South Africa’s assistant coach, Enoch Nkwe, who carried the title of team director until a month ago, has acknowledged that being moved sideways was difficult but provided reassurance that he is not the victim of a whitewash and has been able to hold his own.
Nkwe took South Africa to India in September-October last year and was set to take the reins for the England series this summer. But, a major overhaul 10 days before the first Test saw Mark Boucher installed as head coach and Nkwe effectively demoted amid an outcry at perceived racial discrimination. Given South Africa’s history, it’s not difficult to understand why it was badly received in some quarters.
Against the backdrop of financial and administrative crises, Thabang Moroe, a black African CEO, was suspended and replaced by Jacques Faul, who is white. Almost immediately, Graeme Smith was appointed director of cricket, Boucher was named coach, and Jacques Kallis was hired as a batting consultant. All three are white. Nkwe, the first black African national men’s head coach, was offered a lesser role. He accepted, despite how it looked.
“It wasn’t an easy call to make but when I met with Jacques Faul and Bouch and Graeme, it was pretty clear and they were very realistic in terms of what has happened, and the type of support [they wanted]. They showed a lot of care,” Nkwe said. “I’m not going to beat around the bush — it’s been a challenge, especially when it all unfolded. But I believe I’m mature enough to deal with the situation. By the time we got to the [training] camp I felt very strong and confident I can make a massive impact in a different role.”
Given the limited time the new backroom staff had between the end of the Mzansi Super League on December 16 and the start of the Test series on Boxing Day, they decided to hold an intense training camp in Pretoria. That’s where Nkwe and Boucher began to work together and Nkwe quickly realised that he would be treated as an equal.
“Boucher has given me the platform to make a difference in the team, to contribute as much as possible; whether it’s in team routines or in training,” Nkwe said. “We’ve worked closely together. I’m enjoying the partnership. Yes, there’s different energies and different minds. But there hasn’t been a hierarchy. We all pull in the same direction. He’s very relaxed. As much as he’s intense when it comes to business time — just like any other coach — he cares a lot about the team.”
The adjectives Nkwe uses to describe the new coaching staff extend specifically to Smith and transformation. The Smith/Faul administration has been accused of neglecting the need for change, especially after the Test team fielded only four players of colour in the first two matches. South Africa’s target for the national men’s team is six players of colour, including at least two black Africans, calculated on average over the course of a season. Though this number can be made up in future fixtures, at a politically sensitive time in cricket, the missed target sticks out.
Nkwe addressed transformation directly and emphasised it remains a key part of South Africa’s game plan.
“It’s not something that has been ignored,” Nkwe said. “We’ve also got to take care of the mental aspect of players. We are really working hard behind the scenes to build a strong pool of players to come through. We’ve looked at the high-performance system to make sure that we can produce and make sure we are a well transformed team in the future, a true rainbow nation. And there’s no doubt that’s going to happen in the very near future.
“I have had a small chat with Graeme and he is fully behind it. People maybe might not see it but he really cares and he has put in a lot of processes and a lot of plans behind the scenes to make sure that in the near future, there are no questions on that topic.”
No questions is unlikely, especially because of South Africa’s complex history and the recent crisis in cricket, which transpired alongside an agenda of Africanisation. Under Moroe, CSA was a transformed organisation with people of colour in senior positions. Nkwe was one of them, despite his promotion being seen as premature.
Not only was Nkwe handed the toughest away tour around, in going to India, but he had had only one summer as a full-time franchise coach to his name before that. Though he won three out of four trophies on offer, it was still early days. Consider that Boucher was about to begin his fourth season as a franchise coach for the Titans, and had collected five trophies along the way, to gauge the extent of experience that a national promotion calls for. Still, Nkwe believes the India tour only adds to his knowledge.
“I wanted the team to go and win,” he said. “Yes, there were a lot of questions around my experience. I knew it was going to be a massive task, and that could only do me good as a coach going into those conditions. The only thing I could take away from there was experience, and I know that if I’m still involved when we go back to India in four years’ time, I’ll do things differently. We’ll have good players in place to execute our skills better, compete better and look to win the series. I’m comfortable and happy that I went there to gain that sort of experience.”
For now, Nkwe is focused on the next three years, which will take him and South Africa to the 2023 World Cup. The long-term plan is that he will take over from Boucher at the end of the tournament and though it is something Nkwe is aiming for, he wants to take the focus off himself and onto the bigger picture. “For me, it’s always been about the country. It’s never been about me. I am here to coach human beings, I am here to coach cricketers to get better.”