Outline of my ethics and my cricket

2008-06-20 00:00

Craving indulgence, but a question of ethics has been raised and a response is required.

During the week a reader remarked upon this column’s hostility towards the killers across the Limpopo and pondered upon my attitude towards previous tyrannies in the neighbourhood. Was apartheid treated with the same contempt? It is a question of legitimacy. Previously, cricket writers were not expected to address issues of this sort, but times have changed. No longer is it possible to imagine that the game belongs in another world. Sports writers are political writers, and vice versa.

Happily this column has been consistent. Apartheid and those running cricket at the time were indeed subjected to the same scrutiny as Mugabe, Chingoka and other Zimbabwean rulers and multi-millionaires. It is a matter of record. Rejecting racism of any sort has long been my strongest motivation. Now and then crucial matters like batting averages pushed it to the back of the mind, but it never entirely went away. Admiration for the civil rights leaders of the1960s was followed by respect for fighters like Lech Walesa, the Polish docker who defied the communist despots running his country. My first house was named in his honour. My last book was dedicated to the the Englishmen who exposed the horrendous way Belgian colonialists treated the Congolese.

Whenever the opportunity arose, and long before it became fashionable, I spoke out against apartheid. Although still a child when South Africa was due to tour England in 1971, I had played for Somerset 2nd XI and attended meetings on the topic. Only three county cricketers refused to play against that team, Mike Brearley, Peter Lever and Tom Cartwright. Cartwright was my coach, mentor and fellow traveller. Dismayed by this lacklustre reaction, I wanted to add my name to the list, but was thwarted.

Eventually the opportunity arose to say something. Writing for newspapers in England, Australia and India, I regularly assailed the system and advocated a sporting boycott. To that end I helped in the formation of an anti-apartheid group and spoke on the topic at a public meeting in London.

A cosy relationship existed between English cricket and South Africa. Indeed, it is not so long ago that mercenaries who made a pile of money in this country in those years dominated the England selection committee and MCC. Condemning them was isolating, but suggestions that my career suffered can be ignored. I kept missing the ball.

Finally, I visited South Africa. It was 1990 and white cricket was celebrating an anniversary.

Aware of my position, Ali Bacher did not issue an invitation, but changes were afoot and I wanted to have a look around. To the dismay of liberal friends, a delicate lot impressed by their refusal to buy tainted apples, I expressed interest in attending the centenary, but only on my terms.

Disdaining official functions, I went to Excelsior to interview Mr Van Riet, an ally of Alan Paton’s, drove around Alexandra with the Watson brothers and attended a Black Sash meeting. Meanwhile, Donald Woods had become a friend and as a result I was invited to meet Mr Nelson Mandela at the South African Embassy in London.

Annoyed by the way anti-aparthied people washed their hands of this country as soon as the regime fell, I started paying regular visits, coaching free of charge and so forth. Five years ago I decided to spend winters here, playing some minor part in local life.

Involvement in Zimbabwean affairs was more accidental, and sprang from a marimba concert given at a Test match in Harare. To cut a long story short, it turned out that the players were orphans with bleak prospects. Accordingly I adopted them with the intention of providing a home and education for a group that rapidly grew to 20. It was no hardship. I had always wanted to live in Africa. Alas, it was impossible to remain in Zimbabwe. Therefore, they came to study at UKZN and other admirable institutions hereabouts. Now an educational trust has been formed to give local youngsters the same chance.

My rage against Mugabe and cohorts is driven by love of that country and its people, and a hatred of repression and greed. It is also personal. I know many people who have suffered for their beliefs, or died prematurely of some untreated ailment. My condemnation of those running Zimbabwean cricket is founded upon their cynicism. Corruption must be exposed whenever it arises for, though it often pretends otherwise, it is no friend of liberty. If the progressives replace the fascists in Zimbabwe, we will go back to try to lend a hand.

None of it has anything to do with white privilege. Quite the contrary. Plenty of weaknesses have been detected in my character and my work … but on this point they pass muster.

•PETER ROEBUCK, an international cricket commentator and writer, lives in the KZN midlands.

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