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Temba Bavuma: How he escaped poverty and crime in Langa to become South Africa’s first black Test centurion

The distance from Newlands, possibly the most picturesque cricket ground in the world, to the sports complex in Langa, is approximately eight kilometres. On Cape Town’s roads, it would take you fifteen minutes to make the journey, at most times. And yet, the two arenas may as well be in different universes.

Newlands is in the middle of a leafy, affluent mostly white suburb. When you drive through these streets you see people in coffee shops chatting exuberantly outdoors. You go past groups of runners in the latest gear following their trainer with devotion. In Rondebosch Common, a large expanse of green, you will likely find a group of geriatrics taking in the sun as they do their Surya namaskars on yoga mats. In Langa, life is a bit different. Langa, which is Xhosa for sun, formally opened in 1929, making it the oldest suburb or township of its kind in Cape Town.

It is only three square kilometres but is home to more than 50,000 densely-packed people. At last count, its population was 99.1% black African. One of these was Temba Bavuma, who grew up on Rubusana Avenue, a short walk from Langa Cricket Club. Bavuma, the first black South African to score a Test century — and yes, it has been pointed out that he has only one three-figure score in 47 Tests and 79 innings — is the cricketing pride of Langa. Before him, there was Malusi Siboto, who played 114 first class matches taking 289 wickets and scoring nearly 2000 runs.

And, of course, there was Thami Tsolekile, who was earmarked for big things when he led South Africa in the Under-19 World Cup in 2000. Tsolekile, who would go on to play for the Proteas, was banned in 2016 from all cricket for 12 years after he admitted to failing to disclose details of fixing approaches and contriving to fix a match or matches, among other charges, the RAM Slam T20 competition. If you walk around Langa today, the contradictions smack you in the face. On one street there is a row of houses that have burned down, never to be repaired or rebuilt. On the next, there are SUVs parked on the street, as big as the homes their drivers occupy.

The township, if you can call it that, answers to all the cliches you might expect as a result of poverty. Crime is rife, gangs operate with impunity, drugs are freely available and abused, teenage pregnancies with absent fathers are commonplace and fundamentally there is a sense that there is no way out of here. If you were born in Langa, chances are you would remain in that station for life, never escaping into a stable middle-class environment. This is a familiar story in every slum or shantytown in India. But Bavuma escaped. He is one in 50,000 but, truth be told his odds were one in a million.

As a grown man, Bavuma stands at five feet three inches in his socks, so you can imagine what it was like for him, as a tiny child, to be playing with grown men. But, the fact that Bavuma took to cricket was not surprising. History tells us that the 1820 settlers brought the game to within proximity to the Eastern Cape and that the locals have played the game from their first brush with it. The narrative that Ali Bacher took cricket to the black townships is, to put it mildly, bullshit. Rather, it is a malicious attempt to portray cricket as a white man’s game that would civilise a black country. Bavuma has moved on, but he remains a powerful symbol of what is possible. Sadly, all is not well with Langa Cricket Club.

The facilities there are top-notch, cricket ground with floodlights, turf practice pitches, clubhouse and allied sporting facilities. But, despite being guaranteed nonrelegation from the top division of club cricket, Langa CC is in the doldrums.

They reached a stage where they were suspended by the Western Province Cricket Association in 2021, for administrative reasons, but, by then they were yet to win a single match in their division in 60 attempts. Now, they can’t even fulfil their fixtures. This is the ground reality in Langa and this is why Temba is one in a million. When you worry about the centuries he has not made, remember that his playing for the Proteas is a miracle in itself.

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