Trusting ‘the system’ is today’s problem

Perhaps it’s because I’m a life-long freelancer who’s never known the comfort and security of a regular monthly salary but when I read and heard claims by some former black players that they had been paid less than their equivalent white colleagues it struck me as the most vile form of prejudice, if true. They needed to be investigated.

So far, I have encountered no obstruction or prevarication but a good deal of reassuring indignation. It would appear that my abhorrence at the thought of race playing a part in players’ remuneration is widely shared.

Ethy Mbhalati was one of several players who claimed he was underpaid compared to his white colleagues when he started at Northerns but this is hotly denied by the province which says it has all the paperwork and evidence to show that there was no disparity. They also point out that he was amongst the highest paid players at the end of his career.

Eddie Leie claimed in a radio interview that he was paid just R9000 when he toured India with the Proteas at the end of 2015 while some of the players received as much as R600,000. The numbers are easily checked and a matter of public record.

The tour was a comprehensive one featuring four Test matches, five ODIs and two T20 Internationals. Leie was only a member of the T20 squad and the Lions leg-spinner did not play either game as the spinning duties were performed by Imran Tahir and J-P Duminy. SACA’s MOU with CSA stipulated that one match fee (R9000) was split between the 12th and 13th men so Leie and Quinton de Kock, who also didn’t play a game, both received R9000. (The MOU was subsequently changed in 2018 so that all non-playing squad members received an equal share of two match fees.)

The match fee was higher for ODIs and significantly more for Test matches, but even so, those players who played in every game on tour (AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis) would have earned a total of R440,000 in match fees.

But here’s what matters far more than the facts. If Mbhalati and Leie – and many others – were under the impression that they were victims of a deeply pernicious prejudice, that’s almost as bad as if it was true. And let’s be honest here – it was far from unusual for pay disparity to exist in other walks of life and professions and it’s still the abhorrent case today.

It may be naive and optimistic to hope for more calm and less assumption when it comes to allegations of racial bias – after all, I have almost no experience of it other than being robustly put in my place by a Jamaican barman in Kingston once he found out where I was from.

But the fear is that momentum in the move for change and equality will be lost if accusations of prejudicial treatment and behaviour are made more on emotion than fact. Although it may be tempting in the current climate for disillusioned former and current black players to pile their grievances into the same folder, they will carry less weight if the facts are incorrect.

Eddie Leie is right to feel that R9000 seems scant reward for earning Proteas selection and going on a short tour to India but there was nothing ‘personal’ about the terms and conditions of his remuneration. If he believes he should have played at least one game, that is a different issue – and he may well have a point. It was a long way to go to carry drinks.

It has occurred to me often that selection criteria in South Africa should follow a less conventional pattern. Runs, wickets and averages have always provided a limited insight into a players’ ability and potential. If a privileged batsman averages 35 with all the benefits of a leafy, suburban lifestyle and another averages 30 but has spent an additional three hours a day getting to and from training, perhaps that should be actively factored into the equation.

There is more than enough evidence of inequality, both conscious and subconscious, that will have to be addressed if South Africa’s new road ahead progresses as everyone hopes. But it will require trust, and that will be extremely difficult for thousands of cricketers who have seen little reason to trust the system so far.

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