No lives matter in South Africa

Andrew Donaldson writes on Nathi Mthethwa's criticism of SA rugby players for not 'taking the knee'


THE sports minister, Nathi Mthethwa, must be pleased with himself. His snap decision to launch an inquiry into why South African rugby players did not take a knee in the first round of the UK’s rebooted Gallagher Premiership was given a fair amount of space in the British press this week.

Last Friday’s Premiership opener, between Sale Sharks and Harlequins, was a big moment as it marked the UK game’s re-emergence after five long months in Covid lockdown. 

It was an occasion, in other words, ripe for gesture. Before the kick-off, home side Harlequins formed a circle and knelt. The Sale Sharks players, meanwhile, lined up in T-shirts which bore the slogan, “Rugby Against Racism”. Four of them then took a knee. 

Of the 11 who did not, eight were South African: Faf de Klerk‚ Coenie Oosthuizen‚ Akker van der Merwe‚ Lood de Jager‚ Jean-Luc du Preez‚ Daniel du Preez‚ Robert du Preez and Jonno Ross. It has been claimed that, in the light of the fervour surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, there was some tone-deafness here. And perhaps a whole lot worse.

But this would ignore the facts of the matter.  

The Premiership had declared that all 12 sides in the competition would be free to adopt their own anti-racism gestures and demonstrations of solidarity before their respective matches. As it turned out, only a third of the clubs announced they were taking a knee.

The Premiership’s position, meanwhile, was endorsed by the players’ union. “How each of our members choose to act in relation to this moment is a matter of their personal choice,” the Rugby Player’s Association said in a statement. “We respect and defend their individual right to make that decision.”

The union further clarified: “As players, we stand together, united in the fight against racism and we are proud to support the positive message that Black Lives Matter. We are not endorsing a political ideology. We are uniting as players to combat racial discrimination in our sport and in society.”

All clubs revealed their plans several days before kick-off. 

Saracens, Harlequins, Leicester Tigers and Wasps would take a knee. Worcester Warriors and Gloucester announced a joint gesture for their clash: both teams would wear strip with the “Rugby Against Racism” slogan and together they’d “acknowledge the moment” by lining up in V-formation before the game.

Bath’s players, meanwhile would form a “huddle of unity”. Northampton Saints would gather in a circle as a symbol of “inclusivity and togetherness”. Bristol promised that their heart-shaped formation would be re-enacted before all their games in the season. Exeter Tigers said their players would be free to choose their own gesture. Both the Sale Sharks and London Irish would be wearing anti-racism T-shirts during their pre-game warm-ups.

If there was any criticism of this ahead of the season, it came from Exeter Chiefs boss Rob Baxter. He had expressed his disquiet that rugby was being used as a “political tool” and suggested it was time it went back to being a sport. More pointedly, Baxter said it would have been far better if English rugby’s bosses had taken the lead on the issue rather than delegate it to individual clubs. 

“I am a little surprised that Premiership Rugby went this way,” he was quoted as saying. “Just dropping it on clubs and saying, ‘There you go, do what you like,’ is like hanging some players out to dry. I don’t know how much positive press players will get if they have a different opinion.”

The day before the tournament, Owen Slot, chief rugby correspondent with The Times, commented: “The wide variety of gestures demonstrates how hard it has been to establish a united response, especially with BLM having become a politicised, and subsequently often criticised, movement.” 

It is noteworthy that, in a lengthy and wide-ranging interview with Faf de Klerk that appeared this morning, Slot did not once raise the issue of BLM and taking a knee with the Springbok. The topic may have been declared off-limits, but it could also be that Slot considered the matter unworthy of further discussion.

But there certainly was a variety of gestures last weekend, some of it spontaneous and some not. Aside from the Sale Sharks, there were several cases where players knelt while their teammates did not. At Exeter Chiefs, for example, some players knelt, but wing Tom O’Flaherty, who is black, did not. Over at Saracens, the Tongan forward Mako Vunipola took a knee while his brother Billy refused to do so, citing religious beliefs. Everyone at Gloucester knelt, except Ruan Ackermann. 

How typically squalid of Mthethwa that he should see this as an opportunity to weasel up a self-serving “race row” and drag SA Rugby into his confected mess by directing them to investigate the Sale Sharks players. He has warned that those “displaying racist behaviour and showing racist attitude” will not be tolerated, and threatened them with censure. Regrettably, this posturing bluster has been the peg upon which the UK press has hung much of its reports. 

“I must underscore the point that there have been statements in the past coming from [SA Rubgy] which seems to be identifying themselves with the BLM movement‚” Mthethwa was widely quoted as saying. “[The] BLM movement is important because the rot and the pain has been faced by black players here in SA.

“Racism is no longer in the statutes books but some are practicing it covertly and we are saying that we will hunt them down because we know the pain that is caused by this cancer called racism. We are ready to take whatever steps necessary to ensure that people toe the line and those who are racist are taught to embrace other people. If that doesn’t happen‚ government is going to come in handy to ensure that we do what the constitution mandates us to do. Non-racialism is not just something that is superficial but it has to come from the roots.”

Quite apart from his fibbing about the absence of racism in the statute books, does the Constitution really mandate the government to “come in handy” and punish those whose actions in demonstrating an anti-racist commitment in another country have been utterly misunderstood by an outraged mob on Twitter? 

Does the Constitution compel its citizens to be meat puppets who must behave in accordance with the wishes of the ruling criminal enterprise — and woe betide those with original sin who do not demonstrate committee-approved contrition, who aren’t sufficiently supine and who don’t grovel in line with victim industrial complex orthodoxy?

There is much that is hypocritical about Mthethwa’s craven behaviour on the BLM tumbril. He was, after all, the safety and security minister at the time of the August 2012 Marikana massacre where police opened fire on striking Lonmin miners, killing 34 and wounding 78 others. Did their lives not matter? 

Does it matter that no politician has faced any form of official reprisal over Marikana? In fact, it beggars belief that Mthethwa continued to “serve” as the relevant minister for 18 months after the killings, as if the worst use of lethal force by the state against civilians since the end of apartheid had absolutely nothing to do with him. It’s obscene that he’s still in government.

But we should not be surprised at this. The awful truth is that, unless there is an opportunity to score cheap political points, no lives matter in South Africa. None whatsoever. Not black ones. Not white ones. 

The women and girls routinely raped and battered to death by men they know do not matter. The children who drown in pit latrines at school do not matter. The elderly people tortured and murdered in remote rural homes do not matter. The immigrants and refugees who perish in xenophobic violence in our townships do not matter. The carnage on our roads does not matter. The dead babies in filthy hospitals do not matter. The lives of those like Collins Khosa, fatally assaulted by soldiers during the lockdown, do not matter. And so it sadly goes.

Given the widespread disdain, it is not unusual that a sports minister should have such callous disregard for his country’s top sportsmen, throwing them under a bus to divert attention from the many failings of his own rotten government.

Who makes the salads?  

Among the highlights of Slot’s interview with the Springbok scrum half was the confirmation that his English team-mates at Sale are a bit dof when it comes to braai culture. According to De Klerk, they believe it’s okay to turn up with a packet of sausages when the South Africans just “want massive steaks and lamb chops”. 

Slummer holidays

Researchers at the University of Bath have found that foreign tourists who visit Cape Town’s townships tend to paint a rosy picture of the locals’ lot. Analysis of Tripadvisor reviews of tours to Langa and Hout Bay’s Imizamo Yethu informal settlement reveal visitors significantly downplay the challenges faced by residents.

According to The Observer, the townships are described as “productive, vibrant cultural spaces, rich in non-material assets, inhabited by happy and hard-working people”. Typical visitors’ comments include: “We learned so much, and it was wonderful to be in the community, to experience the friendship, the solidarity — to see a new future being built”; “The level of poverty that these people live in is unbelievable. But everyone here has hope and aspirations of getting a house and work. Truly amazing people”; and “There are hardworking people in the township who are making life better for themselves.”

Of 452 Tripadvisor reviews, only four raised issues about water, sanitation or sewerage, and only two pointed out that the vast majority of residents had no toilets or running water in their homes. “Overall,” the newspaper reported, “the majority of reviews represented residents as satisfied with their circumstances, with several reviewers remarking that they thought the children in the townships had better lives than those from privileged backgrounds.”

Researchers are concerned. They claim these visits can lead to an “unhealthy reframing” of the debate about urban poverty. According to Bath’s Dr Monique Huysamen, international “slum tourism” has thrived in recent years, along with developments like “ecotourism” and “voluntourism”, the gap-year activity of the global north’s wealthy students, and there is now stern chatter about the “commoditisation, romanticisation and consumption of poverty”.

Thanks to Covid-19, global travel is on hold and so are the “poverty porn” tours. This is a shame. Huysamen admits these operations may offer economic benefits for the locals. However, there is now an opportunity to correct what she terms the “skewed representation of poverty and its causes” in South African townships. 

Tourists should consider how travel can reinforce and exacerbate patterns of poverty and inequality. As Huysamen puts it: “Where we do visit destinations where residents live in abject poverty, we need to think carefully about how we retell and represent these experiences to others, for example on social media, so that we are sure to paint a fuller picture of their lives and the challenges they face.”

There is clearly a need for scholarly intervention. The Black Academic Caucus at UCT, Huysamen’s alma mater, may want to develop a lecture programme for foreign visitors. Perhaps the EFF’s top intellectual, Dr Fraud Shivambu, could even be persuaded to take time out from his busy schedule to tell tourists about white monopoly capital as they’re bussed from one attraction to the next. This would immeasurably enhance the country’s reputation as a dynamic tourist destination. 

The passing parade

There was a slight kerfuffle concerning police minister Cheek Bile’s self-appointed “military” rank during a virtual sitting of the National Assembly on Wednesday. The scourge of surfers and other outdoor types was identified as “Min General Bheki Cele (ANC)”, which prompted the DA’s Andrew Whitfield to question Plod about his “general” qualifications. “And if he is not [qualified],” Whitfield said, “would he then consider himself a fake general?”

Bile was having none of this. “All generals,” he replied, “they don’t lose their titles of being generals.” This was the case, he added, even when they had retired. “We can talk a bit to educate [Whitfield] about these matters.” 

By the same token, neither do fake generals lose their fake ranks, and they drag their self-aggrandisements along with them into the golden years at Shady Acres. There’s a rule of thumb here: if you’re going bogus, go big. The lower the self-esteem, the grander the embellishments and falsehoods. It won’t impress, but it does make for lighter moments in otherwise dreary obituaries. 

Mnxgment material

The natives who frequent The Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) occasionally ask about Andile Mngxitama’s surname. It’s usually those who’ve been informed of the Black First Land First firebrand’s exploits by shocked relatives in Knysna and Somerset West. The current outrage, for example, is the former Gupta stooge’s xenophobic campaign to convince his supporters that foreign-owned spaza shops are hotbeds of Islamist extremism and jihadist hideouts. 

The responses to inquiries about pronunciation have invariably been colourful, but unhelpful on the whole. However, now that he calls himself “Andile Mngxi” on Facebook, we can finally be of assistance. It is “Minky”.