In 2016, American football San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to start kneeling during the country’s national anthem, which was played before the start of each game. It was an act intended to protest against the racial violence and police brutality faced by black people in the US.
This led to the formation of a wider movement decrying racial injustice and the gesture was used in sports and featured during #BlackLivesMatter protests. Taking the knee intensified among athletes after the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a police officer, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes until he died.
It is important to note that symbols of protest have been used in sports before, like in the famous photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, where they gave the black power salute on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico.
In 2014, LeBron James and other basketball players wore T-shirts with the words “I can’t breathe” written on them, echoing the last words of Eric Garner, who died after being restrained by police officers in New York.
Last year, SA cricketer Lungi Ngidi decided that he would take a knee in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and take a stand against racism, an act that the team was initially not united on, but later relented, except one Quinton de Kock.
The debate on whether and why South Africa should make the gesture quickly turned to the history of racial exclusion that had previously dominated the sport and in some ways continues to do so. This prompted former cricketers such as Makhaya Ntini and Hashim Amla to come out in support of Ngidi, while others such as Pat Symcox and Boeta Dippenaar countered Ngidi’s statement with the infamous “All Lives Matter” mantra.
The practice has drawn mixed reactions worldwide, with some applauding the stand and others opposing it, saying that sports are not meant to be political. Cricket South Africa was initially lethargic in taking up a concrete position but has since changed, even issuing an official directive for players to take a knee ahead of their game against the West Indies on 26 October.
De Kock, in response to this, opted not to play the match. What makes De Kock’s response to the issue of supporting Black Lives Matter interesting is that he did not state his reasons but was particularly loud in his silence. That is until the morning of 28 October, when he issued a rather puzzling and petulant statement that read more like an attempt at saving his livelihood than an actual grappling with the issues at hand.
De Kock referred to his mixed-race family as proof that he was not racist and that the reason for his act of defiance was that he felt his rights were being taken away by the directive. Now granted, no one should be forced to do anything they do not want to do. However, you must then accept that on an ideology that is universally accepted as inhumane such as racism, not denouncing it will invariably come off as support of it.
“I was shocked that we were told on the way to an important match that there was an instruction that we had to follow, with a perceived ‘or else’,” read De Kock’s statement.
What I found more unfortunate is that it took the threat of punitive measures such as ostracization and potential loss of earnings for De Kock to relent and issue a statement saying that only now did he understand the gravity of the situation.
Last year, during an England and West Indies Test match series, former West Indies player Michael Holding, who is easily one of the game’s most legendary players, broke down as he talked about the significance of showing solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and his experiences of racism. “It’s society that needs fixing, not the individual sports. If society never changes it doesn’t matter what sport does. All sport can do is help show the way, it can’t solve the problem,” said Holding.
Many who know Holding will remember him from the explosive documentary Fire Babylon, which showed how the West Indies team of the 1960s showed remarkable tenacity and resilience in the face of dehumanising racism and attempts at exclusion, and went on to have an unbroken Test series record of being unbeaten over a 15-year period and 29 Test series.
This showing by the West Indies team was a testament to the hard-fought struggles for black people to even be taken seriously in sports, that Quinton de Kock callously chose to toss aside when he chose not to play against the West Indies this week.
The fact that De Kock pointed out in his statement that he was “raised to understand that we all have rights, and they are important” is ironic because not too long ago those rights were not implicit. It took people having to put themselves, their families and their livelihoods on the line by nailing their colours to the mast, as it were, and making their position on racism clear in order for discrimination based on race to be outlawed.
The truth is, though, whatever is in De Kock’s “heart of hearts” remains there. As Holding said, it’s about a change in society’s outlook and thinking on just how important racism is to combat or not. Whether black lives and experiences really matter, particularly in a world stacked up against them, can only be evidenced by changed behaviour that does not have as its motivation self-preservation.
Personally, I know no act of revolution that has ever occurred because a person chose silence in the face of oppression. DM168
Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist at Maverick Citizen.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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