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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Refusal to take the knee before a match is no worthy act of dissent
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Refusal to take the knee before a match is no worthy act of dissent

Quinton de Kock’s stance at the T20 World Cup was an affront to people forced to kneel by racism

Photo: ReutersPremium
Photo: Reuters

Nobody knows the name of the man who walked up to a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square on 5 June 1989, blocking their way, and briefly even climbing on top of one tank. Nobody knows what happened to him. Television footage shows him being led away by two people, but it is not known if they were plainclothes police officers or concerned bystanders. But that image is stirring. It shows raw courage, as one man stands up for what he believes in and tries to stop an army. At least 3,000 people, many of them students, would be killed in massacres Chinese security forces unleashed soon after.

There is another stirring image. In 1936, as a German shipyard has finished building a ship about to set sail from Hamburg, hundreds of men, possibly workers, raise their right arms for the Nazi salute. The image is black and white, but it has a menacing overtone, foretelling a grim future. In the top right corner of the photograph we see a man with a frown on his face and with his arms folded firmly. He is not going to join the crowd. His name, it is believed, is August Landmesser. In 1991, a German newspaper found the photograph and published it, and August’s daughter Irene Landmesser came forward saying that the man who refused to salute was her father. Landmesser had joined the Nazi party in 1931, but he had fallen in love with a Jewish woman. They were not allowed to marry, but they had children. He was arrested for ‘rassenschande’, or dishonouring his race, and jailed, his wife was sent to a concentration camp, and after his release, he was drafted in the war. He went missing in action and is believed to have died in the war. He had refused to be complicit in Nazi crimes, refused to comply.

And then there is Quinton de Kock, the 28-year-old South African cricketer who refused to take the knee during the T20 World Cup being played in the UAE after being instructed to do so by his country’s cricket board. He sat out the match against the West Indies, citing ‘personal reasons.’ We have no way of knowing what De Kock’s reasons are, but in recent matches he has held his hands back and stood straight while his team-mates have taken the knee or raised their fists in solidarity with the now-global Black Lives Matter movement.

No action has been taken against De Kock yet, but his playing days for South Africa may be over. He may seek a career for himself in T20 tournaments, but hiring him would likely be a headache for any cricket-team franchise.

Being a conscientious objector is a virtuous act in many cases: think of the man trying to stop a tank or the man refusing to do the Nazi salute. Those objectors were confronting power and speaking up for the vulnerable, for the marginalized, for the powerless. In De Kock’s case, he is an objector all right, but where is the conscience?

De Kock’s supporters would stress that he has the right to say ‘no’; that nobody should be forced to comply with something one does not believe in. That’s fine as it goes, but to what exactly is he objecting? What does he believe in? It is one thing if he has hurt his meniscus and can’t bend the knee easily (in which case he should not be in the playing squad). Or he may think that taking the knee is an empty gesture. Or does it have to do with the cause itself? Not everyone believes all lives matter equally. Since he has been able to play with ease, the first reason could be ruled out. Unless there are unrevealed possibilities, that leaves the second or third reason.

Assuming it is not the third, let us examine the second in its historical context. Apartheid was the most blatant, in-your-face discriminatory system in the world in its time. Every society discriminates, but apartheid was particularly repugnant because South Africa had codified it, giving bigotry the imprimatur of the law. It segregated people by race, kept the majority out of many jobs; people could not live where they wanted, nor marry who they wished, and they had separate beaches, benches, entrances and bathrooms, even different prison conditions if jailed. When Nelson Mandela was released from the Robben Island prison after 27 years in 1990, De Kock wasn’t even born. He is a child of the new South Africa that has taken freedoms for granted; he has not known what it means to be part of the majority and being denied basic rights. In South Africa under apartheid, non-Caucasian lives did not matter. If he disregards that past, it reflects poorly on him; if he is unaware of it, it reflects poorly on the South African education system.

But he is in a cricket team with players who do not look like him, to whom he owes the courtesy to acknowledge and recognize pains of the past. By expressing solidarity, he would not be being brave; it would be decent. Instead, he has become the cricket world’s poster boy of ignorance. As the former West Indies captain Darren Sammy put it: “As my mother always said, you’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything. Sometimes I don’t understand: why is it so difficult to support this movement, if you understand what it stands for?"

In his refusal to kneel, De Kock’s action trampled the feelings of those who were forced to kneel under grim circumstances of racial suppression. He is not the ‘lone dissenter’ here; his stance simply stuck out like a sore thumb. And his ‘courage’ was probably a mere pigment of his imagination.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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Published: 27 Oct 2021, 10:20 PM IST
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