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THE WAY WE LIVED.  5. Rugby , cricket, other…..    [13 min read] 

I cycled my way up to UCT past the fence around the rugby grounds on which I could not play for my alma mater.  Other legal barriers stopped me from staying at the student residential blocks in the foreground. Farthermore, I needed a special permit to attend the Whites only university.

Rugby union is supposed to be the main sport in South Africa. Actually, soccer was and is the top sport, but the White-dominated news and state media focussed on rugby and cricket.  Both were the elite sports of the ruling White minority.  Rugby is most popular with the Afrikaners who dominate the Springboks.

I was a regional, soccer representative, but switched to school rugby in my last two years at school where I was a barefooted loose forward.  My goal-kicking style relied on the standard of the day – straight in line, toe kicker.  This style was modelled on Don Clark of ex-All Black fame.

I was one of the top try scorers in our team and loved the ability to move around looking for the ball or opposition team members to tackle.  Our team performed modestly in the inter-schools competitions. Most Black schools had poor sports facilities.  My senior school had insufficient ground for a rugby or soccer field.  White schools had it all.

At university, from 1965,  I could not play for the Whites only university team, as was the case with all other sports.  I loosely followed rugby, mainly test matches.  One listened to it on the radio until the vilified television was allowed to pollute our homes from 1976. Segregated seating at the main sports fields meant I boycotted all matches there.  The diehards criticised one for watching or listening to a match as it implied tacit support of apartheid in sport.

Our allegiance was always with the touring teams.  I cannot recall a single friend or family member who did not support the All Blacks, Wallabies, Lions, French or  British visitors.  How we hated a Springbok victory.

There are many South African Blacks who now support the Springboks.  I do not, as I never have.  Part of it is the way expatriates can be frozen in time; frozen with warm and cold memories; frozen with appalling times past; frozen to calloused chips on our shoulders when it comes to the Springboks.

The present team is still too White to feel comfortable about its representative nature for an African country.  There is constant talk about the need for merit-based selection versus a team that more closely reflects the proportional populations of the country.  It is happening slowly, but in its present form, it is still a painful reminder of the days when it was a “Whites only” team.  It also mirrors the country’s inequities where social amenities remain largely deficient for Blacks and the gulf between rich and poor is still stark.

Some of the world’s best rugby is played in the southern hemispheric competitions.  It’s a damning indictment when people of colour make up more than half the New Zealand and Australian teams while a team from Africa is predominantly White.

These images are devoid of any person of colour. –>

South Africa’s sporting isolation started with the Olympic ban in 1964.   This dented the psyche of a sports-mad, White populace. The 1976 All Black rugby tour of South Africa was the first time that  Maori and Polynesian players were allowed to tour in South Africa.

Players like Syd Going, Billy Bush and Bryan Williams were popular in the Black areas, but there was also a lot of anger about the New Zealand team being there in the first place. After Soweto, riots spread throughout the country that year. Never was a tour more ill-conceived than that one. The New Zealand Rugby Union and the right-wing New Zealand National government of the day would have to mark that tour as a sad moment in their histories.

We were pleased with the attention the tour achieved as any blow against apartheid was a positive one for us.  The scenes of All Black team members affected by tear-gas in a Cape Town street went around the world. The All Blacks were popular, but the overwhelming sentiment was anti-tour and that they deserved what they got. They should not have been in the country. In New Zealand, there was strong support for the anti-tour movement. Eventually, this small, rugby-centric country erupted during the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand. In South Africa. The demonstrations polarised pro- and anti-tour Kiwis. For us, it was heart-warming to see Springboks flour-bombed from a small plane in Auckland and to have demonstrators force the cancellation of the test match in Hamilton.

We also loved the fact that the Australians would not allow the Springboks to transit their country. They had to fly via South America to New Zealand.  The right-wing New Zealand government under Prime Minister Rob Muldoon wanted to keep “politics out of sport”. This was extreme irony. The Springboks were a product of the most intrusive system of “politics in sport” in the world.

In 1969 New Zealanders established  HART(Halt All Racist Tours)  and its leader John Minto was, to many of us, a distant hero.

In 1971, the Australian cricketing great, Sir Don Bradman, as chairman of the Australian Cricket Board, cancelled the Springbok cricket tour to Australia.  After his exploits with the cricket bat, this is arguably one of his greatest legacies.  His stance resulted from a meeting he had with the bigoted Prime Minister, J. Vorster.  He regarded Vorster as “ignorant and repugnant.” [1] Australia decided not to play a South African team until they choose a team on a non-racist basis.  How wonderful that news was knowing that the outside world cared about our country. No amount of spin by the South African Broadcasting Corporation was going to convince us that the Australians were wrong. It was no wonder that Madiba was a fan of the Don.

The anti-apartheid SACOS(South African Council of Sports) adopted the slogan that there could be “no normal sport in an abnormal society” which won it great support both within and beyond South Africa’s borders.  They were allied with SANROC(South African Non-racial Olympic Committee). The effect of the Commonwealth Gleneagles and IOC(International Olympic Committee) agreements to isolate South African sporting bodies was vital to more denting of the psyche of the ruling, minority in the country.

A story did the rounds in South Africa.  It seemed that the Prime Minister P. W. Botha, admonished the world with his characteristic index finger wagging.  “If the world will not play with us, then we will play with ourselves!”.  True or not, I love telling that story!

Nelson Mandela played the sports card by wearingthe same rugby jersey as the Springbok captain during the Rugby World cup of 1995. The Springboks beat the All Blacks in the finals in South Africa.

At the time, I was devastated at the loss of the team that I had supported all my life; it was also the team of my adopted country, the best team in the world.

It took me a few years to realise how brilliant Madiba was in his analysis of how to best harness the country’s sporting intensity towards racial unity.  Who would believe that the fate of a country was decided by the wearing of a number 6 rugby jersey by an “ex-terrorist” freedom fighter?

Of course it required more than that, but one never knows which way a rugby ball will bounce!


[1] Sir Don Bradman in The day Apartheid was hit for six.  Sydney Morning Herald, 23.8.2008 by Roland Perry


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