Sport blowing away prejudice

The Soweto Oval tells a story of how an oppressed community found its feet in cricket, writes K.C. Vijaya Kumar.

“Denjlanga — my brother killed by the SA agents in Pietermaritzburg — 1984.” It was a line scrawled across a wall inside the attic of the Regina Mundi Church located at Soweto, a black African town 32 kilometres away from Johannesburg. It is a town that resonates with the despair of the past and the progress of the present.

Those words, a younger brother’s remembrance of a kinship torn asunder during the racist days of Apartheid, now stays juxtaposed with an adjacent photographic exhibition that delves into Soweto’s evolution. The pictures tell a tale: The student uprising of 1976 when the police stormed the religious place and fired in the air — the bulletholes still a poignant ache in the roof; Nelson Mandela casting a vote; and a summer day in Soweto now with a family tucking into its picnic hamper.

Five minutes away from the church is the Soweto Cricket Club’s Oval Ground. Like flowers that bloom in the unlikeliest places, the ‘Gentleman’s Game’ had an outpost springing up right in the middle of a town that was plagued by racial tensions about two decades ago. Set up in 1982-83, the club turned around a garbage dump into a turf that encouraged the blacks to pursue cricket. Even the elements have left a mark at this hallowed venue and a clock paused forever at 9.05 by a lightning bolt, is evidence of that on the roof.

The Soweto Oval tells a story of how an oppressed community found its feet in cricket, while a few streets away stands a memorial for school kid Hector Pieterson, who was shot dead during the uprising on June 16, 1976. Truly it is a place where sport and the politics of prejudice were locked in a deadly embrace.

The present though is all about steady cricketing action that returned after a four-year lull in 2010. “Things were designed to kill cricket in the townships. From 120-plus coaches working in the most significant black African region, we came down to 20-odd coaches but we are back on track now,” said Gordon Templeton, the club’s chairman and a former seamer.

From the time Dr. Ali Bacher, the former Cricket South Africa chief, got the ‘protective’ nod from Nelson Mandela to visit the Oval, the game has grown in a town with a population of five million blacks.

The club’s greatest moment came in 1995 when it became the first truly black African institution to tour England. Its seamer Piet Lephoi had his self-awareness moment in London, where the squad was warmly recieved. “I realised I needed to leave South Africa to see that white people appreciated black people,” Lephoi said.

That team’s break-the-shackles-spirit continues to live on as its then opener Geoffrey Toyana became the first black coach of a franchise — the Highveld Lions. And Soweto’s cricketing expertise did also hurt India in the recent ODI series. Quinton de Kock, who hassled the visiting team’s attack, is coached by two seniors from Soweto CC: Moses Matabege and Timothy Makgabuthlane.

In a town that has the touristy Vilakazi Street with the old homes of Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its signposts, cricket has indeed provided a welcome balm and surely one day, a lad from here would turn out for the Proteas.