Taking a knee by kneeling on the ground is a gesture of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and something which national teams from different countries have been voluntarily doing at international sporting events ever since the choking to death in Minneapolis of George Floyd on the afternoon of May 25, 2020, by a white policemen who pressed his knee on the Afro-American’s neck for over eight minutes after detaining him on suspicion of passing on a fake currency note in a neighbourhood store. The killing sparked off worldwide protests.
In the summer of 2020, the football team of England took a knee at the start of international matches. The England cricket team also took a knee at the start of a Test series against the touring West Indies, a gesture which was appreciated by the legendary fast bowler turned commentator Michael Holding.
That gesture of taking a knee to express solidarity with the BLM movement has continued in the ongoing T20 World Cup in the UAE, the first ICC event since the tragic killing of George Floyd. On October 23, 2021, when the main group stage of the T20 World Cup kicked off at Abu Dhabi with the match between South Africa and Australia, it was left to the players to decide on whether or not they wanted to take a knee in solidarity with the BLM movement. Cricket South Africa (CSA) had given three options to the players. They could either take a knee at the start of the match, stand and hold up a fist or stand to attention. The South African T20 skipper Temba Bavuma and some of his team-mates like the fast bowler Kagiso Rabada took a knee while the wicket-keeper Quentin de Kock did not follow any of the three options. He reportedly stood casually with his hands behind his back. However, the October 23 evening match between the West Indies and England saw all the players taking a knee.
It was on the next day (Sunday, October 24) that taking a knee became the stipulated norm. At the start of the evening match at Dubai between arch-rivals Pakistan and India, the members of the Pakistan squad held a hand to the heart while the Indian players took a knee, with skipper Virat Kohli saying that this was being done on the advice of the team management. Taking a knee had now become official.
On Monday, October 25, the board of CSA issued a statement that, in the wake of the categorical position taken by other boards (like the BCCI), South African players would have to take a knee at the start of the Tuesday afternoon match at Dubai against the West Indies, and in every match from there on. The statement added that, given South Africa’s past horrific history of apartheid perpetrated by the white supremacist regime, there could not be any disparity in the position taken against racism by the country’s cricketers and that all of them would have to take a knee.
Just before the start of the match, CSA issued another statement that its wicket-keeper batsman and former skipper Quention de Kock “had made himself unavailable to play due to personal reasons.” However, for those who had been following South African cricket, it was quite clear that Quentin de Kock was uncomfortable with being forced to take a knee.
Months earlier, at an online press-conference at St Lucia on June 12, 2021, during South Africa’s Test series in the West Indies, Quention de Kock had refused to explain his position on not taking a knee. As he put it, “My reason? I’ll keep it to myself. It’s my own personal opinion. It’s everyone’s decision, no-one’s forced to do anything, not in life. That’s the way I see things.”
After Quentin de Kock’s unavailability for the October 26 match against the West Indies, the CSA issued a subsequent statement that they were waiting for a report from the team management before deciding on the next step. Which sounds ominous and almost as if the 28-year-old South African wicket-keeper batsman’s international career could be abruptly terminated.
One understands where the CSA is coming from, given the horrific atrocities perpetrated in the past by the white supremacist regime like the gunning down and massacre on June 16, 1976, of 176 school students who were peacefully protesting in the Johannesburg township of Soweto against the forcible imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. That was followed by the kicking to death by state security officials of the 30-year-old black activist and socialist Steve Biko at midnight on 12, September, 1977, in an isolated Pretoria jail-cell (Richard Attenborough’s award-winning 1987 movie Cry Freedom is based on this).
However, mandatorily forcing anyone to take a knee at a sporting event is not a solution. The fact that other cricket boards (first the ECB and now the BCCI) are requesting their cricketers to voluntarily take a knee is an indication of the worldwide success of the BLM’s movement against racism.
Quentin de Kock has not spelt out his reason for not taking a knee but that hardly means that he is supporting racism. Many other white South African cricketers have migrated to play for England or Australia or New Zealand. The fact that Quentin de Kock has and is continuing to make a significant contribution to South African cricket at the international level clearly indicates that he is happy to be a citizen of “the rainbow nation”.
South Africa’s SJN (Social Justice and Nation-Building) official committee is now holding hearings to remove vestiges of racism in all fields, including sports. That there is always a risk of taking anything to an extreme was evident in the fact that after Chennai Super Kings won the IPL 2021 tournament, Cricket South Africa issued a statement hailing the contribution of only the fast bowler Lungi Ngidi who did not even play the finals against the Kolkata Knight Riders. It was only a few hours later that CSA retracted that statement and issued a new one hailing the batting contribution of Faf du Plessis, the winner of the player of the match award in the finals.