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Taking the knee: Quinton de Kock lets his team and country down

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South African wicketkeeper and former captain Quinton de Kock controversially opted to withdraw from South Africa’s T20 World Cup match against the West Indies, after a Cricket South Africa (CSA) directive to all players to “take the knee” before each of their remaining matches. It’s a decision that puts de Kock, his teammates and CSA on a potentially catastrophic collision course, and the ramifications will likely extend far beyond the T20 World Cup.

Originating in 2016 when NFL player Colin Kaepernick and a teammate chose to kneel during the US national anthem to protest against racial inequality and police brutality, taking the knee has become a worldwide symbol of support for racial injustice and inequality, particularly in sport. Participants across many top-flight sports, including F1, EPL football and cricket, have typically done so as an opening gesture.

In cricket, players from the West Indies – comprising Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago – have been the chief proponents of the movement, taking the knee before each match. The gesture has typically been reciprocated by their oppositions, including England and Australia. Many will recall that it was ahead of West Indies’ tour of England at the end of 2020 that former West Indian great Michael Holding delivered a powerful and uniquely emotional monologue about his experiences with racism.

Previously, CSA had allowed players to decide whether to take the knee or not. In South Africa’s opening round match against Australia, players were given the choice to either take the knee, raise a fist or stand respectfully with their hands behind their backs (with de Kock choosing the latter).

READ ALSO: ‘Silent on issues at home’: Indian team’s BLM tribute draws mixed reactions

However, on the eve of the match against the West Indies, CSA issued a directive that all players were required to take the knee, as a symbol of unity and to make clear the team was seen to be standing against racism, “especially given South Africa’s history”.

And there lies a critical contextual point.

Apartheid may have ended more than 25 years ago, but South Africa is still grappling with its impact. Even as the T20 World Cup unfolds, CSA is reeling from the recent testimony of several former players at CSA’s Social Justice and Nation-building (SJN) hearings; of players being called “brown shit” in team songs, of white players regularly receiving preferential treatment over black players, and even greats like Makhaya Ntini feeling “lonely” during their storied careers with the national team.

Some argue that the issue is not about standing against racism, but of personal political freedom. But this is an oversimplification.

Taking the knee is not a political statement; to assert as much would be to admit you regard the circus of American politics over the last five years as the arbiter of principle and virtue, or that former President Donald Trump’s inane assault against the NFL and Kaepernick hold any sway over the meaning of the gesture.

It is simply an acknowledgement that racism exists, and that it must be fought. Taking the knee does not automatically align you with the Black Lives Matter movement and it certainly does not result in the occasionally cited fallacy that you value black lives above other lives.

In the same way, not taking the knee does not automatically make you a racist, and there is no suggestion that de Kock is so.

It’s been reported that de Kock believes that taking the knee is a “token gesture which has been watered down to almost mean nothing”. But this is at odds with his decision to withdraw from the match; if de Kock truly believes it to be a meaningless gesture, is it not a gesture he could have made for his teammates, or for the tens of millions of black South Africans, many of whom perceive cricket as an elite sport played exclusively by white South Africans?

If the gesture is meaningless to de Kock, could he not simply ascribe to it the meaning that CSA does – namely that it simply comprises a unified stand against racism, one which all of his teammates and opposition were happy to take?

And then there’s the broader point; CSA is a national employer, and its most important duty is to its key stakeholders: not its players, but the viewing public. In a country where only 4.5 million of its 59 million population are white, and particularly given its history and the ongoing SJN hearings, CSA effectively has no choice but to ensure that as an organisation, it takes a firm stand against racism and inequality, wherever the opportunity presents itself, and leaning towards over-correction, much as the quota system does.

If it did not, CSA would risk alienating further entrenching cricket in South Africa as an out-of-touch sport reserved exclusively for white elites. That is an outcome that neither cricket, nor South Africa, can afford to risk.

READ ALSO: Why New Zealand had to withdraw

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Ritam Mitra
Ritam is an award-winning journalist and lawyer based in Sydney. Ritam writes on domestic and global politics, human rights and social justice, and sport.

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