I was late to hear about Peter Roebuck’s death. Camping in a state forest near Narrandera, with New South Welsh clocks showing the early hours of Sunday, it was just one part of an outside world kept at bay. Come Monday evening, the news as fresh a shock as in any earlier iteration, I found myself tracing the story’s evolution back to its beginning.
The process has been desperately sad. As a fellow writer of sport, I held Roebuck above most others. As someone for whom cricket is about emotional resonance more than entertainment, Roebuck’s voice was part of my life, the soundscape of summer nostalgia as much as highway air past the car window or the shriek of seagulls.
At the same time, while bleakly, it has been instructive and fascinating to see how the various strands of media handle a case so complex and ambiguous. Roebuck has died leaving more question marks than the most enthusiastic YouTube commenter, and given the closed nature of South African policing, straight answers may never be forthcoming.
Reports through Sunday were brief, bare, and often wrong. Found dead in a hotel room. Fallen from a window. Police had spoken to him earlier that day. Were with him at the time. Visions of foul play circled thick and dark as evening bats.
On Monday came the obituaries. “Tragedy far greater than 47 all out has struck cricket, and this should be a Roebuck column. But it isn’t one, and can’t be one, and never will be one again, because the tragedy is Peter Roebuck. He is dead.” So wrote Greg Baum, in a front-page piece choked with emotion. Details were still hazy, but the final sentence of Baum’s quote was deemed the important part. Responses flowed accordingly – Neil Manthorpe, Vic Marks, Tim Lane all paid their respects.
As early as Monday night though, online reports were emerging, passed on in Tuesday’s papers. That Roebuck had been accused of sexual assault, that the visiting police were of the relevant ilk. That investigations were underway.
The eulogies, of course, have been heartfelt, mostly from colleagues and friends. In general coverage, though, the overwhelming sensation has been uneasiness, a media shifting awkwardly on its chair. As yet, they still don’t have a fix on this story. They want Roebuck to be A Good Man or A Bad Man. The prospect that someone might be both is too much to bear.
The stakes, given the conservative presentation of news, are high. No outlet wants to say nice things about someone who turns out to be Bad, or ill about someone Good. Early reports had more hedges than ever shared an advertising hoarding with Benson.
But ultimately, the lure of the lurid is strong. While Fairfax papers have stood by their man, others here and overseas have been sketching an unpleasant narrative, though one built sufficiently on insinuation and clever positioning that it can be backed away from at short notice.
Essentially, it is the suggestion of Roebuck as a long-term sexual exploiter of boys.
The main thing mentioned in each suggestive news piece, and embraced by vicious blogs as vindication, is the current accusation of assault. Apparently a reminder is due that allegations do not equal guilt, and that sexual impropriety is both the easiest charge to make and the hardest to dispel. Just ask Anwar Ibrahim.
The accusation itself has been given little study. Various reports have it as an ‘attempted sexual assault’, a hazy concept if ever there were one. Attempting a nightclub kiss could be classed as such if the recipient were not amenable.
It is in keeping with the implied narrative that every report refers to the complainant specifically as a “young man”. The man was 26, not the youth implied. To suggest he lacked the capacity to deflect an advance is specious.
Then there’s the possibility of a set-up, which no report I’ve read has yet considered. There are two potential motivations. Sexual accusations are frequently used in blackmail, especially in poorer countries. A high-profile foreigner with a seemingly large supply of philanthropic dollars, Roebuck would have been an obvious target.
Or something bigger? Roebuck was the single most outspoken critic of Zimbabwean politics in the cricketing world. He knew a lot about the country, and castigated ZanuPF politicians and Zimbabwe Cricket Board officials specifically and by name. Much of the diplomatic pressure on Zimbabwe comes from cricketing nations like Australia and Britain, who are more often than others minded of its existence. Roebuck was a wicked acacia thorn in Mugabe’s side.
Trading on one infamous incident in Roebuck’s past, a sexual allegation would be a most effective means of discredit. That a Zimbabwean national should make the accusation within days of Roebuck’s arrival in Africa, after seeking him out online and arranging a hotel meeting, is worthy of note and investigation. Strange that no allegations were ever made in the many years Roebuck spent in Australia.
After the assault allegations, most reports have also touched on Roebuck’s charity house in Pietermaritzburg. Again, the emphasis is on age, citing “young men” and often “boys”. The “boys” in question are mostly in their mid-20s and going through university. The coaching of language gives a different impression.
Look, says the implication. Here is a young African man accusing Roebuck of assault. Here are other young African men under his care and control. Some of the internet’s fouler repositories have taken this to its furthest conclusion, painting Roebuck as a colonialist pervert creating stockpiles of the vulnerable to satisfy his rampant demand for flesh. They have even read sexual malice into some of his sponsored orphans calling him ‘Dad.’
The suggestions are beyond obscene. Roebuck’s students past and present have greeted his death with shock and grief, and described him in glowing terms, as a generous man and a genuine father figure. Not one has suggested any impropriety on his part. Not one has been asked how they feel about his life’s best work being twisted into de facto evidence against him.
All this nudging, rustling, and whispering is essentially based on the one incident. In 1999, we’ve been told countless times in the last few days, Roebuck caned three white South African cricketers. This was well before his charity work started, when he was taking on aspiring players in England for a training regime.
The cricketers are always described as “boys”, despite being 19, and perfectly old enough to have told him to go and jump if they had chosen. The only one contacted by the media this week said he bore Roebuck no ill will, and described him as “a brilliant mind”.
Yes, it’s an odd one, but the level of assumption is unsupportable. Every report has implied a sexual aspect to the caning, when Roebuck belonged to a generation that was routinely caned at school. Much has been made of the judge’s line about it being “done to satisfy some need in you”, without quoting the subsequent sentence in which he refers to establishing a position of power, not to getting one’s rocks off.
This doesn’t mean I’m here to make the case for caning. But presumptions about things that don’t involve you are easy to get wrong. The most prosaic intent can become sinister in the telling. In 2003, I was spotted breaking into a Carlton apartment and leaving with a bag of women’s underwear. As it happened, my girlfriend’s faulty front door latch sometimes needed to be popped with a credit card, and it was my turn to make the run to the laundromat. Cuff me.
Whatever happened in Roebuck’s case, the caning trial was an utter humiliation, and probably the lowest point of his life. He went to ground afterwards, and thought about staying down. Whether he did or didn’t have a case to answer in South Africa, it seems likely that his memory of that first case led to his fatal despair in contemplating fighting another.
It is a sad end. Alive, Roebuck could perhaps have cleared his name. Now, the investigation will likely trail off. Conjecture will continue. The nation’s news services will maintain their vacillation between respecting the revered writer and sniping at the potential villain. We probably won’t get an answer. Roebuck will neither become a comfortably Good Man nor an entirely Bad one. Like the hypocritical mass of the rest of us, he’ll fall somewhere in between.
First published on Crikey.