- SA Rugby Executive Council member Monde Tabata died of Covid-19 related complications on Thursday, aged 60.
- Tabata was rugby's "Mr Fix It", regularly being asked to put out South African rugby fires, especially at Border Rugby and the Southern Kings.
- He criticised black rugby administrators who ascended into positions of influence, only to self-serve.
On the Friday when news broke that the Southern Kings were slumping, yet again, into SA Rugby administration, Monde Tabata was already packing his bags to drive from East London to Port Elizabeth.
"Tshawe, my weekend is gone," he said, addressing me by my clan name.
"I am packing as we speak, and I will leave in an hour. It's the usual stuff Tshawe. Ababantu badlale ngayo la franchise (Those people messed around with that franchise)."
And so, this was Tabata's lot in life - dropping everything, like a roadside assist mechanic, to come to rugby's aide.
Tabata, who died on Thursday due to Covid-19 complications, was an SA Rugby Executive Council member, who at times chaired its finance committee.
Coming from a commercial background, and having worked at Megapro, he was particularly concerned about the game's long-term sustainability and invested time in understanding the impact the game's governors, domestically and at World Rugby, had on its future.
Studious, articulate, and with a warm paternal demeanour, Tabata's heart was always with the growth and development of black rugby and the future of black rugby players.
The first time I called him, in 2011, I asked to speak to "Bhut' Monde Tabata", and I introduced myself.
Recognising my surname, he immediately asked who my father was. I said Pinkerton. He replied: "Yes, kwedini ka Pinky (Pinky's boy). Ndiyamazi utatakho, sikhule sonke (I know your father, we grew up together). In fact, mel'ba uthi tata, andingobhuti kuwe kwedini (You should say father when addressing me, I'm not your brother)."
From there he was indeed a father figure. He was the buffer needed to verify some of the source information I'd get from rugby administrators who jockeyed for media influence.
Without ever saying what to write or not write, he always cautioned against peddling falsehoods. He cared enough when he saw a write-up that he thought was off track to send a text.
But he'd also be the first to give kudos on a job well done, such as when I wrote a feature on World Cup-winning Springbok Makazole Mapimpi’s influence on Eastern Cape rugby and how institutions such as Walter Sisulu University (WSU) needed to be at the heart of the Border regrowth.
"Tshawe, nice touch with that Mapimpi article," he wrote.
"We have to change these things Tshawe. WSU is a marvel to me. Until about 2014, I never thought of them as a rugby institution in the making.
"It is sad for me that after the departure of (Sipho) Metula came the announcement of suspension of (WSU All Blacks) coaches. Death of Vision. We need a proper academy at WSU. Such funding is available for it. I see Adv. (Tembeka) Ngcukaitobi is involved there. I will share your article with him. This is consciousness journalism.”
He criticised black rugby administrators who ascended into positions of influence, only to self-serve. He was particularly troubled by Border Rugby Union, and the constituency that looked to him for answers ... the ones that will feel his loss dearly.
When the Border Bulldogs were in dire straits in 2018, on the brink of withdrawing from all domestic professional competitions, the SuperSport Rugby Challenge an Currie Cup, it was Tabata that stepped to ensure municipal and provincial intervention to help the side get on the park.
The Buffalo City Metro had locked the Bulldogs out of the Buffalo City Stadium, which left the team without a base to train or play games. Like paupers, they became vagabonds, playing wherever they could find shelter, often at club rugby grounds in Cambridge and Mdantsane.
Tabata, even though he was not an elected Border official, wasn’t having any of it. He called it “The latter-day oppression of the black child.”
He wanted to rebuild Border Rugby from the ground up, using the existing institutional knowledge and tapping into the knowledge of past rugby greats from the region.
Clubs in the area were putting together a quiet plot to have him elected Border president, with the view to have him ascend to a higher leadership role at the South African Rugby Union (SARU).
If he knew about that plot, he would have paid it no mind. In his last few months, he spoke often about rebuilding Border Rugby from the ground up, using the rich rugby schooling reservoir from Queen’s, Dale and Selbourne College, as well as raw talents from areas like Alice, King William’s Town and the former Transkei.
Being "Mr Fix It", however, and administering all the SA Rugby interventions in the last decade in the Eastern Cape wasn’t always the burden he wanted to bear.
"Hell! Sometimes I do not want to lead but this sort of thing breaks me," he said about the recent Kings meltdown.
“Mawawa”, as he was affectionately referred to by his clan name, had a massive influence as well to those he saw as potential future rugby administrators that could take the game forward, such as former Springbok Thando Manana.
The pair debated and critiqued each other hotly on many issues plaguing rugby but their mutual respect always prevailed.
"I'm hurt by the news of Mawawa's passing," said Manana.
"We spoke recently, our last discussion was on 21 July, just before he went into hospital.
"He was my confidant, not only now but for years in the past. In rugby, you need that person where, whatever pops up, he can either give his stamp of approval or steer you away from what not to follow.
"His leadership skills, his calmness ... he had a very fine eye for chance takers; he could see them from afar.
"Some union presidents did not take to him because he was able to spit fire when heated issues arose. But this is what made him one of the most successful independent SA Rugby board (exco) members.
"The last meeting I attended with him was at the Eastern Cape Sports Confederation's AGM, talking about what Eastern Province and Border can do to improve rugby in the province. We have lots of challenges, but he wanted good competition structures in the province.
"He was the glue at Border, and he was moving it in the right direction."
Tabata slipped into hospital late in July, around the time of his birthday on the 24th, and spent months battling grave Covid-19 health complications. He succumbed on Thursday afternoon at the age of 60.