He was her adored big brother who always looked out for her, the person she’d go to when she had a problem, the guy who always helped her sort things out.
“We were extremely close,” she says. “When I cried, he’d say, ‘No, sis. Pull yourself together. Let’s think this through’.”
Then one day his world fell apart and it was he who needed her – and now, nearly two decades after what remains one of SA’s most notorious falls from grace, Hester Parsons still feels the pain of her brother’s embarrassment, still grieves his death.
Her brother is, of course, Hansie Cronjé, the world-renowned cricket captain and one of SA’s greatest sporting heroes – until it all came crashing down. “My brother felt so much remorse,” Hester says. “He’d often say, ‘I’m so terribly sorry, I’ve brought shame to our family name.”
In early 2000, Hansie was front and centre of the country’s biggest sporting scandal after it emerged he’d taken bribes to fix international matches and influenced members of his team to do the same.
Within months the King commission of inquiry was set up to probe the matter, and live coverage of the proceedings was beamed around the world.
“I love money,” the fallen hero admitted, choking back tears during intense cross-examination by advocate Shamila Batohi, now the director of public prosecutions at the national prosecuting authority.
He followed this confession with a line that will live on in the annals of infamy: “The devil made me do it.” Then, barely two years later, he was dead. The light aircraft he in which he was travelling ploughed into the Outeniqua Mountains near George in the Western Cape and Hansie’s body was found in the mangled wreck at the bottom of a cliff. Hester (49) wells up when she talks about her brother.
“Yes, I’m a real cry baby,” she says, speaking to YOU at her home in Potchefstroom in North West. Time hasn’t eased things, she adds. “People often tell me, ‘It gets better, Hes. Just keep believing.’ “But every day you remember something else, or you want to share something with him. And it hurts all over again.”
Following his public disgrace, Hansie couldn’t look anyone in the eye. “I recall the shock of it when he called my mom to admit his guilt. I still can’t believe it – that wasn’t the Hansie we knew,” Hester says.
Then in the blink of an eye he was gone.
Hester’s home is like a shrine to her brother. Hundreds of pictures of Hansie adorn the walls and some of his cricket gear and team outfits are on display.
“It’s hard to move on after such a great personal loss,” says Hester, who teaches Grade 1 kids at Potchefstroom Central School.
“There’s been no one like Hansie in my life. He was passionate and wanted to be the best at everything. He could get furious when he struggled to achieve something. But give up? Never.”
Hansie was just 13 months older so they were practically twins, she says. At school she’d support him when he played cricket, and he returned the favour at Hester’s drum majorette displays. Later, when Hansie was captain of the Proteas, he’d call her when he was overseas and ask her to visit him.
Once things weren’t going well during a tour of England so she flew over with her daughter, Alexandrea (now 27), and son, James (now 24).
“That night, we all slept on one double bed. And wouldn’t you know it – the next day the Proteas fared better.”
Hansie’s seven years as Proteas captain were impressive: 53 Tests (won 27, lost 11) and 130 one-day internationals (won 99).
But professional cricket also attracts a lucrative illegal betting trade – and when police in India started investigating match-fixing, Hansie’s name started popping up all over the place.
He initially denied his involvement but it didn’t take long for the truth to come out. He admitted to accepting hundreds of thousands of rands, as well as gifts such as a cellphone and a leather jacket, during secret meetings with match-fixers.
In return, Hansie would share information about players and match conditions from which illegal pundits could profit. Even worse, he offered young players, including Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams, money to play badly.
He was banned from professional cricket for life. Hester says her brother was a broken man after that. “The shame of it . . . Whenever we were out in public, he’d walk with his head hung low.”
“For us as a family, the worst was seeing how someone who’d once been so self-confident was stripped of everything. “Yes, it had been of his own doing. But we were the ones left to pick up the pieces.”
During the King commission’s investigation Hansie went into hiding at a friend’s home to avoid the media.
“I was visiting him one evening when there was a sudden power cut. When the lights came back on, Hansie was soaked in sweat and terrified. He said he’d been convinced someone had come to kill him in revenge. That’s when I realised he wasn’t the brother I knew anymore.”
The family spent the Easter weekend before Hansie’s death with him: Hester, their brother, Frans (now 53), and their parents, Ewie (now 80) and San- Marie (now 75).
They went to church and Hansie couldn’t stop crying. But then he decided to pick himself up. He and his wife, Bertha, moved to Gauteng, where he started working as a financial manager at Bell Equipment on the East Rand.
He seemed to be hopeful again, Hester recalls. “Bersie [Bertha’s nickname] kept Hansie going in the two years before he died – she’d supported him through all of it. He’d written down a 10-year-plan for them. Then everything ended.”
Just two weeks before the plane crash, Hansie seemed more like his old self, Hester recalls. “He’d started laughing again, something we hadn’t seen him do in a while.” Then it was all over. “My dad and I went to fetch his body. It looked unharmed, except for a scratch on his face and a broken knee. “On hard days, I remember the peaceful expression on his face.”
Hester celebrates her brother’s life by running a cricket academy for kids. “It was something I wanted to do to honour Hansie but also because I’d seen what the sport means to youngsters, how much self-discipline they gain from it, how they also start understanding life itself as a team sport.
“I think Hansie would’ve been proud of me.”
Her husband, former cricketer Gordon Parsons (60), is also involved with the cricket academy.
“For us, the most satisfying thing is seeing how something in a child’s psyche transforms. After a few matches, you barely recognise that child,” she says. “It reminds me of the self-confidence Hansie once had and it warms my heart.”
(Pictures: Supplied/Getty Images/ER Lombard)