Book Extract: A tough road to being a Bok

2017-07-09 06:24
Being a Black Springbok cover

Being a Black Springbok cover

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Being a Black Springbok

The Thando Manana Story by Sibusiso Mjikeliso

Published by Pan Macmillan

R285

An Unforgettable Trip

The speed at which I had immersed myself into the game had led to tunnel vision. Opportunities to play more competitive rugby abounded, mainly because of my involvement with Spring Rose.

In the middle of 1995, Spring Rose – largely through Gerald Majola’s contacts and perseverance – were invited to play against a club in Walvis Bay, Namibia. Gerald, whom we fondly called Gailor, organised everything single-handedly. He was the club’s administrator during those times and occasionally played for the second team. Gerald took over the fly half jersey from the great Peter Mkata, but that was before I came into the team. By the time I arrived, Gerald was in semi-retirement and was more focused on administering the club affairs.

To travel to Namibia, everyone had to scurry to get a passport, or they would be left behind. I desperately wanted to go, but I could not get a passport because I was underage. I was only turning 17 in October that year and the trip to Namibia was taking place around July. The older club players suggested that I make myself seem older and pointed me in the various directions I needed to go to get it done. At the time I was not aware that I was being led astray. And, in my desperation to board the coach, I went along with it willingly.

In those days it was easy to get forged birth documentation from home affairs. You would be referred to a certain unnamed person who would quickly organise your fake documents. If I went as a minor, I would have needed an adult to accompany me, which would not have been possible considering my living circumstances. No one at home had a passport and I couldn’t ask Uncle Mel to come along as he had a household to run. At the time I didn’t have a birth certificate either, though, so I was able to fabricate my birth date. I lied and said I was born in 1977, even though I was born in 1978, but I kept the birthday and month the same.

So, in the end, I managed to get my passport, which allowed me to join the chaps on the trip to Namibia. When you are excited about something, the consequences of your decisions are an after-thought, because you are not thinking further than your nose.

The trip itself was beautiful. I had never been outside the country before, not even outside the province. The two Spring Rose teams – the Firsts and Seconds, which were both scheduled to play three games in the upcoming week – took a coach all the way up to Walvis Bay, which I can tell you is not the fastest way to get there.

We travelled via Kimberley and then to Upington before crossing the border in the south of Namibia and then making our way around the desert towards Walvis Bay. The bus sometimes stopped along the way because it overheated.

There was a warm brotherhood between the players on the bus – a camaraderie that only travelling sports teams can bring together. To pass the time, I wrote a diary of events in a small notebook, in which I described the trip and my observations and feelings about it. This earned me the nickname “Journalist” from the lads.

When we arrived in Walvis Bay, we thought we would stay at a hotel but, boy, were we mistaken. Instead, we were taken straight to the grounds where the matches were to take place; we, of course, assumed we were there to view the playing facilities. The club we were visiting was run exclusively by white Afrikaners and when we got to the stadium they told us our sleeping quarters would be the changing room beneath the grandstand.

This wasn’t even a hostel. There were no beds or anything even resembling sleeping quarters except the slabs of concrete that made up the stadium changing facilities. We were like prisoners stuffed in an overcrowded penitentiary. It didn’t help either that the guys would light up cigarettes in the changing room if they felt like a smoke.

We were stunned. Predictably, the tour took a rather rough turn. We quickly ran short of money and had to survive on meals of tinned food, such as canned pilchards, tuna or bully beef. We ate a lot of bread as well, virtually living off it while we were there. For lunch we had bread with polony slices in the middle. Or dry slices of bread washed down with sugar water.

There were guys who brought cooked meat that had gone off during the two-day bus trip from Port Elizabeth. The lads couldn’t throw the food away, for fear of dying from starvation, so they washed the fungi off the rotten meat under the stadium taps and ate it. Rinsing the fungi with water took away some of the rotten smell but there was nothing appetising about it. Some of the meat was so bad that some blokes even used soap to wash the meat.

One morning, myself and three other guys went for a jog. We kept running for quite a number of exhausting kilometres, only for me to find out that the other three were only jogging so that they could find a place to buy marijuana. I wasn’t pleased because I didn’t smoke pot and I had been duped into going for a run that sapped my energy.

We played three match days during our time there, plus a day in between when we held coaching clinics at some of the black townships. On match days we had to fold all our clothing and blankets and stuff them in the bus to clear some of the clutter before we were able to change into our match gear.

We played against some tough Afrikaners on that tour. I remember getting a punch in the sternum that winded me so badly that I needed a bit of a time-out to drink sugar water and compose myself.

We were dominated physically and bullied in the scrums. And because we were going backwards physically, it was inevitable that we lost a number of our games; two of the First XV and all the Second XV games.

The funny thing, though, was that the guys still had the energy to go out drinking at night and search for women. Others used the search for women as a chance to get swept home by a stranger and sleep on a proper bed. Some got lucky, but the majority of us crawled back to the stadium with our tails between our legs.

The owner of one nightclub let us in because we were visiting from South Africa. I remember that the boys went wild that night. Some were happy just to have a woman’s number they could take back home and brag about. Others wanted to ‘seal the deal’, which was tricky because we were sleeping in the changing rooms that were situated under the grandstand. The only other option was to hook up with your woman in the bus for the night, but knowing how childish men can be, there was a distinct possibility that they would try to peek through the windows to watch as you went about your business. One of the older guys, Sonic, who had a proper job and some rands to rub together, did manage to get lucky, though, and was taken home by an older woman.

We had miscalculated everything about that trip and, as it turned out, the club we visited hadn’t catered for us in any way. All the hosts did for us was to take us to some sand dunes and treat us an oyster buffet, but because I didn’t like seafood, I didn’t enjoy the oysters.

By the time we needed to go home, there was a hint of regret because we had nothing in our pockets on the drive back and the bus was silent most of the way. The guys were tired, bruised and hungry, and simply weren’t in the mood for team-building chats we had so enjoyed on our way to Namibia.

But no one really complained and we still laugh about the trip when we talk about it now. We joke about how we never even came back with souvenirs or anything to show that we were in Namibia. There was no memorabilia or tracksuits branded “Spring Rose Namibia Tour” or anything to that effect. But we had the memories. We were township guys and we were just happy to have gone to a different country.

During the writing of this book I had a casual chat with one of my former team-mates, Lincoln Lewis, and he was unequivocal that the Namibia tour was a great experience, despite all the struggles we faced. That just shows you how everything in this world is relative.

I don’t think there has ever been a tour in the professional era where the visiting team has had to sleep in the changing room underneath the grandstand. If it were to happen in suburban clubs or former Model C schools, there would be an outcry.

Being a Black Springbok The Thando Manana Story by Sibusiso Mjikeliso will be launched on Thursday, July 20, at Exclusive Books in the Killarney Mall, Johannesburg, at 6pm

Read more on:    springboks  |  thando manana

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