketer Azeem Rafiq was massive but there wasn’t the same fight when South African cricketers spoke out, writes MARK KEOHANE in his regular IOL column.
The conversation about racism can never stop happening, but in South Africa, the conversation is always brought to an abrupt halt, especially when it comes to our sporting teams.
England cricket’s institutional racism and class prejudice was put on display last week, when former Yorkshire player Azeem Rafiq exposed the ugliest side of the English game.
Rafiq’s testimony to the British parliament was disturbing and harrowing. The things he said and experiences he shared were just awful.
The South African media extensively reported on Rafiq’s testimony and South Africans dominated social media commentary, with the majority disgusted at what they had heard.
The fight for justice and for Rafiq was massive, but there simply wasn’t the same fight when South African cricketers earlier this year spoke out about their experience of playing for the Proteas, of being in a prejudiced cricket system and of the racial abuse and emotional bullying.
Ashwell Prince’s testimony was so difficult to absorb because when he spoke, there was just so much hurt and sadness in his voice.
Prince was an exceptional cricketer and a bloody good international batsman, but he said it was “no dream” to play for South Africa.
Prince spoke of a Proteas team fractured because of skin colour and privilege.
“We weren’t a team,” said Prince. He detailed that when he scored a Test century against Australia at Newlands, then his home ground, he did it playing alongside men who in a franchise match the week earlier had insulted him and called him a “quota player”.
A pained Prince said that when he got to his century, he raised his bat to his parents, then to his wife on the other side of the stadium and, reluctantly, to his teammates.
“If I had a choice, I wouldn’t have raised my bat to them. We weren’t a team.”
Social media in South Africa erupted, but not in the way it has with Rafiq because Prince got attacked for saying what he did. White South Africans went on the defensive and aimed more insults at Prince and any player of colour who had testified to the Social Justice and Nation-building commission took a beating for apparently speaking out after the fact.
Here’s the thing, there is no after the fact, but only the fact that class prejudice and racism remains entrenched in the game and in South African society, as is the case with England.
Players like Prince, in South Africa, and Rafiq, in England, were given an opportunity to speak in a formalised environment. The duo, as just two examples, spoke without agenda and they spoke from the heart. They spoke of their pain and suffering.
What these players explained was closer to torture than a lived experience. The emotional abuse and the continuous backdrop of ridicule were because they were not white.
They played through and lived through every white South African and English racial stereotype and the only way the next generation of players will not experience this abuse is if we in South Africa continue to talk about the reality of the situation and, with this conversation, we continue to challenge those racist mindsets that dominate environments.
The predictable response from the abusers has been that they were joking and didn’t see the harm in what they said and if they in any way offended the players in question, they apologise because it was never their intention. But that is just nonsense.
It was their intention to insult and to racially abuse, otherwise they wouldn’t have said the things they did.
Three national teammates calling Prince a “quota player” is not sledging. It is racist. They meant it.
The white Yorkshire players telling Rafiq and other players with Asian heritage to sit near the toilets and describing them as “elephant washers” was racist, and disgustingly so. That was no joke, but still those white players can’t seem to acknowledge the racists they are.
Rafiq was born in Pakistan and moved to England when he was 10 years old. He captained England at youth level but he was never viewed as English. He was called a Paki, a derogatory racist insult for someone with Pakistan heritage.
He, like so many South African players of colour, admitted that they tolerated the ongoing racial abuse because they feared that any challenge could end their career.
And they weren’t wrong in this thinking because whenever a player did take on the system, the player was gone.
The consequence of Rafiq’s testimony has forced several prominent individuals to resign their posts and apologise for endorsing the racism.
In South Africa, this hasn’t been the case.
The Proteas coach and former international Mark Boucher, who was part of a group who nicknamed former national teammate Paul Adams ‘brown shit’ continues to coach the Proteas. There has been no consequence and there has been little remorse shown by the white South Africans in question when it comes to testimony of players of colour.
Equally, there has been very little consistent media coverage when it should be a daily discussion.
Prince, in South Africa, and Rafiq, in England, were not a one-day occasion and the only way to transform and effect change is if the conversation continues and those perpetrators can actually for once shut up, listen and absorb the stories of those they racially abused.