For some of us who got introduced to the sporting greatness of South Africa only in the early nineties when it came out of apartheid, more than any player, it was Ali Bacher who became the first and most familiar face of South African cricket. This article triggered by a recent exhibition ‘The Life of Ali Bacher’ in Cape town, talks about the importance of the man to South African cricket – “He led the side at their peak during apartheid, presided over their readmission, and helmed the board during some of its most momentous and difficult years”
Indeed, as the article begins with a quote from a researcher behind the exhibition “It’s not just a story about one person or one sport, it’s the story of South Africa.”
“…at a time when the country grapples with which parts of history should be celebrated and which should be hidden away.
Bacher’s legacy is a bit of both. With him at the helm as a player and captain, South Africa’s most dominant apartheid-era team beat Australia 4-0. With him as an administrator, South Africa’s white cricket teams got professional contracts, enjoyed the innovation of Sunday cricket, and survived 30 years of international isolation. With Bacher, South Africa returned to the global sporting stage before the country even had democratic elections.
But he had little to do with cricket thriving in communities of colour in South Africa, as a means of protest and a pursuit of passion, albeit without major accolades or commercial impetus. Without him, the rebel tours of the country that further othered the excluded majority population may not have taken place, and without him, the unification process that allowed the white establishment to all but swallow most of the boards of colour may have looked entirely different.”
Born to Jewish parents who escaped the rise of anti-semitism in Europe, Bacher found himself on the other side of the racial divide in South Africa. “South Africa did indeed provide this immigrant family with opportunity, ironically at the same time as plans were being put in place to legally deny the same to the bulk of the people in the country.”
And much like how other South African cricketers, he grew up excelling in multiple sports whilst educating himself to become a medical doctor.
The article is peppered with Bacher’s contradictory actions on racism:
“For several years under the previous Gauteng dispensation, former apartheid-era white cricketers were made to feel unwelcome at the venue, in a reversal of the way players of colour were treated in the past. This is changing, with attempts to build bridges and understand the nuances involved in dealing with a complicated past. In Bacher’s case, for example, it would mean acknowledging his role as an intern for two years at the Baragwanath and Natalspruit Hospitals, both facilities for the treatment of people of colour only, in the 1960s, when political unrest was starting to stir as the anti-apartheid movement gained traction, and his opting for the comforts of a private practice three years later.
….Immediately after captaining South Africa to that historic win over Australia, Bacher opened up rooms as a general practitioner.…There are pictures of Bacher treating patients of colour, shortly after being appointed national captain, and anecdotes about him caring more about cricket than medicine in the exhibition. In what is now a humorous tale, Bacher paid a house call to Kevin McKenzie and first spent time discussing cricket before eventually examining and diagnosing him with encephalitis, a condition that causes inflammation in the brain.
…He was named director of cricket at Transvaal in 1981, and went on to become their managing director. He was also appointed special consultant to the South African Cricket Union and played a key role in organising the rebel tours.
The visits by West Indies in 1982-83 and 1983-84 were particularly controversial, given that that team was comprised entirely of black players. Had they been South Africans, they would not have been allowed to compete. A striking element of the exhibition is a quote from Bacher that reveals that part of his motivation for the tours was to “be an inspiration to our young black cricketers”. That would in retrospect sound oddly out of place, coming from a white man who was doing tricks to bring black players into the country as honorary whites – which is what the touring West Indians were called at the time – but Bacher did walk his talk. In the 1980s he helped set up development programmes in townships. This year, the mini-cricket (previously sponsored by Baker’s and now by KFC) celebrated its 40th anniversary.
… Things like the 1990 England rebel tour under Mike Gatting, which even his daughter Lynn was against, increased the feelings of animosity cricket lovers of colour felt towards Bacher. However, that tour was followed by Bacher meeting with Steve Tshwete, an African National Congress activist who would go on to become minister of sport under Nelson Mandela. Bacher and Tshwete became friends and worked together to unite the different racial cricketing boards and lobby for South Africa’s reinstatement at the ICC.”
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