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Born in South Africa but representing England: a response to Peter Oborne

Responding to the controversial dropping of Kevin Pietersen from the England cricket team, The Telegraph's political columnist Peter Oborne declared the impossibility of being born in South Africa and giving full loyalty to England. Sunder Katwala unpacks these remarks, arguing that once the invitation to don our national colours is accepted, the English and British traditions have been to give all team members equal status.

Sunder Katwala
17 August 2012

England cricketer Kevin Pietersen was dropped for the current, crucial Test match against South Africa, after a controversy over the South African-born player sending disparaging text messages about the England captain, Andrew Strauss, also South Africa-born, to friends in the South Africa dressing room. 

Pietersen has been widely criticised. From what I have read about the affair, much of the criticism seems fair. "KP" may have a mercurial cricketing talent, but few would describe him as a team-player. Negotiations have been underway as to whether he could make a sincere apology, and so return to the England fold, though the breakdown in relationships may prove terminal.

But there was a much more sweeping conclusion drawn from the affair by Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne, who moved from criticism of Pietersen's "personal selfishness" to argue that any South African-bred cricketer who comes to England will be selfish and disloyal, using the individual behaviour to castigate a group, and so seeing the affair as raising this "urgent question":

"Is it possible to be born and brought up as a South African and give your full loyalty to England? I believe not. Nationality is not just a matter of convenience. It is a matter of identity. Kevin Pietersen may have chosen to come to Britain. But his attitudes and his cast of mind were formed in South Africa. Ultimately, Pietersen has not much idea of what it means to be British".

There is a strange twist, in that Oborne has written more brilliantly than anybody else on Basil d'Oliveira as an English cricketing legend. D'Oliveira could have been among the South African cricketing greats, except that being classified as "cape coloured" under the apartheid regime meant that he was excluded. He came, late in his career, to England, and made more than sporting history when the South African refusal to admit him as part of the England team led to its isolation from the game. So Oborne must be arguing, curiously, that d'Oliveira, because he was rejected by his own country, can be fully committed to England, but that no South African could no emulate that full loyalty in the post-apartheid era.

There are two possible readings of Oborne's argument. He rather implies, with "cast of mind formed in South Africa", the broad claim that one can never really belong to a new country if one moves to it once already an adult. But that would still leave him questioning the allegiance and contribution to Britain of Prince Phillip, a naturalised British citizen at 26, or Sir Trevor MacDonald, who came to Britain from Trinidad aged around 30, Sir Nikolas Pevsner and many others. Perhaps Oborne would see the need to grant an exception to his rule to those like d'Oliveira or Dr Ludwig Guttman, the German Jewish refugee who founded of the Paralympic Games, who have no choice but to exit the country they grew up in. But all logic collapses in an argument which accepts that those rejected by one country can develop a full allegiance to their new home, as so many certainly refugees do, but to see the same thing as being always beyond the reach of anybody who is fortunate enough to be able to make their own choice to move. It does not make any sense to say that Arnold Schwarzenegger can never be or feel American, because he long dreamt of it as his land of opportunity, before moving there, with little English, aged 21, but that Martina Navratilova could be, because she sought asylum from Czechoslovakia.

Alternatively, as is perhaps more likely, Oborne has a specific mistrust of South Africans, or white South Africans in particular. But this looks very much like a prejudice. Even if this prejudice is wrapped in laudable enthusiasm for Nelson Mandela's new South Africa, it is still prejudice. 

There is a great deal of immigration and emigration between Commonwealth countries - including Britain, South Africa, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India and Nigeria. There are many different reasons from family ties, to opportunities in education and work, and cultural and sporting exchange. To specifically regard any white South African who leaves their native land with automatic suspicion, unless proven otherwise, in a way that would not apply to their Australian counterpart is unfair.

Oborne describes England cricketer Jonathan Trott's behaviour as "faultless" yet to imply that no amount of Ashes' batting brilliance can ever outweigh Trott's decision to leave South Africa. 

It is especially harsh, in the case of Allan Lamb, to take a cricketer who played 200 times for England, including as captain of the Test side, and to take one innings as an example of his playing for himself, not his country.

Oborne appears to have got his facts wrong too, according to Lamb himself, who tweeted yesterday that Oborne's criticism of his completion a Test hundred for England in one 1984 match at Old Trafford was ignorant of the fact that the two batsmen were following their captain's instructions.

"Peter Oborne before you write you should check your facts! Like what David Gower's instructions to Terry and me were at the Old Trafford 1984 test!"

A happier outcome is that Lamb's twitter feed now contains a great many reactions from England supporters, praising his commitment and contribution to his adopted country.

Of course, it is perfectly legitimate, in sport as in citizenship, to discuss who we should allow in to contribute to our team, and why. 

Once the invitation to don our national colours is extended and accepted, surely the English and British traditions have been to give all of our team members equal standing and status, as I argue in a letter in today's Telegraph, responding to Oborne's column.

Doing anything else isn't quite cricket. 

That is what was wrong with the "plastic Brits" campaign. What began as an attempt to debate the complexities of identity, citizenship and international sport - where the boundaries about identity and allegiance which can and should be discussed - soon, by adopting the pejorative and un-British term, descended into crude headlines declaring that there were "61 Plastic Brits in Team GB", stupidly declaring every foreign-born athlete as 'not really us'.

That failed to resonate in any way with the public during the Olympics, which waved the flag for everybody competing for Britain.

Criticising individuals is fair enough, where it is merited. KP was never a good choice as a shortlived England captain. Nor was the England football captain John Terry - but we should beware stereotyping any English footballer who hails from Barking on the basis of his behaviour.

What is surely an impediment to integration is to invite people to be on our team yet to seem to suggest that nothing they could do would ever enable them to fully belong to it. 

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