David Teeger dismissal cuts across South African politics

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David Teeger’s removal as South Africa’s Under-19 captain, a week before the home age-group World Cup being held here, has popped the cork on the connection between sport and politics at a high-octane moment for the country.

Officially, Teeger was stood down over concerns for his and other players’ safety after he expressed views in support of the Israeli army at an awards ceremony in October last year. Complaints against him dedicating his Rising Star trophy to “the young soldiers in Israel” were lodged by the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance (PSA) and several stakeholders in South African cricket, including sponsors, clubs and concerned citizens, who demanded his removal from the national team. CSA appointed an independent advocate, Wim Trengrove, to determine whether Teeger had breached their code of conduct and it was found that he had not. But the story did not end there.

Since Teeger’s comments, the South African government has taken Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on a charge of genocide, and pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrations have taken place countrywide. In almost all instances, these protests have been peaceful, including at Newlands on January 3 on the first day of the New Year’s Test between South Africa and India, and a mass march on January 13, though there have been occasional instances of police involvement. Several sources confirmed to ESPNcricinfo that they expect picketing at the Under-19 World Cup to be organised, non-violent and outside the stadium, with no access to the players. The PSA confirmed to ESPNcricinfo that they have applied for the right to protest and expect no objections.

CSA’s official reason for Teeger’s removal as captain, however, was to mitigate the risk of “conflict or even violence” during the tournament. CSA’s CEO Pholetsi Moseki told ESPNcricinfo that the decision had been taken to “lower the temperature”, even though a recently concluded Under-19 triangular series between South Africa, India and Afghanistan was played at a club ground in Johannesburg, Old Edwardians, without any obvious security concerns.

Instead, it seems there is an ideological reason for Teeger’s removal, which is not so serious that he cannot be part of the squad but serious enough that he is considered not fit to lead it.

When Trengrove was appointed, on November 26, it was to determine whether Teeger’s acceptance speech had breached the code of conduct of either CSA or his provincial team, Lions. His report referenced Teeger’s constitutional right to freedom of expression, and concluded that he had not participated in any unbecoming or detrimental conduct. On December 7, CSA confirmed that Trengrove’s findings had been “received, considered, and accepted” and Teeger was cleared to continue as Under-19 captain. Five weeks later, that changed.

In the time since, South Africa presented their arguments to the ICJ. On the same day as their submission, CSA’s board met and, the following day, it was announced that Teeger would be removed as captain, citing the security threat. That rationale was immediately met with suspicion. “It was political” were the words used by the Afrikaans weekly Rapport on their front-page lead, while a spokesperson for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) criticised the move as “shameful”.

In Teeger’s response to Trengrove, submitted in November last year, he had stated: “My personal and honestly held view is that Israel and its soldiers have not committed genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity.” His view, he added, was “held by many people and democratic governments around the world”, and could not be construed as support for genocide, “because in my view Israel is innocent of all these allegations”.

On Tuesday last week, South Africa’s sports minister Zizi Kodwa addressed the Under-19 team, handed over the national flag and in a seemingly impromptu speech said: “Whatever you do now, you are no longer yourselves. You are ambassadors for South Africa.”

It’s not unthinkable that, with the knowledge of the ICJ case and Kodwa’s words, CSA was forced to consider whether Teeger would be the best captain for the national Under-19 side in the current circumstances. One could imagine a similar upshot if, say, an England captain had been stood down for making homophobic statements, given the UK’s stated advocacy for LGBTQI+ rights.

It has been learnt that Teeger was asked to stand down last week and refused. He has also privately rejected requests for a retraction or an apology for his statements. At a CSA board meeting on Thursday night, it was decided to remove Teeger as captain and the message was communicated to the team on Friday morning.

Where CSA messed up – not for the first time – was with their messaging and timing. Instead of communicating the debate around Teeger as captain, they issued a statement on security threats that appears to be disingenuous, and have since refused to comment further despite it leading to damaging accusations of anti-Semitism. They could and should have been honest about the reasons behind their decision, for themselves and for Teeger.

Far from turning the spotlight away from Teeger, it has now been shone directly onto him. At the age of just 19, he has become – at least in some circles – the face of an issue that ought to be way beyond the remit of a national captain of any age. Ultimately, there is a duty of care that CSA has failed to discharge in allowing this row to escalate in such a fashion. Teeger is young, and hopes to forge a long career in cricket. This does not preclude his statements from scrutiny beyond the boundary, but he does not deserve to be the symbol of this situation.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s correspondent for South Africa and women’s cricket

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