Makhaya Ntini’s painful story is one of black people everywhere

Makhaya Ntini. File photo.

I watched the likes of Graeme Smith during the Solidarity Cup played on Mandela Day, kneeling in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement which has spread across the world.

It was an important symbolic gesture but I submit it is not enough. Sport doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The past week has been very painful hearing awful stories of racism coming to the fore. I felt a punch in my gut when I heard a deeply painful and moving account of racism within Cricket SA told by the former Proteas fast bowler, Makhaya Ntini, during a SABC interview on Friday, July 17.

It was like Biko’s words were coming back to haunt us: “Black man, you are on your own”. As the first black cricketer in the Proteas squad, Ntini’s selection marked a significant moment in the life of this nation. However, all was not as it seemed as we learn now, many years later, how lonely Ntini was, the pain he felt and scars left by deep forms of racism that still permeate all aspects of our society, even our sports teams.

Hearing how he opted to run to and from the stadium rather than take the team bus was heart-breaking. It made me sad but it also made me angry.

So much for saying that sport is the unifier; his testimony shows otherwise and is an indictment on the spirit of transformation.

Our sin is being black. Ntini’s painful story is the story of black people everywhere and in every sphere of society. We have to deal with “othering”, and feelings of rejection, humiliation, egregious betrayal, and not being seen for who we really are.

Ntini was undoubtedly one of the greatest cricketers South Africa has produced, and was the pride of the nation. His elegant talent was on full display – his record at Lords was masterful, he took the most wickets by a South African in a Test match and achieved the best bowling figures by a South African in an ODI.

There was something so special about him is his athleticism, his tenacity and his positive demeanour in the face of adversity. His warm, friendly personality was felt everywhere he went: he was loved in the Caribbean and the West Indies, he was celebrated in Australia, New Zealand, and England.

At home he made black South Africans love cricket and shaped a generation of black children who looked up to him for inspiration.

He carried the hopes and dreams of young blacks in the new South Africa with dignity. Sadly, even with that great talent; Ntini couldn’t escape racism. His candid and emotional account revealed the level of racism and discrimination he faced throughout his international cricketing career, even in his own team.

Among us are those who are oblivious to the systemic racism of our society and its impact on black lives. They asked the question “why now?” what’s the fuss? The past is the past.

Such a question is narrow and lazy, It apportions blame on the victim, in this case, Ntini. It misses the point that dealing with racism in our society is complex and nuanced. Time may pass but memories of racial experiences live with us and stay on in us.

Racism is not an event. It is deeply traumatic and violent in nature to one’s self-esteem. Speaking out can be costly, it may shake those in power who could remove you and this was a consideration for Ntini.

Ashwin Willemse, a retired rugby player and commentator, spoke out against racism and was psychologically bullied and attacked in the media. Juxtapose that with Eben Etzebeth who was accused of racism during the World Cup yet continued to play. White privilege is real but we need to take sides. We need to bend the knee.

Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and political activist, puts it aptly: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Makhaya and I share a close family connection: he is my cousin and younger brother. We were both raised in the quaint village of Mdingi and my father treated him as his own son. Our village was known for producing cricketers of world-class but, owing to apartheid, they could never reach those levels.

Thus, Makhaya’s rise to international cricket was seen as hope and an embodiment of possibility for all black children. His rise held such a grip on the imagination of black folks anywhere, and it was such a joy to witness his specialness and exuberance, yet we did not know what he was subjected to by his own teammates.

History will be kind to Makhaya Ntini. He remains an undisputed cricket star and a hero. I kneel with him and call on CSA to give him his “flowers” he so justly deserves. If they fail to do this, then I am afraid the kneeling gesture and Smith’s buddy-buddy means nothing; it may even be construed as patronising.

* Ngcetane-Vika is a businesswoman, church leader and social commentator.