I would never have had the career I did without Madiba – of course not. I wouldn’t even have been able to dream about it. There would have been no multiracial cricket, because there would have been no multiracial South Africa. I would have raised goats for the rest of my life. But Dr Ali Bacher was able to start the development programme, which brought cricket to the remotest villages, even mine.
I first met Madiba – his clan name – before the start of the 2003 World Cup, at the team hotel in Cape Town. He walked into the room, and the atmosphere changed immediately, just like so many people have described. Our captain, Shaun Pollock, introduced him to everyone, one by one, and explained what we did. But he knew all of that. He had a special word for every player.
Afterwards, he came back to me and took me aside for another word. He said I must go back to my village and tell the young people that I was a star. But at that stage I was not a regular in the team, and there were so many great players, like Herschelle Gibbs, Lance Klusener and Polly. I did not think I was a star at all. But he said I represented many millions of people, and it was important they knew what I had done.
So every time I wasn’t performing at my best after that, I would think of what Tata Madiba had said. Most of the time, I was the only black man in the side, and he made me feel proud of that. He made me aware of my responsibility – that’s why he told me to go back to the village and tell people that everything was possible, that they could make their dreams come true.
And that’s why I carried the shield next to Shaun at the World Cup opening ceremony: it was an important symbol. Madiba said I should carry the shield for as long as I could, that I should keep myself fit and become an example for many years to come.
A few years later I went to his house in Houghton with a couple of the senior players, and we had a cup of coffee with him. Again, the first thing he said was to remember to go back to the village and encourage everyone else. He said the whole country was looking up to me to set an example. He used words like “leader” and “responsibility”, but he said them in a way that made me feel it was an honour, not something daunting.
The rest of the world does not really understand how much our country changed during my lifetime because of Madiba. When I was the age my boys are now, I would run for dear life from a white man, if I ever saw one. Wandering around my village, there was more chance of meeting a hippo.
There were two buses a day into the nearest town, one at six in the morning, one in the afternoon. If you missed them, you had to walk for many hours. I could not speak a word of English when the development clinic arrived one day, but cricket was not strange to us – it had been part of our culture for a hundred years, since the missionaries arrived in the Eastern Cape. But it was nothing like white man’s cricket. We had no kit, no boots. There was an annual festival between the villages – Amaghaghahle – at which the winning team would slaughter a sheep and enjoy a feast.
Look at us now: I went to a privileged white school, and my kids go to a white school – or should I say a former white school. These are the things we need to embrace. Many thousands of people gave their lives during the struggle years, and many sacrificed a lot to end apartheid. But it was Madiba who made it happen. He never forgot his own people in Qunu at any stage of his journey, and he asked me not to forget mine.
The kind of racial prejudice I experienced was, obviously, nothing like apartheid. At the start of my career some people thought I was a token player. A few times I was called the k-word, which is the worst insult. I wanted to hit those people, but I remembered what Madiba said, and would try to learn why they said those things, and try to forgive them. Everyone is your brother or your cousin, whether they believe it or not. He taught millions of people about love and peace.
Madiba stands out to me more than my biological father. He did and said things which our fathers could never do or say. Once you were able to walk, you could no longer sit on your father’s lap. He would chase you away to go and look after the goats or the cows. Our own fathers taught us what their fathers taught them, what was right and wrong. But Madiba was different. He was not afraid if love challenged our traditional culture or society.
Our fathers taught us what was good for us in the here and now. But Madiba taught us what was good for us in the future – to learn not to take things as hard as we would normally. For example, I would have killed someone for stealing my father’s cow, and believed that was the right thing to do.
I was getting ready to drive to Bloemfontein to watch my son play a match when I heard of Madiba’s passing. It was like losing a family member – the head of the family, actually. He was sick, and we knew that one day he would leave us, but still… I was in a very emotional state, stunned and shocked. I could not drive. We watched news clips and features that had been filmed about his life years before. There was so much celebration, and I wondered why we could not have celebrated when he was alive. He might have enjoyed some of the tributes.
We have had two presidents after him. Have they followed his lead? What have they done? Madiba said we should take our guns and pangas and throw them into the sea, to stop fighting among ourselves. I owe my career and my life to him. Like millions of other Africans, black and white.
This article appeared in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2014. You can buy it here.