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By Gulu Ezekiel
The death of legendary South African wicket-keeper batsman John Waite in Johannesburg on Wednesday at the age of 81 brings closer to an end an appalling era in South African sport and society.
Though it is considered in bad taste to speak ill of the dead, one cannot but help refer on his passing to Waite’s infamous book, 'Perchance to Bowl' published shortly after the 1960 South African tour to England.
It was in 1960 that the South African cricketers were first met in England and Wales by protestors as they did on their next visit in 1965. Until then they had been largely insulated from the rest of the world as the policy of their government and cricket board was to play only the ‘white’ cricket nations of England, New Zealand and Australia. And of course no non-white sportsperson was allowed to represent South Africa in that shameful era.
They were slated to visit England in 1970 but that series was cancelled as the worldwide abhorrence of apartheid saw demonstrators in England take to the streets in protest in the campaign known as the ‘Stop the 70 Tour’. Two years earlier the England (MCC) tour to South Africa was cancelled amidst huge controversy after the apartheid regime had refused permission for Cape Town-born England all-rounder Basil D’Oliveira (classified as a ‘coloured’ or mixed race) to play on their soil.
A full multi-racial South Africa was finally welcomed back to the fold during their historic tour of India in late 1991, following the release from prison after 27 years of Nelson Mandela who would go onto become their first non-white head of state.
The last 20 years has been a rocky period for South Africa all round and cricket too has not escaped its share of controversy, particularly with the quota system for non-whites in place. But nothing can match the savagery and inhumanity of the pernicious apartheid system in which all non-whites in South Africa were not only denied the vote but also basic human rights and dignity.
Waite, the first South African to play in 50 Tests in an international career spanning 14 years (1951-65), was very much a flag-bearer and mouth-piece of apartheid. Perchance to Bowl was written in collaboration with the former Australian first-class cricketer and journalist RS ‘Dick’ Whitington with specific chapters in the book ascribed to the latter.
It is Chapter 3 succinctly titled ‘Why White Cricketers Do Not Play Non-white Cricketers in South Africa’ which lays bare Waite’s hateful views. Even a full 50 years later it is hard to digest some of his statements. Here is a sampling: “The reason why white and black and coloured do not compete against one another in South Africa springs from a belief, right or wrong, that the black and coloured public of South Africa is not equipped or ready for multi-racial sport any more than the black or coloured public of the Union is ready to govern South Africa or to manage its industries, primary and secondary.”
Waite goes on to express fears of black-inspired riots if black and white sportspersons compete against each other and claims it is up to the non-white population to prove to the whites that they are not a violent race! His gloomy assessment of the sporting worth of the vast majority of his nation’s population is bitterly ironic considering the apartheid regime systematically denied even basic sporting facilities to these marginalized people. And he also makes condescending comments on Indians and West Indians being superior to non-whites in his own country.
It is not known if Waite changed his racist views over the years. But even if he did, his book is a lasting testament to the shame that was apartheid.
John Henry Bickford Waite, RIP.
--The writer is a freelance sports journalist and author based in New Delhi.