South Africa Test Team: The melting pot

South Africa Test Team: The melting pot

More than ever before, there’s an equitable representation of race, language and culture in the South Africa Test team.

kagiso rabada of south africa
Kagiso Rababa’s background adds another element of joy for the future of South African cricket. (AP Photo)

Special To Express By John Young

How many colours are there in a rainbow? Isaac Newton thought it was five at first, then changed the number to seven. The Proteas, South Africa’s Test cricket team, has recently made the same shift. The selection of Kagiso Rabada and Andile Phehlukwayo has taken to seven the number of language or race groups in the national team.

It’s taken a long time, but the national cricket team is finally starting to look like the country it represents. Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined the term “Rainbow Nation” to describe South Africa in the first days of transition from apartheid to democracy. It was a typically upbeat gesture from the ebullient cleric but in some of the difficult times that the nation has had to endure since its first free elections in 1994, the concept has come under pressure: too glib, said some, the colours in a rainbow don’t mix, said others.

But when a large group of white students turns up in “Hashim Amla” beards to cheer on their hero at Test matches, or the mixed Newlands crowd lights up to roar its approval of the first Test century by a black African (Temba Bavuma against England), Tutu’s optimism seems spot on.


What’s especially exciting about the jump from five to seven in the Proteas line-up is bound up in the history of the game in South Africa. For as long as the game has been played in South Africa, five groups have been playing it with passion. South Africa’s first Test team against England in 1889 included one Afrikaans-speaking white man (the impressively named Nicolaas Hendrik Christiaan de Jong Theunissen) and ten English-speaking white men. These two groups maintained a race-based monopoly on Test selection for the next 103 years.

Apartheid apologists to this day try to argue that people of colour were not really interested in cricket in that time, peddling the “blacks-love- soccer” stereotype. But as writers such as André Odendaal and Ashwin Desai have conclusively shown, three “non-white” groups took very enthusiastically to cricket from the earliest days of British colonial rule: coloured in Cape Town, Xhosa-speaking black Africans on the Eastern Cape frontier, and people of Indian descent in the area around Durban. Odendaal’s recent book, “Cricket and Conquest”, gives chapter and verse on how the game was spread by the military across Southern Africa, and how parallel organisations sprang up among the various race groups to promote and regulate cricket in diverse communities.

It was no surprise then, that these five groups supplied the bulk of players to the Protea Test team in the first years of democracy. It needs to be said that a non-racial South African team was selected in the 1950s, but white South Africans excluded themselves and the blinkered international cricket body (then known as the Imperial Cricket Council) continued to recognise only the white game in South Africa.

Lungi Ngidi with South Africa captain
Zulu-speaking Lungi Ngidi (R). (AP Photo)

A 98-year wait
In 1894 the coloured fast bowler, “Krom” Hendricks, was considered a certainty for selection for a South African tour to England but political pressure kept him out. Ninety-eight years later, in November 1992, Omar Henry became the first coloured South African to win an official Test cap, in Durban against India.

The first black African to win a Test cap was Makhaya Ntini (March 1998, vs Sri Lanka at Cape Town) and the first South African of Indian descent was Hashim Amla (November 2004, vs India at Kolkata).

Each of these pioneers represented a very long and strong tradition in the game. The first coloured Test cap should have come just five years after South Africa’s Test debut and Makhaya Ntini was following in a family tradition by playing cricket: his uncle played provincial cricket in segregated times.

Three of the Xhosa-speakers who followed Ntini into the national Test team had a similar cricketing heritage: the grandfathers of Thami Tsolekile and Temba Bavuma both played for “black” Western Province (and lived in adjacent streets in Cape Town) and Monde Zondeki’s grandfather is the founder of the Zondeki Cricket Union. All black African people in the Eastern Cape speak the Xhosa language, but not all are Xhosa people. Former president Nelson Mandela, for example, was of the Thembu nation, and Thabo Mbeki has Mfengu heritage.

The history of cricket-playing among South Africans of Indian descent has been chronicled in detail by Ashwin Desai in his book “Blacks in Whites”. The Proteas squad selected for the second Test at Centurion reflects this history. In a squad of 16, the break-down of the five groups with a cricketing heritage was:
-White Afrikaans-speakers (5)
– White English-speakers (4)
– South Africans of Indian descent (2)
– Coloured (1)
– Xhosa-speaking black African (1)

That accounts for 13 of the 16. Kagiso Rababa is one of the most exciting cricket talents in the game, and his background adds another element of joy for the future of South African cricket because he comes from outside these groups.

He told the Sunday Times in January that his father originally hails from Venda (as does the new president of the African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa) and his mother has a Tswana heritage. In the Rabada home, four languages are spoken: English, Sesotho, Setswana and Pedi.

Another slice of history
The seventh box was ticked in September 2017 when Andile Phehlukwayo was capped against Bangladesh, becoming the first Zulu-speaker to play a Test match for South Africa. Whereas Xhosa-speakers in the Eastern Cape had a great deal of contact over 100 years with British colonial power (in battle, but also at schools and mission stations), the relationship between Britain and Zulu society was much more distant. As a consequence, cricket did not catch on in Zululand, but now the strong cricket schools in the KwaZulu-Natal province are becoming a conveyor belt of talent. (President Jacob Zuma is a Zulu).

Phehlukwayo matriculated at Glenwood High School, a state school in Durban which runs more than 30 cricket teams. Fast bowler Lungisani Ngidi became the second Zulu Test player when he made his debut in the Centurion Test.

He attended Hilton College, one of the most expensive private schools in the country, and alma mater of white Springboks such as Roy McClean, Johnny Waite and the legendary Mike Procter.

The statistics in this article relate only to Test match cricket. Twenty-five players of colour have represented South Africa in Test matches since 1992: 12 coloured; six Xhosa-speaking; four of Indian descent; two Zulu-speakers; and one whose parents are Venda and Tswana. A further 20 players of colour have played for South Africa in limited over internationals and T20s. The South African Under-19 team currently in New Zealand to contest the ICC World Cup intriguingly is also drawn from seven South African language or cultural groups, so perhaps seven is the new normal. But South Africa has eleven official languages: imagine how strong the Proteas will be when cricket takes root in every community?


(John Young is a writer and researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa)

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