Forgiveness from the heart of South Africa

The township story: Sadness but no bitterness as grass roots vow to flourish
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Ezra Chigwe has had many alarms in a life lived in a Cape Town township. His beloved Langa Cricket Club was once on the actual front line in South Africa's battle to destroy the warped apartheid regime. But never in his long association with the game of cricket has Chigwe ever been so stunned as he was nine days ago. Hansie Cronje with his hand in the till?

"I was very surprised when I heard," he said. "At first I thought it must be the Australians trying to undermine us before the one-day series! At the moment we don't know what he has done but we should not be too hard on him, let us wait until we have heard the whole story."

Chigwe is the president of the Langa club, the foremost black and specifically African cricket club in the country. They recently celebrated their 25th anniversary, are in rude health, and are beginning to produce a conveyor belt of black talent (watch out for their most famous son, Thami Tsolekile, the former captain of the South African Under-19s and now Western Province's first-choice wicketkeeper).

Cronje's indiscretions may be a blow to the reputation of the national game but they will make not a jot of difference at Langa, where excitement is already building towards the start of next season, when they will take their place in the Western Cape's premier division for the first time.

And, anyway, the dynamics of the game at grass-roots level go beyond one man, says Border's Greg Hayes, the white, Xhosa-speaking development officer who took Makhaya Ntini from a rural goat-track to the Test arena.

"Everyone has held Hansie in very high esteem and is very disappointed, but this doesn't affect cricket," he said. "The game is bigger than any one individual. They will come and go but the game will be there for good. I have just been meeting with the two major sponsors of our rural development programme and they are obviously disappointed but it's not going to stop them putting money into a programme that's going to help the kiddies out in the villages."

The shock was universal. Indeed the word doesn't really do justice to the profound sense of dismay felt by South Africans on Monday when Cronje admitted he was not as clean as he had led us to believe.

The news that "our Hansie" had taken money from bookmakers was akin to hearing that Nelson Mandela himself had been embezzling from the public purse. Even his team-mates have struggled to come to terms with the idea. Before the first one-day international against Australia in Durban on Wednesday one senior player confided: "He was on top of the world. He was earning a fortune and he was loved and respected by the country. I just can't believe what he has done."

Quite what Cronje actually did remains unclear. But what is not in doubt is the havoc he has wrought to a reputation that was untarnished across all of South Africa's Byzantine racial and social barriers.

Moabi Litheko is a cricket commentator for the Setswana-speaking radio station Motsweding, in South Africa's rural North West province. He has known Cronje for several years and is as much at a loss to explain the events of the last week as his listeners.

"We had our hour-long talkback programme on Tuesday and we had calls about Hansie," said Litheko. "They couldn't understand why someone so highly paid could have apparently done such a thing. Hansie was seen as a national hero and I think many people are asking how this could happen in South Africa.

"You know, ours has been a very polarised country but with the rugby World Cup in 1995 and the African Cup of Nations, sport has pulled us together. Our sports heroes are important so everyone is sympathetic, if perplexed. I don't think this will seriously damage cricket in South Africa. It actually seems to have brought the team even closer together."

It will be a consolation, if a small consolation, if the inquiry concludes that Cronje always tried to win every match he played for South Africa. South Africans have a universally fierce pride in their country - despite its problems - and to do it down on the sports field is a form of high treason.

Another team-mate confided earlier this week that Hansie's sin was the simple one of greed: "The subject of money was never far away with Hansie. He was pretty much always talking about how much we were making out of a deal, or how much something cost. He was always doing deals. I think he had a moment of weakness. I think a few of us had our suspicions but we just didn't want to believe it."

Whether Cronje can ever be rehabilitated remains to be seen, but Ezra Chigwe has forgiven more heinous crimes by white South Africans in the past and offers wise counsel. "A man can do 99 things right and then do one thing wrong, but it doesn't make him bad. Hansie is human after all. People are always making mistakes but Hansie has done a lot of good things. There must be forgiveness."