OPINION | We need to abandon the notion that there is no place for politics in sport

Lungi Ngidi. (AFP)
Lungi Ngidi. (AFP)

It is often said that there is no place for politics in sport, but it is a notion that, in South Africa, cannot exist.

The history of this country and the marginalisation of our black sports people make it so.

For decades, this country's finest sporting products were starved of opportunities to showcase their talents on the grandest stages because of the colour of their skin. It is a travesty of justice that must be acknowledged and, wherever possible, rectified.

Yet, when sportsmen and sportswomen are asked questions of a political nature, they are often reluctant to engage. They are paid to perform on the field, and cannot all be experts in matters of politics, but more than that they are mindful that they need to nurture relationships with both their sponsors and the organisations they represent. 

Politics, after all, can be a messy space where opinions are as diverse as they are passionate. 

This week, one of South African cricket's brightest black talents was asked for his views on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that has been thrust back into international prominence for over a month now since the senseless killing of American George Floyd.

The global sporting community has lent its collective voice to the movement and has called for an urgency in eradicating racism on all fronts. 

From the English Premier League to Formula One, to Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent's powerful messages on the rained-out first session of the Southampton Test between England and the West Indies, the sporting community has weighed in on this issue. 

It is important, because sports stars have platforms to access sections of society that politicians cannot. 

The reach of megastars like Lewis Hamilton and Marcus Rashford and the influence they have in altering the views of a young generation that is not always tuned into politics and current affairs cannot be measured. 

If all lives mattered, there would be no need for a movement like Black Lives Matter, and there is an acceptance in the sporting world and beyond that racism still exists and that it manifests in an array of ugly ways.  

To ignore that is surely to expose one's own ignorance, particularly in a country like South Africa where our past means that we have all seen, first-hand, the ghastly impact of racism.

When asked about the need to stand alongside that acknowledgement at a press conference this week, 24-year-old Proteas fast bowler Lungi Ngidi spoke openly and firmly, highlighting the seriousness of the issue.  

"It's definitely something I believe we would be addressing as a team. And if we're not, it's obviously something that I would bring up. It's something that we need to take seriously, like the rest of the world is doing. We need to make a stand," were his exact words.

Ngidi did not say that other lives do not matter. He did not argue that farm murders, or murders of any kind, were more acceptable. He did not offer commentary on anything other than that, as a black man, he sees a need to unite behind a movement that seeks equality. 

A different tune

The reactions of the likes of Pat Symcox and Boeta Dippenaar, who questioned Ngidi's stance, were highly publicised and rightly criticised. But they were two of many similar views that were shared on social media by people who felt that a sportsman should not be using his platform to comment on matters of politics.

Ngidi did not come out and offer support for BLM in a radical way. He did not take a knee. He did not refuse to sing an anthem. He answered a question that was asked of him. Yet, his views still triggered a certain section of the public into exposing the obliviousness that still exists on this issue.

"What nonsense is this. He must take his own stand if he wishes. Stop trying to get Proteas involved in his belief," was Symcox's reaction.

"Now when Ngidi has his next meal perhaps he would rather consider supporting the farmers of South Africa who are under pressure right now. A cause worth supporting," he continued.

Yet, when Holding spoke about white privilege and racism in society and the need for education to bring about equality, Symcox sang a different tune. 

"I so like the fact that Michael Holding is prepared to and more importantly allowed to speak what he believes in and what his opinion is," Symcox wrote in one tweet.

Why did Symcox not afford Ngidi the same courtesy?

I spoke to Boeta Dippenaar on Friday morning and his issues with BLM are aimed at the organisation itself and not the fight against racism. He believes that the organisation is founded on principles of Marxism that he cannot agree with. He is allowed to have that opinion and he is allowed to view it.

Why, though, is his immediate reaction to point to another issue – farm murders, in this case – as a counter-argument to Ngidi's belief that the Proteas should be united behind BLM? 

"If you want me to stand shoulder to shoulder with you Lungi then stand shoulder to shoulder with me with regards to farm attacks," Dippenaar posed. 

Ngidi, by many, was deemed as unqualified to comment on this matter, and that in itself highlights prejudice.

The events of the past few weeks have shown the power of sport in breaking down barriers and altering mindsets beyond the white lines of competition. 

Instead of being attacked for sharing such views, our sports stars should be encouraged to do so.

On Friday, former Proteas batsman and current Cape Cobras coach Ashwell Prince - inspired by Ngidi, Holding and Rainford-Brent - opened up on his own experiences of racism in cricket and how, during his playing days, there were different rules for different members of the Proteas set-up based on race. 

Stop and listen

It was another powerful reminder of the divisions that have existed in South African society and in our cricket. 

Would anyone, as they did with Ngidi, tell Prince that he was not qualified to speak on such issues? We can only hope not. 

When a person of colour shares his or her views on racism and how it has impacted them, the first thing a white person should do is stop and listen. That is a mindshift that needs to be made across the board, but it is one that clearly hasn't landed everywhere. 

We need to acknowledge that, in South Africa, sport cannot be separated from politics because it was the politics that created these issues of division in the first place. 

Ngidi has not had an easy week. He has become the centre of a conversation that has included some incredibly narrow-minded and personal attacks, but the value of speaking out far outweighs anything else. 

If more involved in South African sport, like Prince, begin sharing their stories, then the outcome can only be positive because it forces an introspection into the system that is uncomfortable but necessary. 

The intolerant push-back against a global push for equality needs to be challenged, and the events of the last week have shown that our sports heroes can play a major role in that fight. 

They are far more than Proteas or Springboks. They are South Africans with a platform to help spark the change that is needed to take this country forward. 

Let them speak.

Lloyd Burnard is a senior writer at Sport24, an award-winning sports journalist and former sports editor of The Witness newspaper.

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24. 

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