Opinion By Hannes Bez 04/10/2005
On his day, Peter Roebuck can be one of the most intelligent and witty cricket writers on the planet. However, sometimes, the drivel he sputters onto a page can barely be called "journalism". His heavy bias and universal assumptions have gotten my gander up more than once, even though they often have nothing to do with me, my heritage, or even South Africa in general.
One of his recent articles titled “Smith’s myth” and published on The Witness recently, has stirred the South African in me and caused me to air my views on his most recent opinion of South African cricket captain Graeme Smith and his nation’s Calvanistic past.
Firstly, a quick history lesson for all of you on the roots of Afrikaners and Calvanism.
Formed from Dutch settlers on the frontier of the early Cape colony, as well as French Huguenots and German Protestants fleeing Europe, Afrikaner society was founded on strict Calvinist principles.
Calvinism is a system of Christian theology advanced by John Calvin, a Protestant Reformer in the 16th century, and further developed by his followers, associates and admirers. The term also refers to the doctrines and practices of the Reformed churches, of which Calvin was an early leader. Calvinism is perhaps best known for its doctrine of predestination, and its history is associated with some notable experiments in Christian theocracy. Some historical analyses suggest that the solidification of Apartheid and the racism that fueled it has its roots in these religious beliefs.
Faulty as it is, James A. Michener's The Covenant brilliantly examines the intricate relationship between Afrikaners and the Calvinist tradition (manifest today in the Dutch Reformed Church). While these literary and historical interpretations have their weaknesses, there is no denying the role of Christianity in the policies of segregation that so notoriously defined my culture in international eyes, a sullied heritage of which I nevertheless remain proud, just as Germans would remain proud of their own heritage, despite Hitler and the frightful events of the 20s, 30s and 40s. Not all Germans were Nazis, nor were all South Africans racists.
Of course, I am proud of the positives, not of the negatives. There is no possible justification for something like Apartheid, and I'm not about to start looking for it, either.
There's your background. Enter Roebuck!
Writing about Graeme Smith's ability to captain the World XI, Roebuck notes that Smith has never bowed down to Australia, and that he seems to have “fire in his belly.” In the past, Roebuck feels, South Africa capitulated all too easily (and I wouldn't disagree). Smith, however, is the key to revival. Hence this comment in his recent article:
"Something has been missing. It is hard to imagine them faltering under Smith, a man unbound by his country's Calvinistic past."
So, what exactly is this supposed to mean, Mr. Roebuck? I'm going to go through the most obvious possibilities.
1. Captains who've failed against Australia have all been Afrikaans, and all Afrikaners are bound to their "Calvinistic past".
The first premise is false. Many English captains have failed against Australia in the past. Most recently, it was Shaun Pollock's turn to be crushed under the rolling Juggernaut. Actually, you can add Mark Boucher to that statement, since he had to stand in for Polly for all three Tests the last time Australia toured South African shores.
The second premise is wrong, as well. Afrikaners are just as varied and diverse as any other cultural group out there, despite its small population and apparent hegemony (thanks to a line-up of pathetic National Party governments shooting their mouths off on the international stage).
2. All South Africans are bound by this "Calvinistic past". "Calvinistic" here seems to mean conservative and timid, given the context of its placement in Roebuck’s argument.
First, this is just plain offensive. If I were Zulu, Xhosa, or even of British heritage, I wouldn't want to be cast in this rubric. I mean, even as an Afrikaner, I don't want to be typecast like this. Generalising is dangerous even at the best of times. Sure, we had a pseudo-Calvinist government for a long time, but what the heck would that have to do with cricketers, Graeme Smith, or, for that matter, any individual in South Africa? I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Calvinism, but in this historical sense, as you can imagine, it has definite negative connotations.
Second, how would "Calvinistic" translate into conservative and timid? Cue the Voortrekkers, who, depending on who you ask, either defended themselves from or ruthlessly attacked local tribes for decades with considerable bravery and success, and, sometimes, abject failure, from which they refused to back down.
Cue the Boer forces who battled with the entire British Empire, a force of 40,000 against half a million, one that Kitchener had to suffocate slowly with his happy innovation, concentration camps, before he could even think of dragging a surrender out of them.
On a symbolic level, cue the fearsome Springbok rugby teams of the mid-century era, one that had the measure of everyone (including New Zealand) for decades, renowned for its ferocity and never-say-die attitude. These teams consisted in large part of "Calvinist" Afrikaners. Sure, Peter, I'll take "politically conservative", but that's as far as I'm willing to go.
Basically, I fail to see what Graeme Smith's country's past would have to do with his captaincy, period.
What do the voyages of Cook have to do with Ponting's captaincy? What does Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church have to do with Vaughan's on-field antics? What do the Gupta and Maurya Empires have to do with Ganguly’s outbursts? Nothing. Roebuck's comment makes absolutely no sense.
If former South African captains have been conservative, it certainly has nothing to do with Calvinism.
Hansie? He risked his entire career on gambling, and lost the metaphysical bet. Not conservative, and that definitely doesn't sound very Christian, either - and I don't mean to sully his name, because for all I know, he could've been deeply religious. Kepler? Slow bat, maybe, but a fearless captain with few weapons at his disposal early in South Africa's return to the world cricket stage. Before that? It'll be hard to even find an Afrikaans captain. Besides, as I've said before, Calvinism has nothing to do with captaincy, unless you see some sort of papal sacrilege in the office of the umpire. In that case, you're just plain crazy, and probably not captaining your country - all apologies to Beefy for that generalisation.
Conservatism may be a symptom of post-isolation South African cricket, but the roots are not to be found in Calvinism, Afrikaner culture, or even a deeper national conservatism, for that matter. To claim the latter would be a slap in the face of such icons as Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela. A search for the cause is a worthy objective, but it's clearly not Peter Roebuck's cup of tea.