Soar of the Sea Hawks

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JUSTIN Swart makes his living from the sea, as did his father and grandfather before him.

It’s a tough life: he sets out most days in a small wooden boat before sunrise, sometimes returning only after dark. The boat is open, its crew exposed to the rain and the wind.

Sometimes, he says, the waves are so high, he loses sight of the other boats. It is a job that requires courage, physical strength and an appetite for risk.

All these qualities come in handy in the winter when he switches his focus to his other passion, rugby. Colder water means fewer fish so the boats go out less often, which means more time to devote to his team, the Arniston Sea Hawks.

Arniston is a charming seaside village on the southern Cape coast, about a three-hour drive from Cape Town. It is split roughly in two, with the Arniston Hotel in the centre.

On the left are the largely white-owned holiday houses and on the right, the 200-year-old fishing village of Kassiesbaai. Just below the hotel is the small harbour with its flotilla of brightly coloured fishing boats.

At the entrance to Kassiesbaai is the Sea Hawks Rugby Football Club. The grounds are well-maintained and lined by floodlights. The land was donated to the club by Denel, the state arms manufacturer, which has a test range up the road.

The Sea Hawks are one of the 225 clubs which make up the Boland Rugby Union and they play in the Boland-organised Overberg First League. The Sea Hawks lost their first game, against Caledon, and last Saturday they were due to take on Grabouw’s Spring Roses.

I watched them train one evening last week: the players arrived one by one, each unpacking their boots from a plastic shopping bag. After some limbering up, much of the training centred on passing, deft and quick.

Around the edges of the field, about 15 small boys kicked balls and crashed into tackle bags.

The Sea Hawks is run by a committee with a chair, vice-chair, secretary, treasurer as well as three additional members. Most were at the training session despite a chilly wind, and relative darkness, thanks to load shedding.

The secretary of the Sea Hawks is also a member of the all-powerful fishermen’s union. Kassiesbaai is one big erf, controlled by the union, which allocates ground for the building of houses — the only criterion being that the applicant, or his/her mother or father, must have been born in Kassiesbaai.

There are about 150 houses, all of which conform to the traditional style: either white-washed or clad in local stone.

There is a primary school, a library, a clinic and about 1,000 people live here.

Fishing and rugby are the primary activities.

Walk around Kassiesbaai and you will see groups of boys of all ages throwing balls to each other.

The Sea Hawks field two teams in the league and have a squad of 50 players, aged from 18 to the late 30s. Almost all are fishermen. But, mostly, fishing is about subsistence. About 80% of the players are officially unemployed.

Jobs are scarce. The hotel employs a few people from Kassiesbaai, including Justin’s mother, Kathleen.

A few women clean the holiday houses on the ether side of town. Denel mops up a few more.

In an area of such high unemployment, one might expect more delinquency but, apart from a couple of troublesome families, Kassiesbaai is largely drug and gang free. The Sea Hawks play a valuable role, soaking up the energies of underemployed young men and giving them discipline and purpose.

Boland Rugby Union organises the league and provides courses in coaching, administration and refereeing but they do not provide any financial help.

This is a source of frustration to the Sea Hawks.

This financially straitened community must raise R2,700 just to register for the league. On top of that comes the cost of equipment, jerseys, boots, balls and travel for away games. Because there is so little commercial activity in the area, they struggle to find sponsors. Yet they somehow manage to make it work.

About 250 people attend home games on average and they pay an entrance fee: R10 for adults and R5 for kids. Extra money is raised from the sale of cooldrinks and boerewors rolls.

Plastered around the village last week were posters advertising transport to Grabouw for Saturday’s game.

Spectators are invited to join the team bus in order to help pay for it: R50 for adults and R25 for children. The players have to fork out too: R25 each. This is the only way they can afford to travel.

There are similar clubs all over the Boland region, many in poorer and more dysfunctional communities.

As in Kassiesbaai, rugby plays a useful role in strengthening social cohesion, providing boys with good role models and keeping them off the streets.

I hope that the Boland Union reconsiders their priorities. Instead of spending their money on fielding professional teams in the Currie Cup and Vodacom Cup, it seems to me it would be far better spent on their constituent clubs. This is where nation-building begins.

Swart is now 34. In a couple of years’ time, he will hang up his boots and go on one of the coaching courses provided by Boland Rugby Union so that he can help nurture the next generation of Sea Hawks.

*This column first appeared in Business Day
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