Lunch-time cricket at St. George's Park: socialism or the free market?

Lunch-time cricket at St. George’s Park: socialism or the free market?

Here’s what I’d do if I was elected to lead the good people of South Africa tomorrow:

  • I would allocate half the South African budget to Test Cricket. I’d buy out the BCCI and organise a Test League of Nations, to be played in South Africa.
  • I would build fantastic new stadiums, with 120 000 capacity, all around the country. Construction companies would build these stadiums free of charge to show their support for the new government.
  • I would reclassify the ‘unemployed’ as ‘spectators’. Unemployment solved! I’ll give free t-shirts and make these new grounds the only places where you can get your monthly social grant, but only after you’ve watched five days of cricket.
  • I would nationalise forests and tanneries and require them to only make bats, wickets and cricket balls.
  • I’d change the school curriculum to only focus on subjects relevant to cricket: history (cricket history, of course), math (to be able to understand the Duckworth-Lewis system), languages (to allow ex-players to become articulate commentators after their playing careers) and music (to practice playing the various instruments necessary for a stadium band).
  • I would abolish trade with countries that do not play cricket. I’ll call these countries anti-revolutionaries.

This is what happens when you spend three days watching some of the best Test Cricket South Africa has ever produced. (For those unfamiliar with Test Cricket, here is an attempt at an explanation.) South Africa beat Australia in an epic encounter at St Georges Park, Port Elizabeth, and I was fortunate to watch three of the four days live. South Africa, having been beaten convincingly in the first test, had a point to prove, and they did. Centuries by AB de Villiers, JP Duminy and Hashim Amla, and excellent bowling by Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn and Morné Morkel showed why South Africa is the No. 1 ranked test team in the world. Newlands, the venue of the third and final test match in the series, is going to be epic.

Over the same weekend that the Proteas beat the Aussies, two of South Africa’s main opposition parties – the DA and the EFF – released their election manifestos. Perhaps the less said about these manifestos the better. While there is much to applaud in the DAs attempt at realistic expectations, their promise of 8% growth is as fantastic as the fiction that the EFF managed to dish up. I think the EFF missed an opportunity here: their left-leaning policies and energetic (perhaps even inspirational) leadership is attractive to a large segment of society, and understandably so. The fervour of their rhetoric, when the economy is stagnating and improvement is slow, could have attracted a significant segment of black voters (unfortunately, given their biased policies, non-black support would have been weak regardless). But their fanciful manifesto – promising to double wages in the public sector and nationalise 60% of all mines and banks – is much like those email scams I get daily: they are not written for those that can discern right from wrong, but instead for the small percent gullible enough to believe that they can be true. Perhaps in South Africa that is actually a sizeable share of voters.

What could a more realistic EFF manifesto have looked like? I like the idea of additional bursaries for university students, and the fact that we would encourage students to study abroad (I fear, though, that the choice of recipient foreign universities will depend not on quality but political inclination). I also like the ideas of making history a compulsory subject (although, again, probably to teach a very specific type of history), of linking education and training with community service, of special courts for corruption, of moving towards green energy, and even of moving parliament to Pretoria. Instead of 60% nationalisation (see how well that’s working for Zimbabwe), why not advocate a special profit-tax on mining companies (much like Australia has done)? Instead of a higher public wage bill, why not advocate performance-determined wage increases, much like the private sector? Why not emphasize infrastructure spending, which has always been a state-led initiative?

The mantra of the EFFs election manifesto is to build a strong ‘people-led state’ that can, for example, create 1 million small businesses in the next five years. It was lunch on day 3 of the Test Match when I read this. In front of me, on the field, thousands of kids were running around, playing backyard cricket, and the realisation suddenly dawned on me: what we are trying to do in South Africa is much like lunch-time mini-cricket. Two days earlier, Sunfoil (the sponsor) organised official mini-cricket matches to be played by several hundred kids. It must have been a very difficult thing to plan: all the kids had to be brought from schools in the vicinity, buses needed to be organised and paid, t-shirts needed to be printed, each mini-match required a parent or teacher to referee (presumably they were not paid), and bats and balls and wickets had to organised for each of the 20 or so matches played during the lunch break. There was also little incentive to play well: each kid were only allowed to bowl and bat three balls, regardless of how good they were. Some excellent young batsmen, for example, faced a bowler so poor that the ball never even reached them. But it was all planned, so once their three balls were up, they had to move on the next station. Equal, but pretty dull.

The next day, nothing was scheduled. There was no sponsor organising anything, no ‘people-led state’ to ensure that hundreds of kids played cricket. And yet, there were several thousand kids on the pitch, playing their hearts out. How? How could this happen when nothing was planned? In fact, all that was done by the ‘state’ was to open the gates to the field.
That is the metaphor of the free market, of course. Kids brought their own bats and balls. Each mini-game had their own rules, their own number of players, their own parental supervision. They were encouraged to be innovative; some were using shoes as wickets and other mini-games even had umpires and commentators. Some kids played brilliantly well – there really is a lot of talent in the Eastern Cape! Those that had the talent and training could show off their skills to an appreciating audience. Others, with different talents and skills, either stayed on the embankment to sing and dance with the band or were running around as fielders. Different, but thriving.

There is a complication to this story, though. These were probably not the same kids playing on the different days. On the first day, I suspect that most kids were from poorer communities in and around PE, while those on the second and third day were from families whose parents were able to buy tickets and take their children to the ground. For whatever reasons, the kids from poorer neighbourhoods would not have had the opportunity to play cricket at all if their participation hadn’t been planned. How to allow free play, then, in a situation where not everyone has access? Perhaps the state is necessary to help with transport. Perhaps a larger share of the field should be dedicated to kids from poor neighbourhoods. Perhaps they should be given more or better equipment by the state, although that clearly removes the incentives to innovate as was obvious on days 2 and 3.

These are difficult questions, with even more difficult answers. But what was clear to me was that, between the Day 1 experiment in socialism, and the Days 2 and 3 experiment in the free market, the free play experiment worked much better. Those are also the policies I’d vote for.