The ‘Thando Bula incident’

In the years to come perhaps future generations of South African cricketers, supporters and administrators will look back on Sunday, April 10, 2005, and remember the Standard Bank Pro20 match between the Highveld Lions and the Goodyear Eagles as being the day on which South African cricket started its transition to normality.

For those who haven’t heard, it went like this:

Gauteng selected their starting XI and set about warming up for the game. They had travelled to Sedgars Park in Potchefstroom with a squad of 13 for their ‘home’ 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 sun glasses. His eye lid 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 realises that one of either Gerrie de Bruin or Juan le Roux, the 12th and 13th men, both right handed all rounders and both white, will have to play.

This will, of course, mean that the Lions will not be able to meet their transformation target for the game. Given the circumstances, Conrad is confident that the UCB will understand and forgive the Franchise. But he thought it wise to check with his boss, Gauteng president, Cricket South Africa director and member of the executive committee, Barry Skjoldhammer.

Remarkably, Skjoldhammer is not empowered to make such a decision so he started frantically telephoning the men who are. Their phones are either switched off or remain unanswered. Eventually, the president informs his coach that he will have to make a plan. He cannot afford to take the risk of censure.

Conrad’s horrified response about “what plan??!” were met with a sad, resigned shrug of the shoulders.

Then, just as he was considering a visit into the student-populated section of the crowd with the vague and desperate hope of finding a club cricketer to help meet the transformation target, he receives a request on his cell phone from a local cricketer for complimentary tickets to see the match.

His prayers answered, Conrad quickly arranges to meet the player at the gate. Then he tells him: “Never mind tickets, my boy, come to the change room – you’re playing!”

His name was Thandisizwe Andrew Bula, born in Whittlesea in the Cape on January 1, 1981. A wicket-keeper with a modest batting record, Thando’s day had taken a very sudden and very unexpected twist. He did not, of course, keep wicket and neither did he bowl. He batted at number nine and made a two-ball duck as the Lions were bowled out for 95 in pursuit of the Eagles’ record total of 225.

Transformation is good thing. Actually, it is a great thing and something all South Africans should be proud of. Those who remain in the game without a desire to share its joys and pleasures with the whole nation deserve to be weeded out and removed, be they players, supporters or administrators.

When targets were abolished two years ago we all knew that it was simply the word quotas that had been abolished, not the quota itself. And that was no bad thing. If the world of business has black empowerment targets imposed upon it to give equal opportunity to everyone in society, then shouldn’t sport?

But there has to be a degree of flexibility, some small key-hole through which common sense can slip occasionally to remind us that we are all, after all, the same. That black and white are, after all, the same, when the centuries-old layers of prejudice are stripped away.

Mall, Bula and Conrad – the key players in this play of hilarious black humour – are all black and all thought it was madness of the highest order.

In fact, everyone I’ve spoken to thinks it was madness and nobody has even suggested a person or principle that can have benefited from what happened. But then, I’ve tried calling the same people Skjoldhammer called – and I can’t get through, either.

So remember this day, ladies and gentlemen, and remember Thando Bula as the man who first pointed important heads and hearts in the right direction.


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