Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What AB and Hash teach South Africa about hope

27 Jan 2015 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  Rand Daily Mail

AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla are great examples of the rainbow dream that South Africans have been letting go of recent.

I won't offer an opinion on whether President Jacob Zuma or Zelda la Grange is right on whether South Africa's troubles began with the arrival on these shores of Jan van Riebeeck.

I also don't know the exact genealogy of the Pretoria-based De Villiers family. But I suppose that if it weren't for that consequential landing in the Cape on April 6 1652, South Africa might never have laid claim to the cricketing genius and force of nature Wanderers and the world saw last Sunday when AB de Villiers smashed his way into the history books.

There are, for once, too few superlatives to describe such an instinctively brilliant player, in any sporting realm. Dr Ali Bacher, no slouch at the crease himself and someone who knows a thing or two about high-pressure test captaincies, is not normally given to exaggeration.

His take on De Villiers scoring the fastest one-day international century hardly seems over the top, given that De Villiers scored 104 off just 31 balls, including 10 sixes. "In my opinion, AB is the most brilliant, innovative batsman the world has ever seen," Bacher enthused after watching De Villiers's demolition of the West Indian bowling at the Bullring.

With so few, if any, political role models to inspire South Africa these days, perhaps focusing on sporting heroes will lift the national spirit and light the load-shedding darkness soon to be thrust upon us, courtesy of either Eskom or apartheid, but probably not to be blamed on Van Riebeeck. He was a candles-only man.

Our great cricketing rivals, Australia, spend far more time and money incubating prodigies like De Villiers by fast-tracking them to state-funded academies and training camps at an early age.

Perhaps in the case of AB de Villiers it's just as well he was not spotted for one sport early on, because then he might never have taken up international cricket. His embarrassment of sporting riches includes junior records and national selection in practically everything else: rugby, tennis, swimming, athletics and badminton.

But the Aussies also have the order of things in life right - they revere sports stars and disparage their politicians. I witnessed this phenomenon at a Bledisloe Cup rugby test against New Zealand on a starry night in Sydney in September 2001.

One of the most successful captains of Australian rugby, John Eales, was to lead his team onto the field against New Zealand for the last time. The capacity crowd cheered him to the rafters when the stadium announcer reeled off his superb achievements.

The same disembodied voice then announced the arrival of "the prime minister of Australia, Mr John Howard". And the same capacity crowd lustily booed the man they had voted into office three times and would do so twice more.

De Villiers, of course, didn't write his name in the history books because someone appointed him to the position or because he fitted some or other sociological or demographic profile. He did it on sheer merit and the "10000 hour rule," which, journalist and researcher Malcolm Gladwell reminds us, is the backbreaking effort and temperament needed to supplement even outsized talent.

This point was underlined last year by none other than Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula. At the costly 2014 SA Sports Awards he proclaimed: "I have never made an excuse for mediocrity. I will never shy away from pulling an extravaganza to celebrate the winning spirit of South Africa."

Alas, any of his ministerial colleagues, while not shy of extravaganzas, would have a problem with Mbalula's denunciation of mediocrity.

For a range of reasons, despite their celebrity status, few sports stars - no matter where in the world - do well in politics. Temperament and money might provide some clues here. But even when they take the plunge, few succeed unreservedly. Another sporting great named De Villiers, Springbok captain Dawie, managed to lose his marginal parliamentary seat in 1981. He found another one, but his winning aura was dented. The same thing happened to British Olympic hero Sebastian Coe. His global fame was no protection against the Tony Blair electoral tide which swept him out of the once-safe Tory seat of Falmouth and Camborne in 1997.

In Pakistan, cricketing legend-turned-politician Imran Khan has tried in vain since 1996 to translate his popularity into presidential power.

One MP here who has some sporting form from way back is the president of the almost lifeless COPE, Mosiuoa Lekota. It is from his soccer-playing days that he derived his nickname, "Terror".

Whatever his failures of political leadership, he is a certifiably non-racial player and a man of unusual eloquence and thoughtful insights.

In a letter to The Times this week he borrowed the powerful imagery of the Wanderers partnership of De Villiers and his other record-breaking teammate, Hashim Amla, to revive the all-but-buried nation-building of Nelson Mandela.

"Let's set aside victimhood and build bridges," Lekota wrote. "Like Hashim Amla, we can look to compile our societal gains incrementally, or like AB de Villiers we can seek to get over the confines of racism in a hurry by hitting it out of the ground so it disappears forever."

There's another point of light which the Amla-De Villiers partnership offers to a world dimmed by the fundamentalist violence witnessed in Paris and Nigeria just days before the match.

Amla is a devout Muslim and De Villiers a practising Christian. Their partnership inspires and builds hope. Which seems a better vision to celebrate than debating Van Riebeeck.



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