Foreign Policy Blogs

The Proteas in the Caribbean

The Proteas, South Africa's cricket team, are readying themselves for the World Cup, which starts this month in the West Indies. Although a number of teams see themselves in contention to win the final in late April, the South Africans have been playing well and have a good chance to pull off a victory.

If the Proteas prove to be world beaters, their victory will symbolize more than just a recovery from a quagmire of poor play and controversy that beset the national team after a match fixing scandal involving former captain and national hero Hansie Cronje (who tragically died in a plane crash in 2002) a few years back. It would also represent another very visible sporting triumph to match the symbolically loaded victory for the beloved Springbok rugby team in 1995. The Springboks had long represented the apogee of white supremacy in South Africa, especially during the country's years of sporting isolation. Yet when Amobokkobokko (Zulu for “Our Springboks” ) hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup after a thrilling injury-time victory over the powerful New Zealand All Blacks in Ellis Park in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela donned captain Francois Pienaar's Springbok jersey in a moment that embodied the spirit of reconciliation in the New South Africa, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu had come to call “This Rainbow Nation of God.”

Sports can provide powerful indicators of social and political trends in any society. One can watch the attempts to juggle a desire to bring black, “Coloured,” and Asian athletes onto South Africa's national teams while trying to maintain a purely merit-based system. One can see the occasional hint of racism on the part of athletes or coaches or administrators. But one can also observe that prior to his suffering a potentially devastating knee injury, Chiliboy Rallepelle, a black hooker, was set to captain this year's Springboks in the Rugby World Cup to be held in France later this year, a competition which the Boks appear set to challenge to win. Sports, in other words, can provide a pretty good reading of the temperature of society at large, even if only imperfectly.

One of the stars of the Proteas, fast bowler Makhaya Ntini, is also African in a sport that for so long embodied the colonial mindset in South Africa, and indeed globally. Ntini also might be the most popular athlete in South Africa. He certainly is the county's most popular cricketer. He is confident about the Proteas’ chance to win and is looking forward to the World Cup. He might lead South Africa to another powerfully symbolic moment on the sporting pitch. He is not an African cricket player. He is a South African cricket player who is African. That was once unfathomable. Now it is merely remarkable.