It’s Thando Bula time again

I don’t mind getting things wrong. In fact, I’m pretty good at it. The important thing is to ‘have a go’, to give something your best shot. The old expression about spades and shovels comes to mind.

Almost exactly three years ago an incident occurred in South African cricket which I believed would be a turning point. And I wrote several articles in which I suggested that, in future, players, administrators and supporters would look back on April 10, 2005, and see it as the day the madness peaked – and started to die.
In fact, nobody even seemed to notice, let alone care. South African cricket made a spectacular arse of itself and deeply humiliated a promising young cricketer but nothing changed. For those who missed it, or can’t remember the details, here’s a summary.

Gauteng selected their starting XI for a Standard Bank Pro20 game against the Eagles and started their warm-ups. They had travelled to Sedgars Park in Potchefstroom with a squad of 13 for the match and had met their transformation target of four black players with Garnett Kruger, Enoch Nkwe, Eugene Moleon and Ashraf Mall.

During a knockabout game of six-a-side soccer half an hour before the match started, Mall was hit in the face by the ball which broke his sunglasses. His eyelid was cut, the bleeding (like everything on your face) took an age to stop and he could not see adequately to take his place in the team.

With barely 25 minutes to go before the start, Lions coach Shukri Conrad faced the stark reality that one of either Gerrie de Bruin or Juan le Roux, the 12th and 13th men, both right-handed all-rounders and both white, would have to play. And yet, the possible political ramifications of making such a decision were so intimidating that not even as forthright a man as Conrad was able to make that call.

Just then, the cricketing gods sent a messenger – his name was Thando Bula. A promising prospect with the North West province, Bula had brought some mates to watch the game and thought he’d try his luck with Conrad for a few free tickets. “Never mind the bloody tickets,” was the gist of Conrad’s reply, “what’s your bloody shirt size?!”

And thus did Thando Bula make his one and only appearance for the Lions. A wicket keeper but not required as such, he batted at number ten. I believed that such shoddy treatment based on skin colour would offend many people and maybe even embarrass the politicians. But it did not. Perhaps it was because Thando Bula was a ‘nobody’ in cricket terms.

Charl Langeveldt, however, is most certainly a nobody. An accomplished international cricketer of at least five years standing, his decision to stand down from the Test tour of India was one of the bravest and most significant taken by any individual South African sportsperson since unity.

Make no mistake, the politicians will accuse Langeveldt of ‘betrayal’ and some of those who fought a long and lonely vigil during the Struggle years will feel they have reason to question what they did it for. But the Struggle is over and the unavoidable truth is that more and more South Africans, in all walks of life, now want to succeed through their own endeavours.

Some politicians, no doubt, will ask why it took six days for Langeveldt to withdraw once the squad had been announced. They may even suggest that wicked people had influenced him. Wrong. It took six seconds for Langeveldt to make up his mind and he didn’t just choose to withdraw from the squad, he decided to retire immediately. Such was his anger and humiliation at being labelled a ‘quota player’ at the age of 34 that he decided he would never play for his country again.

The next six days were spent trying to change his mind and calm him down, which, fortunately, has happened. But what will never be eradicated is the feeling that he was shamed and humiliated by his employers.

If 1000 South Africans entered a road race, it would be incumbent on the organisers to ensure that everybody had decent shoes, that everybody had access to water stations, physio points and everything else that goes with road running. And it would also be right to set aside the majority of the 1000 places for disadvantaged runners, most of whom would be black – say 700. But the one thing you can’t do, if you want to preserve the race’s integrity, is stipulate how many black runners must finish in the top ten.

And the top 10, in cricketing terms, is the national team. Langeveldt’s stand will start the long and weary process of helping the politicians to understand that sport and sportsmen, like politicians, want to be the best. But they want to know it in their hearts.

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