Still an All Black at heart

2011-09-03 00:00

BERT Tuhi is a burly Maori bloke who immigrated to South Africa during apartheid — a curious move for a man of colour.

From the late 80s he lived as a white man in Durban, set up his own butchery shop, married a South African woman, and played club rugby. But he is still a Kiwi at heart — a loyal All Blacks supporter who will be returning to New Zealand to watch the Rugby World Cup semis and finals next month.

I met Bert in Durban ahead of the Fifa World Cup last year. We had a laugh at New Zealand’s chances of winning a game — the All Whites were ranked bottom of the board; the bookies had them at 2 000 to one to win.

“Are you going to watch them play?” I asked.

“Maybe if I can get some free tickets I’ll go — that’s the Maori coming out of me,” he said with a chuckle.

Maori arrived in New Zealand from eastern Polynesia sometime before the 14th century. They have their own language which is inextricably linked to their unique culture — rich in mythology and spirituality.

Many Maori customs are founded on distinctive crafts like weaving, and performing arts like the haka that is performed before Test matches. In former times, one version of the haka was performed to invoke the god of war and to frighten the enemy as the warriors pulled fierce expressions, poked their tongues out, and made their eyes bulge while grunting.

Tuhi moved from Hamilton, on the North Island of New Zealand, to Durban in 1987. His Kiwi coach at the time, Mac McCallion, suggested he play in South Africa. McCallion was named New Zealand coach of the year in 1996 and 1997 for his work with Counties, and later coached Fiji’s national rugby union team.

“Mac had been on two tours there and some local boys phoned him looking for a lock. I was the lucky lock.”

Tuhi was 27. His father had just died.

“I wasn’t happy with life and the world so I decided to take a big jump and go overseas.”

Tuhi played for the College Rovers in Durban and the Natal feeder side, which was comprised half of coloured and half of white players.

“Don’t ask me what I was [coloured or black] but I was part of it.”

The fact that he is often mistaken for a boer leads me to imagine he was considered more white than black.

“People think I am an Afrikaner and they start talking Afrikaans to me and I’m saying, ‘slow down because I don’t understand’. Until they hear me talk they don’t know,” he says.

Tuhi left Cambridge High at 16. He hated studying, and only stuck around as long as he did because he played tennis and basketball for the school.

By the age of 20 he was a qualified butcher, and playing for Papakura Rugby Club, and for Counties Manukau.

Manukau is bounded in the north of New Zealand between the Auckland metropolitan area and the Manukau harbour.

Almost 30 years later, Tuhi runs Bert’s Butchery at Scottsburgh Pick n Pay, which is now in its 12th year of operation. He lives in Durban with his wife, Wendy Lynne, and his daughter, Brıttany Aroha Morton Tuhı (‘Aroha’ is the Maori word for ‘Love’).

Looking back, Tuhi says living in apartheid South Africa didn’t bother him.

“I came to South Africa with an open mind and came for the love of rugby. And rugby for me has been a great networking tool. Maybe I turned a blind eye to what was going on but, personally, my life has been great here.”

He says the camaraderie was strong between black and white workers in the butchery.

“The only difference being was that they used a separate toilet to what we used and they had curfews at night.”

Sometimes he would drop workmates home in the townships, and stop in for a drink.

“I was a typical Kiwi. I wanted to know how they lived and where they lived. Often it was in a small two bedroom place where the one room was the living room lounge kitchen everything and the other was the bedroom. These were guys who strived to do well for themselves. They would offer me a beer when I got there — the normal hospitality you get when you’re in New Zealand.”

Tuhi maintains a close connection with New Zealand — travelling home every two years or so.

“But instead of going home last time I went to the World Cup in France — New Zealand missed out that year.”

When the ABs play in South Africa, Tuhi is their liaison officer.

“I travel with them when they come to South Africa — they take me to Cape Town, Joburg, all over. It’s quite a special relationship and I love every bit of it. I do all the ground work for them as far as booking restaurants, or organising golf trips or anything extreme — like going shark diving.”

And despite Natal being Tuhi’s home for almost a quarter of a century, he says his allegiance to the All Blacks will never falter.

“I am as passionate for the All Blacks as I have always been. I still believe Kiwis are more passionate rugby supporters and rugby lovers. When New Zealand lose it’s like a day of mourning. Whereas when South Africans lose they don’t get as upset — maybe because they have lost more than us in recent times?”

Tuhi groaned then paused, with a pained expression when asked to predict the winner of this year’s Rugby World Cup.

“It’s a tough question. New Zealand is always a favourite. Australia to me are the side to beat. But of course my heart wants New Zealand to win every time. So of course I’m going to say New Zealand.”

Dawn Tratt is a journalist working for Radio New Zealand whose family emigrated from South Africa to New Zealand in 1996.

E-mail dawntratt@gmail.com

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