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Too Black to Wear Whites – a timely book on sport in South Africa

Book Review

Too Black to Wear Whites – a timely book on sport in South Africa

When was the first time that someone’s race became a major barrier to representing South Africa in sports? This timely book brings the long-forgotten story of Krom Hendricks, who was barred from playing for his country in the 1890s, to the surface and in doing so, adds to the current discussion about race in the country. Review by Mushtak Parker.

To most cricket fans the world over, the name William Henry Hendricks would be meaningless. Yet he was a South African cricket icon who was rejected by the mighty empire of Cecil John Rhodes, perhaps the mother of all arch-imperialists, simply on the grounds of his race.

The compelling story of Hendricks seems to have been buried, or deliberately excised from the perfidious annals of ‘Empire’ as if he never existed. It was done no doubt with the collusion of Rhodes, the Premier of the Cape Colony between 1890-96, the powerful Afrikaner Bond party and the self-serving Western Province cricket establishment.

It is one of the first examples of state capture, and the suppression of a sporting history, in the world. 

The irony is that Hendricks’ ethnicity is as shrouded in mystery as the origins of his mischievous sobriquet ‘Krom’, meaning ‘askew’ or ‘crooked’ in Afrikaans. He was classified as ‘Coloured’ (‘mixed race’) and once even as a ‘Malay’ in the racial lexicon of the Empire and later, in Apartheid South Africa.

The reality remains that Krom was the first sportsman to be formally barred from representing South Africa on the grounds of race, which paved the way for the institutionalisation of racism as part of government policy in South African sport for the next century.

Fast-forward seven decades when in 1968, history repeated itself with the Basil D’Oliveira affair. That same axis of evil – the Afrikaner government of Premier John Vorster, the cricket establishment, the MCC and even the UK PM, Sir Alec Douglas-Home – colluded to exclude D’Oliveira from the original MCC tour party to South Africa.

D’Oliveira, of Indian-Portuguese descent, who had been forced to leave South Africa in pursuit a cricket career in Britain, was later included in the English Test team to tour South Africa.

Stung by this move, John Vorster rejected what he termed “a politically imposed selection”, which resulted in the tour being cancelled.

A book that desperately needed to be written

It is in the context of such historical intrigue and shenanigans that Jonty Winch and Richard Parry have unearthed the story of Krom Hendricks in their fascinating book, Too Black to Wear Whites, published in February. Ironically, the launch was at the famous Newlands Cricket Ground in Cape Town, from where Hendricks was barred from representing his country.

The book is a prodigious and forensic exercise in storytelling. In his foreword, the renowned sports historian and Chair of the Transformation Monitoring Committee at Cricket South Africa, Professor André Odendaal, says it “desperately needed to be written”.

As such, the authors have done South African, and world cricket, a huge service in articulating a non-White sporting heritage fraught with adversity, sacrifice, courage and humanity. Hendricks, according to Parry, “was unequivocally the best fast bowler of his time; the victim of a virulent social racism and a political ideology, which had much to do with the developing economics of the mining industry.”

The book’s scope is so huge it would need several readings just to absorb the scale of scholarly detail. It takes in Hendricks’ origins and the interaction between the colonial power, the ‘Coloured’ Christians and the Muslim Cape Malays. It examines the racially-charged discourse on whether to include Hendricks in the South African team to tour England in 1894 and the claims of his prowess “as probably the fastest bowler South Africa has ever produced”.

It comments on similar interactions between race and cricket in the ‘brown’ and ‘black’ corners of the Empire in India, Ceylon and West Indies and comparisons with the D’Oliveira affair.

“There are other Hendrickses out there,” explains Parry, “and each has a story illuminating the struggle over race and the power of the South African state but Krom created the template.

“He was not the only ‘mixed race’ player in the Southern African set-up in the period and other similar struggles in rugby and elsewhere do much to flesh out the real experience of colonialism, whether practiced by Britain or the South African regime.”

The publication transcends the genre of mainstream sports books on South Africa, which in the past have tended to concentrate more on performance and personalities than the politics of race and sport.

Parry, who did his MA thesis on Cecil Rhodes and spent 16 years as an international tax expert at the OECD in Paris, had acquired a keen additional interest in the politics of cricket, when he teamed up with co-author, Jonty Winch, himself an accomplished sports journalist and historian. 

“My primary motivation,” explains Parry, “was anger at his [Krom’s] treatment and that of countless other South Africans and the way this historical record was stolen by the colonial state.”

Krom Hendricks, stressed the authors, “was an exceptional cricketer in extraordinary circumstances. He was caught in a political machine that dehumanised him, denying his talent, his identity and his pride as a South African. His deselection for the tour of England in 1894 by Cecil John Rhodes, the arch-imperialist bestriding southern African politics and finance, fixed the colour bar in cricket.”

Rhodes acted within a broader political alliance with Jan Hofmeyr, the leader of the newly-formed Afrikaner Bond, no doubt with the knowledge of the Foreign & Colonial Office in London.

This narrative is not only about how Hendricks became “the central figure in the genesis of sports segregation in southern Africa,” but equally importantly, rescues him “from historical anonymity”.

Hendricks was born in the Cape Town enclave of BoKaap in 1857, a member of the Christian minority in a predominantly Muslim community, comprising mainly Cape Malays, Indians and Ottoman Turks. He played for several key ‘Muslim’ clubs.

This book is also a trip down memory lane, for I also grew up in the BoKaap stamping grounds of the likes of Hendricks and D’Oliveira and other non-White cricketing legends such as Taliep Salie, Sakkie Abrahams and Dol Freeman, albeit a generation or two before me.

Krom’s legacy

So what legacy does the Krom Hendricks story hold out for cricket in a post-Apartheid era? The fact that even D’Oliveira did not know of Krom Hendricks speaks volumes. 

“The rewriting of South Africa’s history,” says Parry, “is an essential platform for fighting the ongoing struggles of the present, of building a better understanding beyond our current ideology and kleptocracy.

“Sport has at key moments been at the heart of culture, politics and economics. In the Hendricks case sport actually leads the way in how society structures itself. There is a huge amount of work to be done in this area,” maintains Parry. I could not agree more!  

Too Black to Wear Whites, by Jonty Winch and Richard Parry, is published by Penguin. ISBN 978-1-77609-508-7

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Written by Mushtak Parker

Mushtak Parker is Editor of Islamic Banker Magazine, one of the foremost journals in the industry with a global circulation in the major Islamic Financial institutions.

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