Kagiso Rabada is seen as a black icon in South African and world cricket. But the first and most significant step in the young tearaway’s journey to stardom was taken by his father Mpho, an aviation medicine expert, when he left the segregated township of Mamelodi four decades ago
In 2016, as Kagiso Rabada ripped the Aussie batting line-up apart in Perth during his first trip Down Under, commentator Ian Healy asked disbelievingly how could a 20-year-old generate such scorching pace. Ian Chappell’s casual reply — “you’d have to ask all the batsmen in his village”— triggered a Twitter outrage.
Someone posted a picture of the glitzy Johannesburg skyline, a concrete-dense jungle that boasts of Africa’s tallest building, saying this was how Rabada’s village looked. Sarcasm and suggestion followed: “Surprised they didn’t ask who was looking after his herd while he’s here.” And, “If any ‘village’ needs an idiot then #IanChappell is applying.”
South Africa is especially sensitive to stereotyping, for reasons that can be found in the country’s history and political science books. By assuming that if it’s a young black pacer then he ought to be from a village, Chappell was unknowingly undermining the struggles, the rising and aspirations of a once officially ostracised race.
Rabada lives in the affluent northern part of Johannesburg; he went to the best public school. It was a privilege that came to him because of his father who rose from a modest four-room house at Memelodi, a black township in the east of Pretoria, to be Dr Mpho Rabada, one of South Africa’s reputed aviation medicine experts.
On a light day, it’s a 40-minute drive from Memelodi to Northern Joburg, but for the Rabadas the journey has taken 40 years. And as Dr Rabada will tell you, those 40 years didn’t really have many light days.
The cricket bandwagon has moved from Pretoria to Johannesburg, and so has KG, a name lovingly given to him by his team-mates and now repeated by his many fa ns. It’s the same journey that his father took years back. Rabada Jr has had it easy. Even his father will tell you that, and with a lot of pride. Dr Rabada’s voice has a certain dignity, his tranquil tone betraying contentment. “If you have to compare him with the white kids or any other kid in other parts of the world, he can’t necessarily say he was disadvantaged, because he wasn’t. That’s the argument that holds water with me, having grown in the township. For him, it doesn’t. He always had everything.”
To his credit, KG didn’t let the affluence smother his dream. The cushy bed, comfortable home and the easy chair that his father provided for didn’t make him lazy. It’s a story of a second-generation urban migrant family that continues to climb the ladder. It’s a rags to riches tale with a sequel; fame being added to Part 2 of the Rabada story.
Within a day of his arrival in Johannesburg, KG was at the Wanderers. He was wearing pink, sitting on stage with Miss South Africa. The 4th ODI at Wanderers was sold as a ‘Pink’ game. The sponsors and cricket officials expected to raise 1 million rands to fight breast cancer. For any appeal to the masses in this country, they would need KG. He is an icon. He is on stage, on billboards and on posters selling cricket to the 80 per cent of South Africa’s population.
Dr Rabada says his son understands his status as a role model. “Look, I would be naive if I say that it doesn’t cross his mind. It crosses his mind that playing well and doing well makes all the races to be interested in cricket. It can only be a good thing, I think he loves cricket, he goes out there not to prove A or B, he goes there to do well. And in the moment of doing well he is inspiring other people.”
Dr Rabada knows a thing or two about being an inspiration. While growing up in Memelodi, his family of 8 lived in a four-room set. As he says, it wasn’t an easy life in the township. He wanted to do well, primarily for himself but also for those who lived around him. “What drove me was that 90 other people or a million others will say, ‘hey, you know this guy comes from this house and it’s just a four-room house and now he lives in the suburb,” he says.
An articulate man, he goes on to stress his point. He talks not just about how inspirational public figures can ignite minds but also how the power of proximity and the connection a ‘role model next door’ can have with the local community can never be undermined. “If there is somebody just across the street or across the block and he has done well, there will be those who will say ‘oh even I can do well’.”
For a Memelodi boy to have medical school dreams was seen as an over-reach. With an annual fee for 30,000 Rands, it was way beyond what the average annual income was in the black township. However, Rabada Sr had grades that would open doors and make the privileged dig into their pockets. “You needed to go for an interview after school and then they see if you have it in you. My good marks had a big role. My family couldn’t have afforded fees,” says the doctor, who after doing his specialisation in aviation medicine, went on to study MBA and project management.
After narrating his struggles as a youth and realizing how his son’s life wasn’t very different from his, the good doctor smiles. “Luckily, there was no 40,000 people looking at me. I would say it was a little bit easier,” says Mpho, as he watches Rabada charging in at the Indian batsmen at Centurion, triggering a chant from the grass banks that goes — ‘KG, KG, KG, KG …’
Actually KG did live in a village once, though much before Chappell put his foot in his mouth in Perth. That was Memelodi, the township where his father grew. Kagiso was there when he was about three-years-old and was yet to be bitten by the cricket bug.
The Rabadas lived in Johannesburg but they wanted their children to get an idea about their roots very early in life. “So what we do is, for the first two-and-half to three years, the kids are sent to live with their granny and they grow up there. So they get to know and interact with people there. They need to be comfortable with it. They need to know how privileged they are, and not take their privilege for granted,” says the father.
Even while growing up in Johannesburg, the Rabadas would take their two sons to the one-time settlements where once only the blacks lived after being segregated. “During December and January time, we buy school clothes and shoes and give it to the needy. Before anyone got famous or got celebrity status we would go to the former settlements. We don’t know those people, we don’t want any press,” he says, adding how the credit for KG’s exceptional public conduct should go to his wife Florence, a lawyer working for the government, and his extended family.
“I think the credit for how he behaves should go to my dad, my mom, my mother-in-law, father-in-law, etc. When you grow in that environment, you get the best of all traditions, you get to see how people relate to each other and how they not only look inwards. Life is not only about himself but he needs to think about second or third person,” says the father.
Being a black icon isn’t easy since the government-approved sports quota template that is followed in picking the playing XI and to achieve transformation goals often gets vociferously debated in cricketing circles here. With the government and Cricket South Africa responsible for the integration of different races into cricket, the blame often gets passed and responsibility shrugged. Rabada’s name always gets mentioned for blacks making the cut because of merit.
Within days of KG becoming the World No.1 bowler, The Citizen, had a report about the Black Business Council (BBC) congratulating him. Here’s quoting the BBC press release verbatim from African News Agency website: “Kagiso is a classical example of black excellence who continues to prove those who are against employment equity and radical economic transformation wrong by delivering the goods on the cricket field, where it matters most.”
The Citizen too carried a report that spoke about BBC taking a “cheap shot” at Cricket South Africa. “We call upon Cricket South Africa and other untransformed sporting codes in South Africa to be inspired by Kagiso’s achievement and give more blacks an opportunity and support them accordingly when their form on the sporting fields take a dip.”
For a 22-year-old to be the symbol of “black excellence” must be tough. Ask the father if the three bowlers that won South Africa the Cape Town Test — Rabada (black), Philander (coloured) and Morkel (white) — formed the prefect pace attack for a nation with rainbow ambitions. “I see these boys now and it just warms my heart because from where I am at I see them as deserving. I don’t think this as a favour, they deserve to be there. I am behind Morne Morkel, I am behind Lungi 100 per cent, Kagiso 100 per cent, (Chris) Morris 100 per cent. I just think that the fact that Lungi is black, Kagiso is black, it is inspiring township boys and girls who would have never thought of cricket, that’s the added advantage. But in terms of team selection the best XI during the circumstances should play,” he says.
When at home, the Rabadas don’t talk about cricket, or the politics of it. The men of the house — Dr Rabada, KG and his 14-year-old brother Atlegang — get into their mini-studio. “We relax and we compose music. It is also the time for me to connect with the boys and not talking cricket, not talking life,” says the father with a smile of contentment.
He explains the meaning of the names of his two sons. “Kagiso means peace and Atlegang is success. I want peace and success not just in South Africa, in India, in Europe, around the word.”
Who among the Rabadas, is the most talented musician? “My younger one is a better singer than all of us, but for us it’s mostly about the beats.”
Those beats in the posh Johannesburg residence are likely to take the Rabadas closer to their roots in Mamelodi, the township whose name means ‘Mother of Melodies’. It’s a region with a history of a painful militant struggle against apartheid and a deep-rooted music culture. How far they go and how higher they rise, you can’t take Mamelodi out of the Mamelodi boys.