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Old February 8, 2005, 11:03 AM
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Default Interesting article on Pietersen\'s past

South Africa's lost talent

The problem with Pietersen

Telford Vice

February 8, 2005





Kevin Pietersen: causing offence, whether he means it or not ?Getty Images



To begin to understand the allergic reaction that Kevin Pietersen has caused among South Africa's crowds this summer, we need to regress at least 15 years ?not to South Africa's cricket grounds, but to the rugby fields that the nation's players grace every winter weekend.

It's 1990: Nelson Mandela's 27 years in prison come to an end on February 11, Apartheid's death-rattle is heard in every burst of state and right-wing gunfire, and South African participation in official international sport is a fading memory.

By now, many club rugby teams include at least one black player. Not because of a quota, just because. Rugby being the hot-blooded business it is, particularly in stressed-out South Africa, onfield punch-ups are common. Most are settled within seconds, but there is one flavour of fight that invariably threatens world peace.

Verily, God help the white players who pick on the opposition's black player. On them is visited savage wrath. But, once it is done and dusted, everyone goes home and yells abuse at their black maids and gardeners, the black players included.

What does that have to do with South African crowds detesting Pietersen? Because he is the white man who, by whingeing about the way we do things in our new, shiny democracy, has taken a swing at our collective blackness. The irony is that most of those who have booed Pietersen's every move are champion moaners on the subject of affirmative action, which Pietersen has claimed drove him from South Africa. They would happily join him in the diaspora if they had the means, or were not bound by career and family concerns to stay put.

Clyde Rathbone, the South African-born Australian rugby winger who listed a high crime-rate among his reasons for leaving, also felt the heat of a nation slighted when he toured SA last year. Similarly, the people who snarled at Rathbone seem to relish telling stories about ever more violent crime ?real, invented or imagined. They, too, would pack for Perth if their circumstances were different.

Interestingly, the Newlands crowd heartily applauded Pietersen's half-century on Sunday. Could that be because he reached it after South Africa had taken control of the match? Are there many purely patriotic white South Africans ?and the crowds remain overwhelmingly white ?who are genuinely affronted by Pietersen's attitude? Not really, no.

To many South African cricket followers, "merit" is code for "white", and they harbour a deep mistrust of the intentions and actions of black power figures. Racism may no longer be the official policy of white South African society, but it still lurks close to the surface and slips out from under the petticoat of public politeness all too regularly.

Those sportsmen who have left South Africa without blasting a negative fanfare have been spared the treatment meted out to the likes of Pietersen and Rathbone. Not a peep has been heard about several cricketers' decisions to impersonate Europeans on the county circuit, and Tiaan Strauss and Pieter de Villiers enjoyed unruffled transitions into the Australian and French rugby teams respectively.

Pietersen has fuelled his own fire with inflammatory statements and by forcing reaction from the crowd, as he did during the third one-day international at Port Elizabeth when he took a catch, and turned to face the packed grandstand before thrusting his arms towards the sky.

Here was irony richer than the finest chocolate mousse. The grandstand at St George's Park could easily by viewed as the spiritual home of black cricket at South Africa's Test venues. It is the section of the ground that holds the brass band, which consists almost exclusively of coloured musicians, and it is one of the few areas of any stadium where darker faces sometimes outnumber pale ones.

That Pietersen should choose to offend these people in particular may cause him to be labelled ignorant. Perhaps he is truly colour-blind, or perhaps he simply needed South Africans - any South Africans - to piss off. Whatever. They were pissed off all the same, and they let him know it.

Strangely, they sounded just like angry white folks.

Telford Vice is a journalist with the MWP Sports Agency in South Africa.

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