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What South African cricket doesn’t get about BLM movement, just like rest of sporting world

South African cricketer Quinton de Kock's refusal to 'take the knee' before the T20 World Cup match against West Indies drew usual criticsm that was more grandstanding.

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Black lives matter, as does freedom of choice over participating in an anti-racism protest, but only if you do what we tell you, according to Cricket South Africa.

South Africa convincingly defeated title holders West Indies in the Men’s T20 World Cup on Tuesday, but that was far from the tournament’s big story.

Conspicuously absent from the Proteas line-up was wicket-keeper Quinton de Kock. At the toss, team captain Temba Bavuma said de Kock was unavailable “for personal reasons” but at the game’s halfway point, Cricket South Africa put out a statement on his absence.

It noted his “personal decision” not to “take the knee”, defying the mandate put out by the board that all players were to participate in this gesture.

“After considering all relevant issues, including the freedom of choice of players, the Board had made it clear it was imperative for the team to be seen taking a stand against racism, especially given SA’s history. The Board’s view was that while diversity can and should find expression in many facets of daily lives, this did not apply when it came to taking a stand against racism,” CSA said, explaining its problem with de Kock’s stance.

Within minutes of this statement going public, the sports media and cricket fans were quick to air their views, mostly castigating de Kock as a ‘racist’.

These included Ian Higgins (one half of The Grade Cricketer podcast) and Cricinfo writer Karthik Krishnaswamy, both well-known experts on South African socio-economic issues on the ground.

One user also hit out at de Kock’s “refusal to take part in an anti-racism gesture” and commended match commentators Mpumelelo Mbangwa and Daren Sammy for their remarks made during the game.

While Zimbabwe’s Mbangwa stated that he “cannot shed his skin”, St Lucia’s Sammy questioned why it is so difficult for people to support “this movement”.

Not only was there predictably little of substance said, but there was also no acknowledgement of the far more recent racist practices of the UAE — the T20 World Cup tournament’s co-hosts and the country whose cricketing facilities have served cricketers of all races over the years.

Also read: Michael Holding gives ‘powerful message’ on racism in cricket, Harsha Bhogle praises Sky Sports

Optics first

So, what exactly was the commentators’ and Twitter users’ goal here, other than to grandstand? It is not for me to speculate what de Kock’s actual views on the Black Lives Matter movement are.

But the CSA’s wording on it being “imperative for the team to be seen taking a stand” says it all for me, as someone who has been a long-time supporter of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, donated thousands of dollars to several BLM causes and participated in a protest in Chicago.

Say goodbye to any meaningful policies to make cricket more socio-economically accessible to oppressed black South Africans, because CSA believes in performative optics first and foremost.

Any protest or gesture that has to be mandated by a corporation, an establishment or a sporting federation is not a protest.

You are not a Colin Kaepernick – the American football quarterback who first took the knee along with his teammate Eric Reed in 2016 – if you are simply doing what your bosses tell you to do. There is no point being a pretender and making a mockery of what began as a transformative, historic movement across the pond.

People’s personal views towards the BLM movement aside, US activists on the ground have always had clear, realistic and nuanced policy goals targeted at tangibly improving the lives and rights of black Americans, be it through defunding the police, reparations, abolishing the prison system, Campaign Zero or advocating for socialist economic policies.

This repeated hullabaloo over sportspersons taking the knee since last year is far removed from those methods and does almost nothing to actually aid the movement on the ground.

What cheapens the act even further is when the South African men’s team’s head coach Mark Boucher and Director of Cricket Graeme Smith can evade any real accountability for past allegations by partaking in this symbolic anti-racism gesture.

Is this not the clearest sign that “taking a knee” has lost all meaning and has been reduced to a generic, routine boilerplate message that doesn’t lead to any productive direct action? What is the ultimate point to all this if the gesture has to come from the federations instead of the players?

Also read: Black Lives Matter, racial justice protests take centre stage at Tokyo Games

A gesture tarnished

‘Taking the knee’ is becoming starkly similar to FIFA’s “Say No to Racism” message as they award World Cups to bastions of anti-racism and LGBTQ rights like Russia and Qatar.

Quinton de Kock is an easy target as long as he continues to stay silent, but maybe the commentators and cricket Twitter should pay more heed to what prominent black people in English football, who have refused to take the knee, have had to say.

These include Crystal Palace Football Club forward Wilfried Zaha and multiple Brentford players, and most notably from Queens Park Rangers’ Director of Football Les Ferdinand, who derided the act as “‘good PR but nothing more than that” after his players faced criticism for no longer taking the knee at the start of their matches.

QPR is a club that has done more than the vast majority of English football to fight back against racism at all levels, from appointing black ex-footballers like Les Ferdinand and Chris Ramsey in key positions, as well as its work with the Kiyan Prince Foundation. Yet, Ferdinand had to justify his club’s stance to push back against social media smearing for not taking part in a mere symbolic gesture.

Little has changed in both global cricket and football since ‘taking the knee’ became a regular thing. Whatever goals the players may have had on increasing awareness of racism in sports has been tarnished, as people continue to miss the fundamental point of what a protest is supposed to be and gleefully label those who do not participate, without making any effort to meaningfully fight racism themselves.

Non-white players continue to get abused online and in venues without a great deal of significant repercussions or systemic reforms, and in South Africa’s case, cricket remains confined to its posh private schools, far behind football in cultural significance, as well as rugby in truly reforming itself.

So, congratulations to CSA and the terminally ill online sections of cricket media. In your attempts to feel good about yourselves as “anti-racists”, you successfully played your part in turning a historic movement in American history into a caricature overseas, a theatrical farce just to keep up appearances.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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