Here is an early nomination for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize: the South African Test cricket team. I do not say this to celebrate the way they demolished Australia in their just-concluded series. Indeed, when pacer Dale Steyn took a wicket, he screamed like a Maori warrior from next door New Zealand, which is not the most peaceful sight in the world. I suggest this to honour the visible harmony within this team, and the achievement this represents. South African cricket has travelled many emotional and psychological eras within a single generation since apartheid lost its vicious grip. The emotional synergy, the body language, the colour-free embrace, the collective pride in individual achievement and collective triumph, would be inconceivable to these players’ parents.
It is not an implausible thought, given the depths to which the Nobel Committee trawls these days to find a prize-winner. They are handing out the gong this year to the European Union. This is worse than pathetic; this is bathos. The visionaries who dreamt of a united Europe in the early 1950s after the unbelievable havoc of the Second World War certainly deserved the prize for the courage of their imagination. I presume they got it, unless the Nobel Committee had a memory lapse, as it had in the case of Mahatma Gandhi. But to give Europe a Nobel when half its nations are in turmoil and the rest apprehensive about its future, is to confirm that you have run out of ideas. Or that you have a macabre sense of humour.
South Africa’s cricket Nobel should be offered in memory of Gandhi, who witnessed, and then challenged, the evil of hatred, contempt, cruelty and merciless subjugation that was the philosophy and practice of apartheid. The Mahatma would have beamed in joy at the sight of Hashim Amla, for he went to South Africa as an advocate for Muslims of Gujarati descent. Amla, Robin Peterson and Vernon Philander are in the side not because of any reservations policy, or because the ruling African National Congress has used political muscle. They are there because they deserve to be there. They win matches, as they did in the final, decisive Test against Australia.
Peterson is 33, Philander is 27 and Amla 29. All three have parents who suffered the racist segregation of the old regime, the indigenous black people far more than brown immigrants. Who knows how talented their fathers were, because apartheid never gave their parents a chance. Sport was a pillar of white racism, which was supported by the England-led international cricket establishment until young British leftists began the protests that eventually snowballed into the international movement that helped destroy apartheid.
Whites have abandoned the arrogance of the past;black and brown cricketers are not burdened by sullen resentment. They are bound by a new inspiration.
Never underestimate the impact that Amla’s presence in the team, and thereby on millions of television screens, makes in the post 9/11 age. Amla is as exotic an icon of peace as he is classical as a batsman. He is walking, talking and sporting proof that a long Islamic beard is not synonymous with terrorism, but can belong to a gentle, civilised human being and sporting hero.
After 9/11 such a beard became intertwined in the popular imagination with violence; one Australian commentator has been banned for saying Amla looked like a terrorist. I have no idea whether Amla has visited America, but it is fairly certain that in 2002 or 2003 officials of American Homeland Security would have stopped him at immigration for questions, and fellow passengers on a flight would have squirmed anxiously. After 9/11 a beard was sufficient to excite suspicion or worse, unless it was manicured in the European style. Americans were taught to distinguish Sikhs, who wrapped both their head and facial hair. But Amla’s visage is straight from an Islamic text book. When non-Muslims in the Commonwealth-cricket environment see Amla doing something as comforting as playing good cricket, it must be reassuring. Perhaps this is another reason why Americans should play cricket, instead of that variation they have adopted called baseball.
Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, conversely, had parents who may or may not have believed in apartheid but certainly lived by its demeaning rulebook. To watch them hug Amla or Philander or Peterson with spontaneous joy as one scores a century or another takes a wicket is exhilarating. To willingly surrender an unjust privilege requires almost as much commitment as to fight for liberty from the shackles of slavery. Whites have abandoned the arrogance of the past; black and brown cricketers are not burdened by sullen resentment. They are bound and buoyed by a new inspiration.
Nelson Mandela did get the Nobel Peace Prize, but rare giants like Mandela are above any such homage. Mandela will not be remembered because he got the Nobel. But Mandela’s inclusive dream for South Africa would have failed if cricket, and indeed rugby, were mired in poisons of the past. Give these young children of Mandela the Nobel for Peace. No one in today’s world deserves it more.