Graeme Smith was "not aware" of the difficulties players of colour faced during his time as South African captain. But now, as director of cricket, he has committed to creating a more inclusive environment.
Smith acknowledged he was surprised by the outpouring of accounts of discrimination that has engulfed South African cricket recently, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Former players including Ashwell Prince and Makhaya Ntini have spoken about being isolated in their playing days. This forced Cricket South Africa into forming a Social Justice and Nation-Building committee, which met for the first time last weekend. Smith was asked not to attend the meeting by CSA's board, despite disappointment from the former players. He has, however, expressed interest to be part of the conversation in future.
While also engaging with other players about their experiences, Smith specifically addressed issues brought up by his former team-mate Ntini, who revealed in an interview with SABC that he used to run from the ground to the team hotel to escape the loneliness he felt on the team bus. Though Ntini hasn't detailed when he experienced this, Smith felt it may have been during his own tenure as captain.
"I was very taken aback by Makhaya's stuff," Smith said on Friday. "In my conversations about why he ran to the ground, his explanations to me were different at the time. He never raised anything with me. Culturally, I can imagine, being the only black African from his walk of life must have been tough and maybe an awareness around that is something I didn't have.
"I have considered that and thought about it. We have got to listen and be part of the solution going forward. I know Makhaya's son (Thando) is making his way through the system and it's important that no-one else feels this way going forward."
Smith also confirmed he and Ntini have cleared the air since the matter was first raised. "We had an open discussion, we shared, we listened and no hard feelings," Smith said. "He shared some stuff with me, I shared some stuff with him and I think that's what its about: to be able to heat each other, talk to each other, communicate and move forward and I feel we have done that. There are certainly no issues between us."
'Protea Fire' slogan brought us together
While Smith admitted the South African team environment pre-2010 "wasn't the strongest", he felt the culture camp in 2010, where the slogan 'Protea Fire' was coined, brought the team together. He said: "We had a real opportunity to sit and listen to different backgrounds, upbringings, people different walks of life and work that into an environment where everyone felt included."
That could explain Prince's experience on the 2005 tour to Australia, where South African players faced racial abuse but were encouraged to play on regardless. Prince also said he felt there was "never any unity," in the dressing room and that poor results were blamed on transformation, which meant players of colour could have been hesitant to speak out for fear of being misunderstood.
"I was never aware, I was never made aware," Smith said. "As far as I was aware there were always channels in management, in CEO, in president's positions, but obviously players didn't feel that way. That is an awareness thing and something we have got to look back on and hopefully improve on going forward."
"Didn't favour anyone while appointing coaching staff"
At the same time, Smith is also aware that his appointment in mid-December following months of administrative upheaval at CSA, along with those of Mark Boucher (head coach), Jacques Kallis (batting consultant) and Paul Harris (spin consultant) could be construed as a 'whitewash'. Especially because all four players were named as part of a clique that controlled South African cricket through the 2000s.
Herschelle Gibbs was one of the people that attached that label to the quartet along with AB de Villiers in his autobiography. Smith was at pains to point out that he did not create positions for his friends and called allegations of a whitewash "unfair."
"The narrative of a clique taking over is really unfair. I was appointed by a rigorous process of mainly black African people in my interviews," Smith said referring to the CSA board, and president Chris Nenzani, who ratified the position."I made a number of appointments, not only Mark Boucher - such as the permanent appointment of Volvo (Masubelele), the team manager, Justin Ontong (fielding coach), Charl Langeveldt (bowling coach), Enoch Nkwe (assistant coach) and the medical staff.
"Paul Harris was around because Keshav Maharaj requested to work with him and he was only a consultant for that Test series. Jacques Kallis hasn't been on the payroll for many months. He worked as an interim consultant. That is important to clarify.
"If you're asking me whether I think JK is one of the best batting coaches and batting cricketers we've ever had, I will tell you yes. It would be stupid of us not to involve our most successful cricketer and the batting experiences he could bring to our young batters. But I understand (people's concerns). I think a balanced approach is key."
For now, Smith intends to involve himself in a "listening and engaging process," as he continues to work towards rebuilding South African cricket. He conceded that the last few weeks have made him "revisit," his reasons for becoming involved in administration but that his initial objective of contributing to South African cricket remains the same.
"When I joined in December, it was chaotic, its feeling chaotic again," he said. "It does raise question marks over whether you can achieve in this role and be successful in it. But I got involved because I've got cricket at heart, I feel I can add value to the game, I can be part of the solution to help Cricket South Africa and the players perform well again, to help the organisation financially, to bring my relationships and my thinking and share that with people. My objective remains the same."
With acting CEO Dr Jacques Faul set to move on from the role on September 15, and no clarity over the fate of suspended CEO Thabang Moroe, Smith confirmed he will stay on and work with whoever steps into the executive for the remainder of his two-year deal.
"My commitment is still there to want to go good in South African cricket and to move forward with whoever the leadership is going to be."