A symbol of past sports struggles

2013-09-30 00:00

DILAPIDATED pavilion to be revamped” (The Witness, September 17): this recent headline brought back a flood of memories. From the mid-seventies, the Tatham Memorial Pavilion ground was used by the non-racial Maritzburg District Cricket Union (MDCU) and for many years, until Khan Road was opened, provided its only turf wicket (at other grounds, Chatterton Road and Brookside, the game was played on matting.)

And it was here on Saturday, March 14, 1981, that I made my debut as a first-class cricket umpire for the Natal Cricket Board, although it was a quarter of a century before Howa Bowl three-day matches were officially recognised as top tier by the international cricket authorities.

It was a sweltering day when Tommy Nair and I walked to the wicket to start the match between Natal and Transvaal. (Pietermaritzburg was the venue for another Howa Bowl match the following December against Eastern Province, due to the sterling efforts of Rajan Moodley and a committed MDCU executive, and the Nair and Merrett combination umpired that fixture as well.) There was a fair crowd (adults R1, pupils 20c) and some of it was already well-lubricated. Just before lunch, with Transvaal batting themselves into trouble, I turned down a loud LBW appeal. Someone on the boundary shouted “Kill the umpire”: somewhat unnerving, but at the break a well-known local club cricketer approached me, produced a serious knife from inside his shirt and said: “Don’t worry, you’re protected”. I wasn’t sure what to worry about most. The following afternoon, thunder clouds loomed. As the ball pitched on the wicket it appeared to give off a white splinter. The batsman, confused, played a mistimed shot onto the onside and the bowler and fielders looked puzzled. Then, immediately, more white splinters. “Dead ball, hail, run” was probably the most unusual umpire’s call I ever made on the cricket field.

It was all a far cry from the third umpires, power plays, decision reviews and sponsors’ boards of today. It could be tough out in the middle for umpires, and in that December’s Eastern Province match The Natal Witness report on the third day mentioned the “petulant and provocative behaviour [of Natal] when decisions went against them”. But by way of compensation, this was cricket of the people and for the people. When the covers had to be brought out and removed for a rain break, spectators came on to assist. And the heavy roller lived up to its name, weighed down by excited neighbourhood children from Fitzsimmons. After each day’s play, and at the end of the match, there was a cheerful sociability presaging the free and democratic South Africa that was closer than we dared hope.

From the distance of over 30 years, I can own up to the fact that every other over, from my umpire’s position at square leg, I allowed myself to ponder the historical and political significance of our cricket and the extraordinarily turbulent times through which we were then living. The importance of non-racial sport has been well-documented. Most importantly, perhaps, it challenged the rigid social geography imposed by the Group Areas Act. And it was one of few opportunities under a vicious police state to demonstrate what a future South Africa might look like. It was solid evidence that our society would not always reflect the preferences of a small group of reactionary whites, however threatening they appeared: Gerrit Viljoen, minister of education, called anti-apartheid sportspeople like the cricketers playing at Tatham “sports terrorists”.

It was a dangerously irresponsible, potentially murderous, accusation in those times with a security branch running amok. Fully alert, of course, to possible stumpings and run-outs, such thoughts occupied my mind at square leg (our games were played with eight-ball overs, so time was generous). But there were also the immediate surroundings. Tatham was well-kept, but sparsely furnished. Apart from the pavilion, then 44 years old, there was little seating and no permanent scoreboard. But the historic symbolism of the ground was enormous for the African population of Pietermaritzburg. Both colonialism and apartheid had systematically diminished the rights of African people to live and work in urban areas. Put simply, policy was to remove any African person surplus to the strict labour requirements of cities. And apart from a small elite such as court interpreters and municipal employees, for whom Sobantu was built, the rest of the African population of Pietermaritzburg was regarded as temporary. And, logically to the official mind, there was no need to provide facilities for them.

The Tatham Memorial Pavilion, built in 1937, was an exception. It represented explicit recognition of the need by African people for recreational space and its implicit message was that they had a permanent right to be in Pietermaritzburg. Up to that point the only real evidence of this was the beerhall, from which the profits of inebriation were ploughed back into so-called native administration.

There can be no doubt that there were mixed motives behind provision of the Tatham football field, which was also used for athletics. One was to keep Africans away from the city centre, Market Square in particular, during their hours off work. The pavilion, erected to the memory of Judge F.S. Tatham at a cost of £1 330, had an undoubted imperial, paternalist meaning. But its opening on July 28, 1937, was considered important enough to require the presence of the Governor-General, Sir Patrick Duncan, who described a growing consciousness of the health and recreational needs of Africans in urban areas.

Msunduzi Municipality’s recent decision about the Tatham Memorial Pavilion is good news. Such sites with historic meaning should be preserved, respected and put to an appropriate use. In the case of the Berg Street Swimming Baths, which have similar significance for the Indian population of the city (erected in the mid-sixties, after decades of effort and several river drownings) they should be restored to their former use. The struggles of the oppressed of the past must not be forgotten: the assets of their endeavours should provide a symbolic reminder.

• letters@witness.co.za

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