Over twenty years ago, at a tumultuous and critical turning point juncture in South African sport, oppressed South Africans fiercely screamed out in anger at their disgust and hatred of rebel sports tours to internationally isolated apartheid South Africa.
That was at the time of what was labelled as the ‘Mike Gatting rebel cricket tour’ of apartheid South Africa. It was rebel because it was internationally unsanctioned and was orchestrated by the establishment-linked South Africa Cricket Union of Dr Ali Bacher, to entertain isolated white cricket.
That the rebel tour, the last one before the ushering in of the unified sports system in democratic South Africa, was halted and called off before completion is now history. That the rebel cricket tour encountered strong resistance and opposition from oppressed South Africans is a fact. The disastrous rebel tour was battle-weary before every rebel match with protest anger levelled at matches especially in Kimberley and Pietermaritzburg.
Follow on from about 20 years down the line, to about a week ago when an international cricketer was back in Pietermariztburg for a cricket match featuring England against the South African A side.
Representing England but born in Durban in South Africa, the player is Nick Compton. Not only is Nick the grandson of a great English sportsman, Dennis Compton, he is also the son of a former white cricketer, Richard Compton who could have played privileged and establishment and racial sport, but instead chose anti-apartheid and non-racial cricket, together with his brother, Patrick Compton.
The Compton family connection with apartheid South Africa and democratic South Africa is deep, rooted in family and cricket. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, Dennis Compton toured apartheid South Africa and played against white teams only, both in England and South Africa.
Today, grandson Nick Compton tours free and democratic South Africa, a sports pariah no more, and a legitimate member of world sport; this made possible by the anti-apartheid sports struggle that his father, Richard and uncle Patrick, was associated with.
Both Dennis Compton’s sons, Patrick and Richard, from his second marriage and born in England but raised in apartheid South Africa, made committed decisions, as young adult men, to support the anti-apartheid sports struggle that was underway in South Africa and around the world.
This was done by their option to leave the lush green fields and advantaged sports resources allocated to white South Africans because of apartheid’s privileges and play anti-apartheid, non-racial cricket and sport. They did this by joining community-based cricket clubs in under-resourced and disadvantaged communities. These cricket clubs were affiliated to the non-sponsored, Natal Cricket Board which was affiliated to the South African Cricket board, an affiliate of the South African Council on Sport (SACOS).
The fact that Nick Compton is touring South Africa, his birth country, and the country his father grew up in and still resides in, and playing international cricket is not only momentous for the Compton family, but deeply significant for the sacrifice against apartheid sport and resistance to oppression in South Africa.
Unlike his grandfather’s playing era, Nick Compton’s team representing England enters the country on legitimate and authentic visas, unlike during the apartheid years when false names and identification were employed to enter ostracised and isolated South Africa for sport and international teams were asked not to have sports relationships with the oppressive apartheid regime.
The struggle against the oppressive apartheid regime was phenomenal, fierce, massive and committed. Nick Compton’s father, Richard Compton was a privileged citizen in apartheid South Africa with numerous benefits accrued from his whiteness. But he chose the option of anti-apartheid sport, in unison with oppressed South Africans. He became one of millions who sacrificed his sports life and chose to play non-racial sport, not only so that apartheid could be disrupted and dismantled and democratic South Africa could take charge, but for future generations, like his children, to be able to play sport representing a democratic and free society. Today, South African sport has its challenges and deficiencies, but representation is done for a democratic country.
Some may ask why Nick Compton chose to play for a country he wasn’t born into. With his UK and South African birth connections, this is left to the family and Nick Compton to answer. It appears that young Nick had a desire to emulate his great sportsman grandfather that was Dennis Compton. This is understandable; his father had played some representative first class matches, scoring 99 runs in total and never having the chance to represent a democratic country. So Nick Compton went to England to hone his cricket skills ands stayed on to eventually get an international call up to represent the country of his grandfather and father’s birth.
The resilience of resistance to apartheid sport in South Africa and the authentic struggle to achieve freedom from oppression and to play sport in a free and democratic South Africa, never leaves our memory bank. Being filled with heritage wealth and an unrivalled resistance struggle, it’s an account that we just can’t and refuse to close.
It’s now over two decades that South Africa ‘left behind’ the tormented, unequal, apartheid era of sport to embark on a ‘unified sport’ era in a democratic and free South Africa. While current sports officials, immersed in the post-apartheid sports paradigm, easily ignore and banish to the dustbins of time, the forthright, authentic and iconic commitment of oppressed people to achieve freedom through sport, in the largely undocumented and rarely acknowledged anti-apartheid narrative of sport and freedom in South Africa, lay the memories of a people’s fierce resistance to oppression.
And these memories are always present; hanging around to remind us of the power of struggle and resistance to oppressive and inhumane holding up a society.
These memories stay there; never leaving or being erased. It’s the generation for whom freedom was fought that always reminds us of who paid for our freedom and how that freedom is today being enjoyed. Along comes Nick Compton, a former white South African who nurtured his youth cricket in Durban, and the dots are connected.
South African sport has this year experienced some fascinating sporting moments, including some disappointing ones. Contributing to and topping South Africa’s memorable sports year were the sports moments which fiercely grabbed our attention and made us remember with pride and respect, the journey that sport in South Africa has travelled.
During this year we acknowledged with pride the fabulous achievement of athlete Wade van Niekerk who won the 400m world title. The son of anti-apartheid sport athletes, Wade van Niekerk’s sport prowess demonstrated yet again that our struggle for oppressed people to have the chance to play sport in a democratic country, was not meaningless or a failure.
Forget about South Africa’s sports disappointments because South Africa didn’t win the men’s cricket and rugby world cup and Bafana Bafana didn’t qualify for an African football championship. For me, it was the sports moments, which have their roots in resistance to oppression and sports presence in a democratic South Africa which delivered the most cherished and proud moments.