South Africa’s history made De Kock’s stand against kneeling the wrong choice

The profound damage of the apartheid years continue to complicate the pitch

The Behavioural Sciences Unit in Leinster House couldn’t have spent too much time parsing what the effect would be when they urged people not to panic buy last year.

It seemed the Government’s urging of its citizens not to stampede around Dunnes Stores was the perfect trigger to jolt people out of their narcolepsy and go stockpile toilet paper for Ireland. The first rule of anthropology, or is it sociology, is that when you instruct people to do something a great number do the opposite.

For that reason there is never going to be agreement over taking the knee, the protest that began with US footballer Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when he refused to stand for The Star Spangled Banner, when people are told to do it.

England football manager Gareth Southgate said his players would take the knee in the 2020 European Championships. In June Irish footballers took the knee in Hungary prompting disapproving wolf whistles from around the Szusza Ferenc Stadium. At the Olympic Games the Irish women's hockey team took the knee before they played against Britain.


In all cases there was no sense of the team management commanding the players to make their protest and show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. It came from a commonly held belief that it was something they wished to and were proud to support.

But mandating the players is how the South African cricket management this week dealt with taking the knee, prompting Quinton de Kock to defy the order and withdraw from their T20 Cup match against West Indies.

The instruction from management that the entire team would do as told was carried out at the last minute while discussions about it within the team were still ongoing. Prior to that South Africa had not been united with some players standing and some kneeling.

Lawson Naidoo, chairman of Cricket South Africa's board of directors, denied that the directive he approved was equivalent to instructing players to support a political movement.

Naidoo said it was not about politics but about fighting racism. Given South Africa’s history, he said, they had to be leaders in showing the world how to do it.

As we saw wicketkeeper- batsman De Kock bridled at the instruction and triggered the first law of Behavioural Sciences. In doing so the question he did not ask was voiced. That was whether taking the knee should be a directive or expression of a personally held belief.

De Kock also asked whether management’s final-hour fiat to the team to kneel violated the player’s individual right to freedom of expression. In other sports around the world athletes have the ‘right’ to choose whether and how to support their team-mates in a cause.

But the problem that South African cricket faces is unique to them, an apartheid history. And that’s not so long ago, the 1990s. Even now the make-up of South African national teams in cricket and rugby with racial quotas violates one of the fundamental principles of sport, which is selection on merit alone.

The way they see it is that quotas give opportunities for those athletes previously excluded by law, outdated mindsets, prejudices, socio-economic and educational circumstances or a lack of boldness and will on the part of coaches, administrators and society.

Initially the national cricket team was excluded from using the quota method. It was then decided the sport had to be prescriptive. In 2016 a selection target of 54 per cent black, of which 18 per cent should be black African, players on average across an entire season was announced. Those numbers remain the requirements.

South African rugby had an agreement with the government that half the players at the 2019 Rugby World Cup should be black. The system didn’t always work out as expected and the quota actually cut both ways.

A survey taken in the third year of the system in cricket showed some black players highlighting the negative psychological impact they experienced because they were viewed as “quota” players irrespective of ability.

Former South African opening bowler Makhaya Ntini spoke on the issue. “Nobody would be happy if they thought they were picked because of their colour,” he said.

In May, South African Rugby president Mark Alexander warned the sport could face a player crisis unless the lack of transformation at provincial level was addressed after only three unions managed to achieve the set targets last season.

A report stated the majority of the local franchises and provinces who participated in last year’s rugby tournaments, including the Pro14, had failed to achieve the set 45 per cent representation for ‘generic black’ players and 22 per cent for ‘black African’ players.

The point is that less than 30 years ago a system existed that embraced institutional racial segregation. The profound damage that caused and the problems that have sprung from an authoritarian minority rule continue to complicate the pitch.

The healing of the divisions caused is a long and painful process and deeply sensitive. Part of that pain is that players like De Kock no longer have that luxury of the ‘right’ to choose.

His decision not to play for South Africa rather than take the knee was ill judged and at best naive. He prioritised his personal politics over a national issue. He should have understood that doing what he was instructed to do was, like quotas, simply another one of South Africa’s legacies.