A legacy forgotten
Cape Town - When black rugby players, administrators or officials make the headlines these days, it's more often than not related to transformation, quota related issues, or some other controversy linked to rugby.
While it cannot be denied that South Africa has a very rich rugby heritage, it is a fact that for nearly a century there were two histories of rugby developing parallel to each other. On the one side was the history of the establishment white South African Rugby Board (SARB) and on the other side the history of black rugby (South African Rugby Union - Saru/South African Rugby Federation - Sarf/ South African Rugby Association - Sara).
When rugby pundits and/or newspaper reporters speak or write about the pre-unity period (before 1992), they almost never recount the "black side" of that history - as if it did not exist. What we constantly see, hear and read about is the old familiar faces, stories and statistics about the Currie Cup and Springbok sagas.
Former Springboks like Naas Botha, Frik du Preez, De Wet Ras and need I mention, the iconic Doc Craven, are almost as a rule put forward as the historical face of South African rugby. Now I have no problem with these gentlemen and I am sure they deserve the recognition.
However, in the South African media of today very little if any recognition is afforded to "the others" - the black rugby legends that played such a vital part in the history of South African rugby.
Confidence and shear excitement
Players and administrators that played in the South African Cup (Saru) and Rhodes Cup competitions, as well as those who competed in the national competitions of the South African Rugby Federation (Sarf) and the South African Rugby Association (Sara), is hardly ever recognised or for that matter, even mentioned.
While listening to Luke Watson speak on TV the other night, I felt really proud to see the confidence and shear excitement with which this new generation, young South African rugby player approach his new responsibility as captain of the national Under-21 side.
More important was what he had to say when he was asked about the privilege to lead the South African Under-21 side to the IRB World Cup in Scotland. In his response he alluded to the role his dad (Cheeky Watson) and many black rugby players played in the liberation of South African rugby and how their sacrifices then, enabled him to play in a truly representative South African team, today.
In his books Beyond the Tryline and The Story of an African Game Prof André Odendaal, historian and former provincial cricketer tries to balance the history books by documenting the important role played by black sport administrators and athletes in the history of South African sport.
In a chapter on the history of black rugby he elaborates on the black pioneers of the game, starting from way back in the 1880's right up to the 1990's. He writes of pioneers like Stephan Katta who in 1887 formed the first black adult rugby club in Port Elizabeth and who also became its first president; Isaiah Mbelle, who facilitated the founding of the Griqualand West Colonial Rugby Football Union in 1894; Louis Mtshizana who was instrumental in changing the name of the South African Bantu Rugby Board to the South African African Rugby Board (discarding the derogatory word "Bantu") and who in 1960 called on players to boycott the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Union of South Africa.
These rugby administrators laid the foundation for the modern game as we know it. Prof Odendaal then goes on to tell of legendary players like Braber Ngozi, star wing of the forties and fifties and later the great Eric Majola legendary flyhalf and father of Khaya and Mongezi (the renowned cricket administrators).
Organising and playing the "alternative game" also had its risks. I distinctly recall how black rugby administrators and players where persecuted by the Special Branch of the South African Security Police in the 1970's and 80's. Persecuted and harassed because they chose to play their rugby in the alternative rugby structures of Saru.
People like Ronnie Korkee (Tygerberg and Saru scrumhalf), the late Bill Jardine and Millin Petersen, Harry Abrahams (Saru coach) and many others all fell victim to this. Despite these very dangerous and constraining circumstances they continued to play and organise the game of rugby in the black communities.
In my mind they are the real heroes and thus the true foundation of South African rugby.
During that same period players from the white establishment structure, the South African Rugby Board enjoyed the privileges of Apartheid, as a result of which they had the best facilities, support structures and by far the most funding at their behest and as a result could excel almost unhindered.
These were difficult times for black rugby, but despite the efforts of the state to break SARU, it in effect got stronger - a testimony to the spirit of these men.
Privileged and proud
Therefore, when Luke Watson recognised this neglected part of Sarfu's history I felt immensely proud to have been part of it myself. Nevertheless, I salute all the players and administrators that contributed to this legacy and what they meant and still mean to South African rugby today.
True rugby enthusiasts ought to be privileged and proud of the legacy these men left us, be they forgotten or not!...
Terence "Tickets" Dean,
Omar "Vleis" Daniels,
Faiek "Blatjang" Hendricks,
Francois "Kabalie" Davids,
William "Balla" Croy,
Allister "Toetie" Coetzee,
Kalla Josephs... the list goes on and on!
Send Gary your views on this column.
Gary Boshoff is a former Saru player and a well-known rugby administrator.