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Kallis caught in race row

Johannesburg: “Who is Jacques Kallis'”

The question has reverberated through South African cricket, even though the allrounder was a household name long before he was chosen as man of the latest Test series against Sri Lanka.

After sports minister Ngconde Balfour was quoted making disparaging remarks about him — such as “Jacques Kallis means nothing to me” — the White player found himself thrust into a damaging race row, little more than two months before South Africa host the World Cup.

The feud, principally between Balfour and national cricket chief Percy Sonn, has thrown the spotlight on racism in South African sport and on the quotas designed to create a level playing field after decades of White rule.

It is hindering the campaign by the “rainbow nation” to host Africa’s first soccer World Cup in 2010 and delivers another blow to cricket, a sport still reeling from a match-fixing disgrace involving fallen hero Hansie Cronje.

The quota dispute has put added strain on ultra-sensitive race relations when police are hunting down White Rightwingers suspected of bombing the black township of Soweto in October.

Balfour’s comments, circulated by Sonn in minutes from a private meeting, prompted calls for the minister’s resignation. One opposition political party pounced on the comments, accusing Balfour of “hate speech”. The Human Rights Commission set up to investigate such offences ruled the comments were undesirable but not racist.

“Obviously it’s doing an immense amount of damage,” said Geoff Holmes, who has been involved in youth sports development in South Africa for more than a decade. “I would imagine there’s now doubt in (White cricketers’) minds: ‘Am I in or am I out'’,” Holmes said.

Sonn’s minutes, from a meeting in July, quote Balfour as saying Black people wanted to see Black players on the pitch.

But the minutes also had a nasty surprise for Black players. “You say Black players don’t want to feel like quota players. Tough shit...they must take the pressure,” Balfour said.

Balfour has tried to distance himself from the comments and said no official minutes were taken at the meeting.

“I’ve said it many, many times, since time immemorial. I will not dignify that kind of thing with a response,” he told reporters on the eve of the first victorious Sri Lanka clash. “I love South African players — end of story,” he added.

Although it has taken on a distinctly personal flavour, the public row between Balfour and Sonn — a former official at the FBI-style Scorpions police unit — hinges on whether or not to impose a strict minimum quota of non-White players.

Balfour says quotas are a necessary step towards achieving equality in the sports-mad country, which was welcomed back into international competition after free elections in 1994 ended years in the sporting wilderness of anti-Apartheid sanctions.

For years youth cricket has operated a quota system and an elite training programme to help gifted Black players enter a game traditionally reserved for Whites. Now at least half of youth teams at provincial level are non-White.

Sonn’s United Cricket Board scrapped a planned quota of four non-White players in provincial teams, favouring a voluntary system. But it has set a minimum target of five non-Whites in the 14-man squad for the World Cup, which opens February 8.

Some say quotas should be tighter as “non-White” includes “coloured” mixed-race groups and traditionally more cricket-friendly Asians who under Apartheid occupied a kind of middle ground between Black and White. Critics say quotas should promote the Black three in four South Africans who fared worst.

In any case, most of the cricketing establishment considers strict quotas inappropriate at national level, including Black players who do not want the stigma of being “quota players”.

“If guys are good enough they will come through. Clearly colour shouldn’t come into the equation. You’ve got to choose the strongest team,” Kallis told South Africa’s Sunday Times in an interview. Tony Irish of the South African Cricketers’ Association said players did not wish to get involved in any political row which might distract attention from their World Cup build-up.

Seeking to stifle the row, the government has rapped Sonn’s knuckles for acting unethically in publishing the minutes, and ordered Balfour to report on progress on “transformation” in sport — shorthand for redressing the racial imbalance.

Chester Williams, Black winger in the team which hosted and won the 1995 rugby World Cup after the return to international sport, dismissed the spectacle of racial equality as a sham. “That popular image of me being a black rugby icon was a bad joke,” Williams said in a book, adding that a teammate had used the derogatory term “kaffir” to him.

From the other side of the racial divide, Kallis said he was disappointed by Balfour’s comments but would not retaliate. “Our job is to get on the field of play and do what is required of us,” Kallis said.

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