global goals

A Transformation in South African Cricket

In South Africa, where athletic participation often falls along racial lines, the movement to diversify traditionally white sports is known as transformation.

by Megan Hart
09 October 2015, 10:03am


VICE is covering the launch of the Global Goals for sustainable development. In the next fifteen years, they want to achieve three massive tasks: end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and fix climate change.

On a sunny winter afternoon, Thami Tsolekile pulled up in his black BMW sedan to the athletic fields on the eastern edge of Langa Township, about 15 minutes from Cape Town's city center. Residents of Langa joke that BMW stands for "Black Man's Wish," and Tsolekile's ride serves as a sign that he's made it. Now 34, Tsolekile plays wicket keeper for the Highveld Lions, at the highest level of domestic cricket. During the season, he is based in Johannesburg; the rest of the year, he still calls Langa home.

After fiddling with the stereo for a moment, Tsolekile got out of his car and walked around to its trunk. He pulled out his field hockey bag—Tsolekile was once a member of South Africa's national field hockey team, and now plays recreationally—and went to join his Langa Club teammates in the small locker room they shares with visiting opponents, that day a squad from the sleepy Cape Town suburb of Fish Hoek.

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Next to the locker room is Langa's makeshift sports hall of fame, where two of Tsolekile's national team jerseys share a frame: one a field hockey tank top and the other a collared cricket shirt. Tsolekile is one of only seven black cricketers out of 85 in total to have played a Test match, the most esteemed version of the game, as a member of South Africa's national team since the country was reinstated to the International Cricket Council in 1991 following a 21-year ban during apartheid. His tenure with the team was short-lived—only three matches, in 2004—but it cemented his status as a hero in his hometown.

Most South African townships were created during apartheid, but Langa was established earlier, in 1927, as dormitory-style housing for black male laborers. Today, the township contains a mix of wooden shacks topped with corrugated aluminum sheets as well as middle- and upper-class homes belonging to doctors, lawyers and professional athletes like Tsolekile. Langa is also unique among townships in that it has produced a number of black professional cricketers in recent years.

Thami Tsolekile, left, during a Test match against England in 2004. Photo by Jon Hrusa/EPA

Sports participation in South Africa is often divided along racial lines. Though nearly 80 percent of the population is black, the racial makeup of the national cricket team offers no hint of it; the Proteas, the No. 1 ranked Test team in the world, have three black players in their current squad.

In South Africa, the movement to develop non-white athletes in traditionally white sports is known as transformation. The topic of transformation was catapulted into the public consciousness in 2014 when sports minister Fikile Mbalula threatened to ban national teams with less than 60 percent black players from representing South Africa in international competitions. His comments came after a study by the ministry showed that the number of black players on the country's national cricket and rugby teams would need to increase threefold in order to reach the ministry's target of 50 percent.

In the past two years, Cricket South Africa, the sport's governing body, has reinvested in programmes that aim to encourage more black children to play the sport, and to identify the ones who are talented enough to compete at elite levels. An integral part of its plan is the creation of regional performance centers that will be linked to area schools. Last year, the organization more than doubled its development budget, now nearly $1.4 million, with the majority of that extra money going to these centers. Eventually, there will be one in Langa.

"What Cricket South Africa is doing, pumping money into townships, I think will help bridge the gap," said Siya Simetu, who grew up in Langa and played professional cricket for the Cape Cobras. Children in most townships lack access to the facilities, equipment, and coaching they need to be successful in cricket, Simetu continued. With its regional performance centers, Cricket South Africa is hoping to address that problem. The solution might demand more than mere money.

David Bogopa, a professor who specializes in sports development at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, said that adding adequate athletic facilities to most townships is a tricky task. Most township schools, for example, were built during apartheid, when the curriculum for black students did not include any physical education. "The existing infrastructure does not allow for the inclusion of cricket fields within these schools," Bogopa said.

The vast majority of black cricketers who have made it to the professional level did not attend township schools at all. Simetu, for example, went to Bishops Diocesan College, a private school in a swanky area of Cape Town. "I'm more privileged than most of the guys playing in Langa, having gone to a white school and learned what it takes to be competitive," he said. More than 35 percent of national team players since 1991 went to the same 10 private high schools, Bishops being one of them.

Cricket South Africa has begun offering scholarships so that talented township players can attend the handful of schools that have had success producing professionals. Though this may be the best tactic for developing the next black Protea, it serves only a tiny fraction of township cricketers. South Africa does not have the same type of sporting substructure that exists in Britain and the United States, where scouts search every nook and cranny that might hide talent. Even for skilled players, the chances of receiving a scholarship are slim.

According to South Africa's 2011 census, nearly 80 percent of the country's population is black. This was the national cricket team that year. Photo by Jon Hrusa/EPA

The most controversial element of Cricket South Africa's strategy for increasing the number of black players is its implementation of a quota system. In 2004, quotas were installed at the highest level of domestic cricket, requiring teams to field at least four players of color, but not necessarily four black Africans. Quotas have increased over the years. For the upcoming season, teams must have at least six players of color on their rosters, including at least three black Africans.

The quotas appear to be working: last season, about 25 percent of professional players were black, a number that exceeded even Cricket South Africa's goal of fielding about 18 percent black players. Still, there have been cases of what appears to be tokenism. When Simetu was called up to the Cape Cobras for a one-day tournament in 2013, for example, he barely saw any action in the four games he played, and he was the only player whose name did not appear on the T-shirt the team produced after it won the event.

There are no quotas when it comes to international cricket, although a report in the Sunday Times alleged that Mbalula put pressure on the Proteas coach to include an injured black player on the World Cup roster over a healthy white player earlier this year. Many critics claim that selecting black players over white players based on skin color rather than merit is only setting them up to fail.

Some cite Zimbabwe's cricket history when talking about South Africa's quota system. Over a dozen white players refused to play for Zimbabwe's national team after the country installed a strict quota system for the 2000-01 season. After that, the quality of cricket in Zimbabwe declined sharply. Currently, Zimbabwe is ranked last among the ten countries that play Test cricket.

Simetu, though, remains in favor of quotas, especially at the age group level. One of the reasons that private schools are able to produce cricketers so prolifically is that players gain considerable experience facing off against other good-quality athletes. Lack of access to facilities, equipment, and transportation, of course, contribute to the dearth in competition that young black cricketers face, but so does a lack of interest.

A boy playing in Langa, where, like most other townships, football is still king. Photo by Nic Bothma/EPA

Football owns most townships, Langa included. Walk into a shebeen—township bars where women still brew traditional maize beer—and ask a group of customers their thoughts on cricket, and the answers will not inspire a lot of enthusiasm. Mention South Africa's Premier Football League, though, and it's a different story. People pack sports bars to watch games and the streets are full of children playing it.

Porto Gobodo, grew up playing cricket in Langa. His team was sponsored by the Western Province Cricket Club, so it had all the resources it needed to be successful. Many of his friends, though, were more interested in football. Gobodo, now 32, was born when South Africa was still under apartheid rule, at which time football was the only sport that black athletes were allowed to play professionally. As a result, there is a rich history of black footballers in South Africa. Today, the vast majority of PSL players and fans are black. "Football is associated more with money," Gobodo said. "In cricket maybe one of ten guys make it, but in football maybe nine out of ten do."

Still, cricket in Langa seems to be making progress. 12-year-old Lifa lives in one of Langa's poor areas. He started out playing cricket in the street with his friends, and was later approached by a coach about joining a team. It's encouraging, Lifa explained, to see guys like Thami Tsolekile around the neighborhood. In Langa, they're inspiring and scouting out the next generation of cricketers. At the end of the year, they will host the second annual Langa Cricket Festival. If Cricket South Africa is going to meet the ministry's goals, other townships will need to embrace the sport. Langa's players alone will not be enough to transform it.

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