‘Taking Guard’

Activism and immigration in the game of cricket

Statue of Nelson Mandela as a boxer. Chancellor House. 2016. Photograph by Afripics /Alamy.

To the west of downtown Johannesburg is a part of the city where immigrants and their children have changed the course of a country. This is where the Three Doctors’ Pact was signed, where Nelson Mandela practiced law, where immigrant communities were built, forcibly destroyed and rose again.

Physically, this area starts at Marco Cianfanelli’s sculpture of Mandela shadowboxing outside of the Johannesburg Central Magistrate’s Court. That sculpture stands across from where South Africa’s first democratically elected president had his law offices, in partnership with another future African National Congress president, Oliver Tambo.

From there, it moves down Gerard Sekoto Street (renamed after the social realist artist and jazz musician) toward Kholvad House on Market Street. Along the way, the area takes in a mish-mash of shops selling food from paneer masala to amagwinya (balls of deep-fried dough with fillings). Other stalls are filled with school uniforms, housewares and indigenous herbs for medicine and traditional rituals.

The area follows the incline to Oriental Plaza and continues through the suburb of Fordsburg before veering right toward Fietas—a place ruined by the bulldozers of apartheid’s forced relocations.

But philosophically and politically, this part of Johannesburg extends beyond street boundaries. Through lines of migration, it connects Johannesburg to places like India, Latvia and Lithuania. All these countries have provided immigrants, like the journalist and anti-apartheid activist Ruth First, her husband, the Communist Party leader Joe Slovo and Dr. Yusuf Dadoo of the Transvaal India Congress, whose footprints through these streets have left the mark of an emancipatory politics on them. There is a thread of progressive thinking and non-racialism woven through consequential buildings, antiracist activists and, seemingly paradoxically, practitioners of the game of British imperialism—cricket.

• • •

In a country like South Africa, with its segregated history, cricket’s story has, naturally, been a divided one. The game arrived with the British in the early 19th century. It was introduced across their colonies in the 1800s as a tool of either assimilation or exclusion—in India, for example, cricket was initially the sole preserve of the British, who used it as a sport to “get away” from the clamorous country around them. The latter tack, of exclusion, inadvertently also led to the game’s popularity and indigenization. (While this is a story about South African cricket, you only need to look at the audiences built and revenues generated in Indian cricket to understand how the British introduction of the sport took an unanticipated course.)

From that introduction, South Africa’s cricket story splits in two.

There is a dominant white memory of the game that is premised on racial superiority and a playing identity that embraces conservatism. It was a style of play—of paranoia about “nonwhite” participation and losing control of the game or losing face, begrudging batting, negative or violent bowling (“domkrag,” or stupid force—i.e., throwing the ball with force rather than acuity) and a laager mentality. (It’s not for nothing that laager, in South African English, is a defensive encampment of ox-wagons lashed together—the white sport of cricket wanted to keep everyone else out.)

The other strand of the game is one that has survived in Black communities (to use apartheid racial classification: Black African, people of Indian heritage, people of mixed-race or “Coloured” and Malay), despite attempted erasure by the totalitarian impulses of the apartheid state and the sneers and laziness of influential white cricket journalists and historians. There were amateur unions for each community, segmented by race, but the commonality was that none had the infrastructure to train athletes coming up, or to sustain and support them in their peak athletic years. The “W. G. Grace of African cricket,” for example, batsman Frank Roro, worked as a clerk for the mines of Johannesburg from the 1930s until the 1950s. During this period, he also became the first South African of any race to score 100 centuries.

This “Black cricket” was under-resourced, and so it turned to community instead. Adversity, both economic and political, shaped the manner in which the game was played and administered as the 20th century unfolded—toward a sense of egalitarianism, which was scarce in the white version of the game. In the early 1900s, “Black cricket’s” clubs in South Africa were also initially based on communalism, class and even varying degrees of skin color. The idea of the cricketing establishment, with its hierarchies (not to mention its behavioral airs based on British public school correctness) was felt during the early days of the sport—but also easily discarded. The alarmingly fast-paced removal of civil rights from Black people, together with their diminishing access to land and security of tenure through the passing of legislation in the first half of the 20th century, led to greater political activity within Black communities. This was coupled with new ideas of equality and human dignity brought by Black participants (in many cases soldiers in everything but name) returning from both World Wars. These ideas of non-racialism and emancipation were infused into the DNA of “Black cricket” so that, by the 1950s, the physical and psychic intersections between the South African Cricket Board of Control (SACBOC) and the anti-apartheid movements became more than just incidental.

• • •

Those intersections can be seen in the life and geography of Yusuf “Chubb” Garda. By his own admission, Garda, a South African of Indian descent who was born in 1939, is a circumspect creature. A schoolteacher of English for five years in the 1960s, and a shopkeeper for the rest of his working life, Garda states plainly what cricket meant to him and those he grew up around: “Sometime in 1946, when I was 6 years old, I discovered cricket, cricketers and commentators. I belonged to a cricketing family in a cricketing street—14th Street—in a cricketing suburb called Fietas,” he writes in his book Literature, Life and Cricket—Tales of Fietas.

There would be no turning back.

Garda was a precocious batsman. As a 14-year-old, he was in the crowd watching a second division match involving Moonlighters, a club that found itself a man short when batting. He was asked to pad up, and he proceeded to score 56 runs—a half-century—despite considering himself “virtually a toddler batting against grown men.” (For those unfamiliar with cricket scoring, there are single runs—not unlike a ground ball hit in baseball—which are marked by two batsmen crossing over between their stumps. There are also boundaries, the cricket equivalent of home runs. A boundary hit along the ground scores four runs, while a flighted boundary, which does not bounce, ensures six runs. All of which is to say that Garda’s toddling performance was no mean feat.)

On a weekday afternoon, we are sitting in Garda’s sunlit study in Mayfair West—a two-and-a-half kilometer walk to his childhood home in Fietas. Outside, Johannesburg’s skyscrapers are absorbing the colors of molten gold—purple, shale blue and persimmon orange—which, at sunrise and sunset on such fall days, reflects and refracts the city’s stories and secrets.

South Africa plays cricket. London. 1965. Photograph by PA Images/Alamy.

His shelves are lined with everything that Bertrand Russell, the logician and pacifist, ever published. (For a time in the 1960s, Garda and Russell had a correspondence, though Garda tweaked his name and address, wary as he was that South Africa’s white supremacist government might start monitoring someone exchanging letters with a progressive like Russell.) These sit alongside a large collection of cricket books, including Peter Oborne’s Basil D’Oliveira—Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story and several works by the South African academic and former first-class cricketer, Dr. André Odendaal. His The Story of an African Game: Black Cricketers and the Unmasking of One of Cricket’s Greatest Myths, South Africa, 1850-2003 is seminal for reinserting Black participation into the nation’s cricket history.

Then there are the literary classics, which range from William Shakespeare to Charles Dickens. He purchased his copy of A Tale of Two Cities immediately after watching the film adaptation of the novel as a 14-year-old “at the bioscope” in Fordsburg. The almost transparent brown pages appear even more fragile for the enthusiastic underlining and note-making: in pencil and in blue, black and red pen. These are acts, not of vandalism, but of immersion—of thought and self—into the stories and ideas on those pages.

To be Black or brown in the country during the span of Garda’s life was to struggle against political repression and the invisibility that accompanies it. The white supremacist National Party came into power in 1948 and set about furthering the denial of civil rights that had begun during colonialism and gained momentum with the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Black excellence was, as a matter of course, denied. To excel at anything meant nothing if you were not white. It was more than a tale of two cities: in Garda’s time, South Africa was a tale of relentless schizophrenia for Black people—of grasping at a dignified normalcy, an affirmation of one’s humanity, and having it constantly being ripped away by violence, legislation, paternalism and censorship.

But in 1947, the South African Cricket Board of Control (SACBOC) was formed as an umbrella body to bring together the various cricket unions—aside from the white one—to play inter-race tournaments and organize international tours. By coming together, the communities made new, bigger opportunities for the “nonwhite” cricketers of the country.

The first international tour organized by the SACBOC was a 1956 visit by the Kenyans. It’s notable that the 1956 South African team was captained by the powerful “Coloured” batsman, Basil D’Oliveira. (It was D’Oliveira’s selection for the England team, and their election to tour South Africa a decade later, that would cause a political controversy that ultimately led to the apartheid state being banned from international cricket participation.)

A 17-year-old Garda was nowhere near being selected for the South African team—but he was in close proximity of the Natalspruit ground when the final selection match, between “The Possibles” and “The Probables,” was taking place.

Garda was umpiring a junior match on an outer field when one of the teams found themselves with 35 runs on the board and five wickets down. They were also two batsmen short. Said another way, they were in trouble, having lost their specialist batsmen for a paltry score, and there was a scramble to find a pickup player or two. Suddenly, Garda was standing at the wicket, bat in hand, taking guard (essentially, settling into his batting stance) against one of the best bowlers in the country.

“I was mentally prepared. Nothing was really going through my head—that’s my nature. In all the innings I have played, I’ve never spoken to the opposition—I only concentrated on the cricket,” he tells me on the phone a few weeks after our first meeting.

He remembers “getting in”—a term for settling into how the pitch would play in terms of bounce and movement while being able to read the accuracy and speed of the bowlers’ deliveries—quite early on.

“After batting for about five minutes, the bowler Alec Dell bowled a ball which was a bit of a full toss” (a pitched ball that reaches the batter without bouncing). “I hit a thundering shot back over his head. It moved so quickly that I felt like I was still following it onto my bat by the time it had crossed the boundary for a six. I’d never owned a bat until that point, and I never hit a shot like that before or again,” says Garda.

His remarkable performance continued. At the close of play that day, Garda was on 84 not-out. By the end of his innings, he had scored an unbeaten 126. Garda was asked to play for the South African team against Kenya in Cape Town. But he was in his final year of high school and was forced to decline because the match clashed with his year-end examinations. Though he did, a few days after flaying seasoned bowlers like Dell and George Langa, meet Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, the great anti-apartheid activist and leader of the South African Indian Congress and South African Communist Party at a function at the Shelbourne Hall.

Garda initially brushes off my question about what it was like meeting Dadoo and whether he was aware, as a teenager, about the non-racial impulses that were sweeping through parts of Johannesburg and the country at that point in the late 1950s.

But Garda later returns to my question and makes the excruciating point about human potential being denied in a society based on legislated racism: In another country, such a victory presentation would have been with the president of a country—something Dadoo was not, but so easily could have been.

• • •

When thinking of what could have been, it is helpful to look again at Kholvad House, an unassuming five-story building on Market Street in Johannesburg’s downtown. Named after a village outside Surat where many of those associated with the building and its administrative trust hailed from (migrants began arriving from Kholvad, India, in 1883, after the Johannesburg gold rush had begun), Kholvad House was designed by the left-wing architect and activist Rusty Bernstein. (Bernstein would be one of those arrested and charged with treason in the Rivonia Trial alongside Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada.)

Dadoo became an early chairperson of the building’s board of trustees. Its fifth-floor boardroom was where the joint declaration of cooperation was signed in 1947 by Dadoo of the Transvaal Indian Congress, Dr. Monty Naicker of the Natal Indian Congress and Dr. A. B. Xuma of the African National Congress. Commonly referred to as the Three Doctors’ Pact, it committed the Congress Movement to non-racialism.

Dadoo also had a keen interest in cricket and had been a patron of the Indian Cricket Union. Rashid Varachia, the first SACBOC secretary, lived in flat 14, next door to Ahmed Kathrada, who had taken over the lease for flat 13 from another political activist, Ismail Meer. The Transvaal Indian Cricket Union and the South African Indian Cricket Union held meetings there before the formation of SACBOC. And an interview with Kathrada, by the cricket historian Odendaal, confirms that the Congress Movement and SACBOC even shared printers—Royal Printers. SACBOC brochures and reports were printed there by day and, at night, when the staff had gone home, the Congress Movement kept the presses busy.

Johannesburg’s city center, as Odendaal, Krish Reddy and Christopher Merrett note in Divided Country: The History of South African Cricket Retold 1914-1950s, was the scene of “overlapping milieus” and the “heartbeat” of political and cricket struggles during a period when the Freedom Charter was signed in Kliptown and players like D’Oliviera were destroying white misconceptions of superiority in the cricket oval.

Flat 13 in Kholvad House was frequented by a range of activists, including ANC president and Nobel Peace Laureate Albert Luthuli, journalist and political activist Ruth First, Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi, Joe Slovo and others. Many of the activists organizing, debating, arguing, drinking and planning political graffiti were of immigrant stock: from India, Latvia, Lithuania and migrants from other parts of the country.

Recollecting his days as a law student at the University of Witwatersrand in Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela writes of Kholvad House: “At Wits I met and became friends with Ismail Meer, J.N. Singh, Ahmed Bhoola and Ramlal Bhoolia. The center of this tight-knit community was Ismail’s apartment, flat 13 Kholvad House… There we studied, talked… and it became a kind of headquarters for young freedom fighters. I sometimes slept there….”

South Africa’s Makhaya Ntini runs out West Indies’ Devon Smith. Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg. 2008. Photograph by Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/Alamy.

Indeed, when the law firm of Mandela and Tambo closed in 1960, Mandela preferred to do most of his consulting in Kholvad House: “Numerous colleagues readily made their offices, staff and phone facilities available to me,” Mandela recalled in Long Walk To Freedom, “but most of the time I preferred to work from Ahmed Kathrada’s flat, number 13 Kholvad House… Soon the lounge of number 13 and the hallway outside were crammed with clients. Kathy [Kathrada] would return home and discover that the only room in which he could be alone was his kitchen!”

The sport and the movement shared more intangible qualities alongside the building in which their leaders gathered. In Imtiaz Cajee’s biography of his uncle, anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol, Cajee noted how Timol was not just an important activist in the anti-apartheid movement, but cared deeply for cricket and was known in particular for his batting. His uncle’s approach to batting—which leads to runs being scored in cricket—mirrored Timol’s life as a teacher and activist: “Ahmed’s cricketing sensibility summed up his revolutionary temperament as well. …[He] was always careful of others and not at all interested in colorful heroics in excess of his brief. Ahmed Timol was a reliable batsman, never tempted by showmanship, possessing an austere elegance and a fierce concentration that is evident in photographs of him at the stumps. His style was unobtrusive and yet somehow always suggested captaincy—he was never a maverick. It was these cricketing qualities, this precision, that marked Ahmed Timol out as an educationist.”

Timol was detained, tortured and then killed at Johannesburg’s notorious John Vorster Square police station, just a few blocks away from Kholvad House. The police alleged that he committed suicide by jumping from one of the upper floors of the police station. They would repeat this often, as more and more activists were tortured and then flung to their deaths; magistrates would inevitably find that there was “no one to blame” for their murders. At least 73 activists are estimated to have died in police custody between 1963 and 1990. The inquest into Timol’s death would be reopened in 2017, and Judge Billy Mothle would eventually find that he had, indeed, been murdered by the police.

• • •

That particular political violence may have been hidden for decades, but in other ways, Fietas—on the western fringe of Johannesburg’s old city center—wears the brutality it has suffered for all to see.

The Queens Park Ground, once the center of Fietas’s community activity with its fields yielding overlapping games of cricket and football reminiscent of the maidans, or public fields, of Bombay, is now home to a private bus company. Fourteenth Street, where Garda grew up in an apartment above the family shop, bears no resemblance to the place of his memory. It stands almost empty, stripped of houses and humans.

This “Black cricket” was under-resourced, and so it turned to community instead.

There is nothing left of 14th Street to resemble Arnold Benjamin’s description in his book, Lost Johannesburg: “The small dark shops, most of them selling clothing and soft goods in cut-throat competition, spilled out their wares into display stands and racks on both sides of the colonnaded pavements. Whatever pedestrian space was left would be jammed with a motley, jostling throng of buyers. The clientele covered the entire South African racial spectrum, from mineworkers’ Black to northern suburbs lily-white. Indeed a good half of the buyers were affluent bargain-hunting whites, their Jaguars and Mercedes prominent among the parked cars jamming both sides of the narrow street.” Instead, there are plots of land emptied of buildings and people, but which still bear proof of their existence: the concrete floors of what used to be a home, or a pile of rubble imitating a cairn for a community that died when the forced removals began in the mid-1970s.

Cricket commentator Aslam Khota grew up in Fietas, in Kolaba Mansions on 20th Street. He remembers pick-up games in the streets with other urchins and the inter-suburb and club matches that drew large crowds of people denied an inclusive national team. Like many of the buildings built by Indian immigrants to South Africa from the late 1800s onwards, Kolaba Mansions was named after a village in India.

Khota, a second generation South African (his family also originally hails from Kholvad), was 18 years old in 1978, when forced removals changed the landscape of the neighborhood. (The relocations were part of a decades-long apartheid government policy to divide multicultural communities by race into separate geographic locations. The aim was to better control the communities, quell their potential collective power and create sources of cheap labor.) He remembers the government first closing down schools for different races in the city before the forced removals began. Children had to start commuting to outlier, racially defined suburbs like Benoni or Lenasia, even while living near the city. Sometimes, the round trips would take up to two hours a day.

Then the bulldozers started moving in, and the people started moving out of his street: to Lenasia if you were of Indian descent, to Soweto if you were Black African and to Eldorado Park if you were classified mixed-race or Malay. All were barren townships and empty ghettoes.

“It was a most depressing time,” he remembers, “watching your friends and family packing up and leaving. We lived in Kolaba Mansions, a lovely apartment block with nine flats [apartments] which kept getting quieter and quieter… but you could hear the bulldozers, all the time, getting louder and louder.” The Khota family’s relocation to Lenasia was completed in four trips on a Saturday. Aslam himself was too traumatized to bear witness, choosing instead to work overtime.

The neighborhood emptied out, and the rubble piled up. Garda captured the removal in a poem, “And Then the Bulldozers Came.” In it, Garda recalled, during the height of the removals, seeing the lines “Fietas Died Today. R-I-P Goodbye!” scrawled on a chalkboard outside the Subway Grocers.

It had been written by a neighbor, Ossie Docrat, who explained the emotion of displacement: “I feel as though my teeth are being pulled out. I run my tongue over the spaces and I try to remember the shape of what was there,” Garda recollects in the poem.

The destruction of Fietas was piecemeal, and Khota had friends still living on 18th Street. Often, when working in the city, he would stay over with them just to be closer to his old home. “We had moved to Lenasia, but the flats remained on 20th Street so, often, I would just walk back there and wander around. The government wasn’t allowing people into some flats, but others soon had occupiers in them. I remember once placing my forehead against the window of what used to be our home and just looking inside… I was a lightie [youngster], I was 18 or 19… It distorts your psyche,” says Khota.

Forced removals were turning South Africans of color into ghosts in their own lives, assuming a liminal state between their past and their present. Kolaba Mansions remains in Khota’s DNA. He talks wistfully of refurbishing it one day and putting in escalators for the people who had lived there but have grown old away from there.

People like Khota are more committed to community— wherever that may be—than to nostalgia, however. It is clear the lessons learned playing “gully-cricket” in Fietas were transplanted to what was, 40 years previously, a wasteland he was forced to call his new home—Lenasia. Khota is a stalwart of Lenasia Cricket Club.

Khota tells me about the challenges the cricket club has faced in ensuring municipal upgrades to the grounds and how the unification process has, paradoxically, undermined the strength and quality of the game in this township. In the eyes of sports administrators and politicians, Lenasia remains, as the apartheid state intended, a ghetto, a place on the margins of their imaginations—and yet, he can never leave its people, Khota confides.

• • •

Meanwhile, a new generation of immigrants has moved into Fietas, Fordsburg and downtown Johannesburg. Recent immigrants from Pakistan are now in the majority in Kholvad House, says Khadija Tilly, the building’s present caretaker: “There are a few of the old families here, but the oldest died during the COVID lockdown. But otherwise [middle-class] South Africans don’t think living in the city is safe anymore.”

Tilly’s son Yahya Bhabha is a 16-year-old cricketer. He has represented Gauteng in provincial tournaments. In some ways, he is a throwback: he says he likes “the intensity of Test cricket”—the traditional form of the game, which can sprawl over days—more than the compressed timeline of the 20 over game, which so many youth are seduced by because of its relatively instant gratification. But he is also the future, a right-armed all-rounder who can deliver balls at a fast-medium pace. He says his best figures so far have seen him skittle over six wickets for five runs in five overs. (A five-wicket haul in an innings is considered the bowling equivalent of scoring a century.)

Heading to the roof of Kholvad House at evening-time, one’s nose is instantly filled with the smell of North Indian curries—the immigrant aroma of homes that defy boundaries. At the top, Mandela’s pugilist pose is clear to see to the south of the building. To the west stand Fietas and Fordsburg and the domes of the Oriental Plaza.

The Plaza is where shopkeepers from Fietas were relocated to after the removals. Many had to travel from Lenasia every day to open their shops. Garda was one such vendor.

Hanging on the balcony outside the Kholvad House’s fifth-floor boardroom, young Bhabha points to the statues of anti-apartheid activists Albertina and Walter Sisulu on Diagonal Street. He plays cricket in the parking lot next to them with friends who, for the most part, are the children of immigrants from India and Pakistan.

They can look up to a different kind of cricketer. Like the Proteas logo they wear on their chests, the South African cricket team has, in recent years, been reborn. As Black and brown players of unparalleled excellence like Hashim Amla, Makhaya Ntini and J.P. Duminy emerged from the late 1990s and into the 2000s to score a string of victories to take South Africa to the pinnacle of Test cricket, the idea of who and what they represented grabbed the imaginations—and support—of the majority of South Africans. Their journeys had emerged from a non-racial dream that had refused to be extinguished by the vicissitude of both the apartheid and the post-apartheid eras.

However, those toxic, supremacist forces are still present in the sport too. In 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum around the world, the brave Black African fast-bowler Lungi Ngidi called for support for the movement and for cricket to confront racism in the sport—and broader society. While many rallied around him, a handful of retired white players took to social media to admonish him.

I see the boys playing on Diagonal Street on June 16. It’s Youth Day in South Africa, commemorating the South African police’s 1976 killing of schoolchildren who were protesting against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools. There are yelps of delight in Gujarati and English as a youngster executes a leg-glance—a delicate hit off to the side—which streams away before bobbling to a halt outside Chancellor House, the former law offices of Mandela and Tambo. The building is now a museum.

The effortless inclusivity they demonstrate around a bat, a ball, a rubbish bin for stumps and the camaraderie from sports is a living refutation of the more insidious aspects of a city—like any other—both cosmopolitan and craven in its makeup.

Rome may not have been built in a day, but, as columnist John Matshikiza has noted, Johannesburg, the “instant city,” was. Its brick and mortar rises and falls as if in milliseconds, but the ideas and politics that permeate its rugged, brash personality have been built over centuries—and with more than a little help from immigrants. Migrants who loved and laughed, who were detained and murdered, who daubed political slogans on walls and were committed to their communities; activists and ordinary decent humans who, through their living politics, helped fashion a new commitment toward a non-racialist future. All this while still, paradoxically, playing a game of colonial expansion.


Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a Ruth First and a Heinrich Boell Journalism Fellow. He is the producer, director and curator of the Marikana, Ten Years On exhibition at the National Arts Festival. His book of slow journalism with photojournalist Paul Botes will be published in 2023.

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