Every now and then, if you're lucky, you can get a glimpse of a familiar figure running out of the team hotel, earphones in place, in a world of his own. “Running,” says Makhaya Ntini, cricketer extraordinaire, black icon, beloved symbol of a born-again South Africa, “sets me free”.
And free is what Ntini, the first black African cricketer to play for South Africa, wants to be, for he, like millions of other South Africans, was not born that way. In a candid and heartwarming chat that reveals an emotional and deeply caring man of many shades and one far more than the airy, noisy avatar on public display (a persona that probably hides some justifiable insecurity), Ntini takes us back into his past (he grew up near a cattleherd in abject poverty and was later accused, convicted but finally acquitted on a rape charge), shows us his present and gives us a glimpse of his future dreams.
Excerpts from an interview:
Everyday, you get out and run almost like you're on a mission. What does running give you?
Running gives you a momentum that nothing else can, a release. It gives you the kind of strength that doesn't let you get tired when you have to go in and bowl 20-30 overs a day in a Test match.
You run 10 kilometres in the day and you're set for the game, you're at peace with yourself and the world.
If I've had a bad day on the day before, I run. If I have a game the next day, I run. The running and the music (on the earphones) gives birth to a new day within me, brings a freshness of the body and the mind that I cannot get elsewhere. When I run, I am alone and thinking of nothing else, doing nothing else. It takes away the negativity.
People say you're tempting fate by running on the crime-hit streets of Johannesburg…
We live in a different country, South Africa is unique, there are problems yes, but I choose to believe that my running in my own country is safer than my running in a country I do not know and whose streets do not know me. I don't take Johannesburg as dangerous, they are my people. I take the fact that I am recognised as a blessing, it brings me that much closer to my people, you feel much more secure because of that recognition. They will want you to continue the progress that has been done so far in the process of transformation, they see you as a symbol of that progress.
Kids, white and black, have voted you as their favourite personality. What does it all mean?
We are a changing country, especially in sport and we realise the power of sport. People stop doing what they're doing for sport, like when things come to a standstill for football, or when people cut their workdays in half to watch cricket. Knowing that people are loving us, living with us, it makes us feel. We know that if we can get kids into sport, they will stop getting into trouble and stop messing up their lives.
But what does being an icon mean exactly?
It means nothing if you cannot be true to yourself. You cannot change the person you are and start living someone else's life. The minute you do that, you are nothing because you are someone else.
How was growing up in apartheid South Africa, with poverty staring you in the face?
The poverty was part of my growing up, something that shaped me and everyone else. As a rural boy, I grew up sharing everything. Even something like a cricket boot, if someone had a pair and someone else didn't, it was given to him when he needed it. It didn't matter if it was big or small, it didn't matter if it didn't fit. It just mattered that he needed it. Growing up with poverty makes you only believe what you see. For us to have whatever we have was a blessing and so, it shaped us. We protected what we had, because we had so little. We still do.
What did cricket do for you?
Whatever it did for everyone else, it gave me a life. Look at (Shivnarine) Chanderpaul. He didn't go to school or have anything, cricket gave him what he has. We're in the same category. I got a scholarship to study English because of cricket. For me, it was a dream.
How did you get into it?
I grew up in a family of seven, brought up by my grandparents. A friend and I would regularly walk past a place where we would watch kids playing in the nets from a distance. One day, when we were watching, they asked if we wanted to come in and have a bowl. That's it, they thought we had something special and they took care of us. I was 14 or 15.
Was it a tough coming of age for a black boy in a predominantly white sport?
Well, to be honest, now I joke about it. Where I was from, we used to call the white men boss or baas or suh. Our parents worked for them, in their homes and outdoors. So the first time I got involved in cricket, I called everyone suh, even if they were younger. It takes time to get out of the mentality.
But did you have a problem?
No, I never did. We were all the same, all searching for an identity, a life through cricket. The problem was communication, speaking English. Once you were in a team, being black or white didn't matter, you had to perform. Sport has made a huge difference to our lives here. In teams, we share a table, a meal, a spoon. Mandela showed us the road, told us we could live as one nation and through sport, we're doing part of it.
But there are problems, like the racial quota system. Kallis said the danger lay in black kids being pushed too early in order to fill up quotas…
I am 100 per cent supportive of what he said because there is always a danger of things ending up the wrong way. There is a need for action because people have been deprived but if you throw someone into the deep end, you'll end up killing his career. Bring people in, give them a couple of games to show them what it's like, prepare them properly. I watched Hansie (Cronje), (Pat) Symcox, (Allan) Donald and (Brian) McMillan, learnt from them. And you have to make your point, 'I'm here to learn and be here on my own strength, not to take somebody else's life'. It's very important to know that. For me, they should not try and push any black player before his time. It can damage his psyche irrevocably.
Some years ago, you were accused of rape, how did you get through that phase?
By staying strong and believing in myself. It was an eye-opener, it taught me to be careful about who I trust and taught me to hang in there. I believed in the court of law and believed that if my conscience was clear and it was, the truth would come out. The tough part was not losing my faith, in making sure my family believed me.
A lot of people said you got away because of who you are...
It was an accusation and it was proved wrong. The difficult part was like when I went out, even when I went down the street to get bread, to have people look at me and wonder whether I had done what the media was writing that I had. No one wanted to hear my side of the story or believe me, not then. That hurt. The newspapers wrote anything, they wanted to sell their papers.
You didn't try telling your story?
To how many? You go to court and give your side, I told them all I knew, told them the truth. But yes, it makes you grow up very quickly and in that sense, I see it as a blessing in disguise.
Where do you see your cricket going?
In terms of South African cricket, I would like to see youngsters come into the sport and learn from me, with me, like I have done with Pollock and Donald. It is not enough for the future to come later, it has to be born in the present and learn from it. Lee grew up with McGrath, other guys are coming in and growing up with them.
And at an individual level?
As a cricketer, I would like to look back one day and think I've achieved whatever I've wanted to achieve. And, I'd like to be thought of as someone who's done something for South Africa. Made a stand for my black community and done his part in bringing black and white people together, see them have their joys together, sit down and laugh together, hold each other and cry together.