The documentary on everyone’s lips, ESPN’s The Last Dance, an anthology of Michael Jordan’s last NBA season with the Chicago Bulls, brought up something interesting about the structural functionalism that exists between black people and black sports stars.
It is a social contract that successful black people enter with their community, whereupon certain expectations are showered on them. Temba Bavuma, the Lions franchise captain and one-time Proteas vice-captain, will enter the dark embers of this realm should he accept an offer to succeed Faf du Plessis as South Africa’s next Test captain.
It is an unsaid law that governs how black people of prominence ought to behave and at times adds unwarranted pressure to the job at hand. South Africa needs Bavuma to cricket more than it needs him to be its sporting-politico hero.
For those not privileged enough to have access to the Jordan documentary or simply have not seen it, in its fifth instalment Jordan addresses his refusal to publicly endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt, who was running to become the first black senator in the south.
American politics are immaterial to this piece but for context, it’s worth pointing out that in 1990 Gantt was up against Jesse Helms, a white die-hard segregationist. Jordan, instead of doing a commercial and using his worldwide superstardom throwing his weight behind Gantt, simply donated to the campaign and flat-out refused to make a public endorsement. Gantt lost and the backlash to Jordan’s decision was severe.
What the documentary showed was that there is a certain expectation that comes with blackness that spills over into sport’s cocooned borders. For instance, Larry Bird, who was an NBA superstar in the 1980s (not to Jordan’s stratospheric levels of course), was never asked to endorse a white political candidate. He commercially endorsed Converse and played basketball for the Boston Celtics.
Bavuma would not only be celebrated as the first black African to lead the Proteas but there would be a social debt attached to it that none of his predecessors would have had to negotiate.
As Barack Obama says in the documentary: “Any African American … that sees significant success, has an added burden. A lot of times America is very quick to embrace a Michael Jordan or an Oprah Winfrey or a Barack Obama so long as it’s understood that you don’t get too controversial around broader issues of social justice.”
Bavuma has his own foundation, which does amazing work assisting talented young cricketers from disadvantaged backgrounds. His feat of becoming the first black African to score a Test century (against England at Newlands in 2016) was a stereotype-shattering performance that will forever be history’s reference to black players’ abilities with the blade.
In that regard his legacy is secure. But as a player, there is still much to be done. He’s been unlucky with injuries and often bizarre dismissals since that famous 2016 century, including getting stranded on 95-not out against Australia in Johannesburg in 2018.
When the squeeze was on the 29-year-old’s career, all those near misses, the times he battled at the crease for hours on end to stem yet another top order collapse, were quickly forgotten.
Don’t be fooled by his size or calm demeanour, Bavuma is a tough character. The experience over the last summer would have no doubt toughened him up some more.
But a lot can be drawn from those events. Just to quickly recap, Bavuma, along with Theunis de Bruyn, was a casualty of yet another calamitous Indian tour where the Proteas were again swept 3-0.
Although him getting dropped for the England in-bound series was initially chalked up to his injury trouble, when he was fully fit he was told he needed the “weight of runs” to force his way back into the national team.
That is all good and well. All elite athletes are expected to reach and maintain a certain level of high performance to continue to justify their standing at international level – no exceptions should be made.
But exceptions were made. The captain at the time, Du Plessis had perhaps his most torrid Test season, runs wise, since he became Proteas Test skipper in 2016. His 18.87 series average in the four-Test series was his worst since the ill-fated 2015 tour to India, where he averaged 8.57 after four matches and seven innings.
That’s all the evidence Bavuma needs to see that he won’t be offered the same grace if he becomes Proteas Test captain. Not only will his batting come under 10 times the amount of scrutiny, the comparisons with his Springbok contemporary Siya Kolisi and the “What does it mean to be the first black …” will drive him insane.
Bavuma is more than capable of shouldering any burden placed upon him but cricket is brutal. It’s the loneliest team sport in the world.
His elevation to lead the team will come at a cost. The best thing he can do for himself is to be the best darn cricketer he can be; everything else will flow from there.
Just like Quinton de Kock was ruled out of the running for Test captaincy, so too should Bavuma, on the basis that he’s too valuable a batsman, especially in that tepid Proteas upper middle order, to overload with more responsibilities.
Jordan was castigated for being unlike Muhammad Ali – the greatest sports star to stand up against socio-political injustices – but he said this: “I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in but I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player.”
Bavuma said something similar recently: “Yes, I am black, that’s my skin. But I play cricket because I love it.”
It was an honest admission that being seen through the prism of transformation had taken its toll.
For the good of his cricket and the national team, he should pass on the armband for now.