During those long, difficult years in the fight against apartheid sport, Saait Magiet was a hero – to the cricket teams he played for, to the cricketers he played against, to the fans to whom he gave so much pleasure, and to the small band of cricket writers who tried, often with scant success, to tell the story of non-racial cricket in generally unsympathetic South African newspapers.
Magiet, who died on Tuesday at the age of 66 following a heart attack while on holiday in Malaysia, will be remembered as an enormously gifted cricketer and rugby player.
But he was much, much more than this: he was, perhaps, the standard bearer for the cause of non-racialism in sport. He refused to be “bought” by those punting the notion of “mixed” sport over a weekend and segregated facilities, group areas and pass laws during the week.
Magiet was a venomous quick bowler and a dashing middle-order batsman. Those who knew cricket were convinced that in another time and place he would have been playing at international level.
But he couldn’t. And in a country whose white government legislated people into first, second and third-class citizens, he wouldn’t.Instead, he chose dignity.
Magiet was prepared to sacrifice his present for the future of cricketers to come. He was as much loved for this as he was for his prowess on the cricket field.To those who plotted and planned to destroy non-racial sport – the politicians, the administrators and their media hangers-on – Magiet was regarded as the “jewel in the crown” of non-racial cricket.
Get him to throw in his lot with those espousing weekend “mixed” cricket and you would strike a massive blow against those whose mantra was “No normal sport in an abnormal society.”
Offers came in – to Saait and his brother, Rushdi. But just as quickly, these were refused. Saait also had to contend with a bewildering amount of advice – some, from people who should have known better, advising him to leave the ranks of non-racial cricket.
Even the normally anti-apartheid cricketer, Cecil Abrahams, who had gone to the UK to ply his trade, advised Saait to join the Green Point Cricket Club “to test the sincerity of those shouting for merit selection”. Again, he refused.
One of the most significant of the many offers that came in was for him and Rushdi to play in matches against an International Wanderers team brought to South Africa by a British sports promoter named Derrick Robbins. According to Rushdi, proponents of the government-backed “normal” sport were “desperate for us to play”.
“They dangled large sums of money in front of us – but Saait and I rejected these approaches with contempt. Neither of us had any interest in playing against the Wanderers. Saait confirmed to journalist Mogamad Allie that he had been sent an air ticket to get him to Pretoria where the Wanderers were scheduled to play one of their matches.
“I took the ticket to a meeting of the Wynberg Cricket Board, where officials instructed me to return it,” he said.
“Since I hadn’t asked for it, I was quite happy to comply.”
What made Magiet such a special cricketer?
Enver Mall, a stalwart with the non-racial Natal Cricket Board, believes it was his mental toughness. “Although Saait was regarded as a bowling allrounder, my endearing memories of him are more about his devastating lower-order batting for Western Province.Coming in often at number 7 or 8 he simply just took the game away from opposition bowlers with his controlled aggression. There were not too many players in the 1980s who could hit a ball harder than Saait and when he was in the mood, it was almost impossible to set a field against him.”
“As a bowler he was accurate and skilful and bowled a “hard ball”. He didn’t waste too many balls and made you play at the ball all the time, while keeping a relentless length and line”. Former WP teammate Stuart Hendricks remembers Magiet for his competitive spirit and will to win. “Many a time we would be in trouble and Saait would come through for the team with either bat or ball,” Hendricks said.
“It’s such a pity that we don’t have any TV footage to serve as a reminder to coming generations of players as to what a great cricketer and rugby player he was.”
Former Proteas’ bowling coach Vincent Barnes, who opened the bowling for the WP Cricket Board with Magiet, said: “I will be forever grateful for the mentorship role he played in my development. “He was so regularly our saviour to the extent that we always believed he “would take care of it”, whether in a batting or bowling role.”
“Just one of many examples was against the then Transvaal in Johannesburg. They had a fast bowler named Jack Manack who had wrecked our innings with a devastating spell of bowling. We were nine down with far too little on the board when I joined Saait at the wicket. For some reason Manack decided to give Saait some lip. ‘You don’t want to do that,’ I told Manack.”
“But it was too late. Saait started carting him to all corners of the ground. He was that type of player. The more difficult the circumstances, the more devastating he was.” Magiet was a much a competitor at club level as he was at provincial level. Former Victoria allrounder Trevor le Roux admitted to have been sh*t-scared of him. “He’d terrorise me whenever I batted against him. But he was an absolute gentleman off the field,” Le Roux said
Journalist Mogamad Allie described Magiet as his hero. “He inspired a new generation of cricketers in the non-racial fold when the careers of greats such as Eric Petersen, Coetie Neethling, Dik Abed, Lobo Abed, Lefty Adams, Braima Isaacs and his brother, Rushdi, were coming to an end.”
Magiet was my hero too. I salute him for the way he inspired me and so many others – not only as a cricketer and rugby player, but also for what he was prepared to sacrifice for the greater good during those dark days of apartheid.
The tragedy, even today, is that far too many South Africans still have no interest in the contribution as sportspeople and human beings that cricketers like Saait Magiet made to this country. They are still happy to look the other way in the face of a litany of injustices during that time. Sadly, although the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming, they are still prepared to argue that they didn’t know or were not involved.
Hamba Kahle, Saait.
Dougie Oakes is in his fourth decade as a journalist and writer, having written extensively in South Africa and the United Kingdom. He has specialised in sport politics, and features and leader writing.