Posts Tagged ‘All Blacks’

Let’s pick the right Bok coach this time

News | Non Fiction | South Africa | Uncategorized Comments Off
  • SHOULD Heyneke Meyer’s contract be extended? I think it should — but only for a year, as a holding operation. This would be just long enough to enable the South African Rugby Union (Saru) to give proper consideration to the question of who should coach the national team next and what his job description should be.

    They should take their time about it. A Springbok coach has more complex challenges than an England or All Blacks coach. It won’t be easy to find the right man. We should also completely rethink what we want from the next coach and how we want him to shape our national team.

    The Saru general council will decide on December 4 whether to extend his contract. If they decide against, they will be without a national coach by the end of the month. What the union must not do is resort to the old short-term, knee-jerk approach to hiring coaches.

    Peter de Villiers got the job because it was felt that a black coach was needed. De Villiers got the job ahead of perhaps a more appropriate black candidate because he was strongly pushed by certain Saru factions.

    Meyer was appointed belatedly and in haste in 2012 because Saru were so keen to get rid of De Villiers. Meyer’s appointment was partly because it was felt he should have been appointed in place of De Villiers in 2008.

    The Rugby World Cup has shown up Meyer’s limitations. I write this with some regret because I like him: he is an engaging, open man and the readiness with which he shares intense emotion is refreshing in a macho world. But the fact is that he was a brilliant club coach who has not been able to replicate that success on the national canvas.

    At the Bulls, Meyer could exert control. He recruited players straight from school and moulded them in his image. They owed their careers to him. Nor did he have to venture out of his cultural comfort zone — white, Afrikaans and Christian. The main source of pressure, selection-wise, was the white right. The only imperative was to keep winning and his game plan did that very effectively.

    This year, as national coach, he was relying on the same players and the same plan.

    The master class in modern rugby provided by the All Blacks at the World Cup final showed up the creakiness of his game plan, and he wasn’t able to come up with anything else. He also showed himself to be woefully out of touch with the national psyche.

    One would have thought the outpouring of anger at his squad selection before the Boks set off for the UK might have had some effect. But apparently not. His selections revealed no change in his reluctance to place trust in young players of colour.

    He has given only one young black player, Trevor Nyakane, consistent game time. Nothing he has said in the past few days has indicated that he acknowledges how inadequate this is.

    A continuation of this will damage the Springbok brand. There is a risk it will return rugby to the bitter, divisive role it occupied during apartheid.

    There have been hints that some of Meyer’s assistant coaches might be axed: partly as sacrificial lambs to appease public anger and partly to make way for an assistant of colour. This won’t do. Meyer will still call the shots.

    If, as it should be, our aim is to consistently be the best in the world, we need to be copying the All Blacks. Much has been written about the need to emulate their system of central contracting and collegial interaction between franchises — with the national team being given priority by all parties. Obviously, this is ideal but it is not likely to happen soon, given all the factional self-interest within Saru.

    But, with the national coach, we can start at Year Zero. He should be tasked primarily with two things: inculcating a style of rugby that empowers players to beat the best at their own game by putting brains ahead of brawn. Players should be encouraged to assess the situation unfolding before them intelligently and then seizing whatever opportunity it presents skilfully and incisively.

    Second, he needs to develop a team that properly represents our demographics. He should be given the time to do this. There should not be pressure to win the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019. The priority should be the building of a winning habit that would peak in 2023.

    Planning and an emphasis on continuity are important. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was assistant to Graham Henry, who was himself head coach for eight years.

    The next Springbok coach should be tasked with growing his successor.

    A Kiwi coach might well be the way to go. An added advantage is that he would be unencumbered by the South African race filter. But merely having been born in New Zealand is not enough.

    John Plumtree and John Mitchell have been mentioned. I’d suggest Saru chat to black players who have played under both — not current players because they wouldn’t talk openly for fear of jeopardising their careers — but former players who have nothing to lose. They may or may not endorse either or both of the Johns, but they will certainly have very interesting things to say about how black players fare under different coaches.

    Coaches with more recent experience of New Zealand structures might also have more to offer. Hansen, for instance, is rumoured to be stepping down in 2017. He might be worth waiting for.

    • This column first appeared in Business Day

Kindle ItShare

SHOULD Heyneke Meyer’s contract be extended? I think it should — but only for a year, as a holding operation. This would be just long enough to enable the South African Rugby Union (Saru) to give proper consideration to the question of who should coach the national team next and what his job description should […]

Kindle ItShare

Boks v All Blacks: it’s all in the margins

News | Non Fiction | South Africa Comments Off
Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and young Master Kolisi at their Guildford, Surrey, team hotel ahead of the Boks' semi-final clash against the All Blacks

Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and little Master Kolisi at the team hotel before the Boks’ semi-final against the All Blacks

KEY to the Springboks’ chances of beating the All Blacks in the World Cup semifinal will be the message they are giving themselves. If they were to amass the evidence or listen to an objective third party, they wouldn’t be able to get out of bed on Saturday morning.

The most recent reminder came a few days ago, when the Boks looked in mortal danger for much of the game of repeating their ignominious 2011 quarterfinal exit. A couple of hours later, the All Blacks danced through their own quarterfinal test against France, in total control.

They put in a sublime performance, showing equal mastery of defence and attack. There was never a second’s doubt as to who would rule the night.

Even more dispiriting is a glance of the Boks’ recent record against the All Blacks. In the past five encounters, they have only beaten them once.

In an attempt to counter this, they have come up with a new narrative. The key word is “margin”. We heard it first from Heyneke Meyer in the euphoria last Saturday evening.

“The margins are so small because most of the players play in Europe. There is a lot of IP (intellectual property) going around. Most of the coaches are world-class. We all study each other. Any one of the top eight countries can make it.”

This explanation nullifies the All Blacks’ exceptionalism and makes the field appear relatively even.

On Monday, the new narrative was reinforced by assistant defence coach, John MacFarland: “The last three games we’ve had with them have all come down to one score and one moment, so it’s up to us to produce that on Saturday as well,” he said.

And again by Pat Lambie: “The margins are so small at this level, particularly when you play against the All Blacks.”

I suspect Lambie was trotted out for an interview precisely because he personified the one occasion when the Boks reversed the margin in their favour with his penalty kick from 55m when the Boks were 24-25 down with two minutes left on the clock.

In fact, that win against the All Blacks — last year — was the only one in which the margin really was slim: the final score was 27-25. The other encounters, in which the All Blacks triumphed, were wider: 27-20 at Ellis Park last year: 14-10 in Wellington last year; 27-38 at Ellis Park in 2013; 29-15 in Auckland in 2013.

Reinterpreting these losses as close contests that could have gone either way will boost Bok morale and make the All Blacks appear less daunting.

At Wednesday’s news conference, Meyer repeated the margin mantra. “The margins over the couple of years have been small.”

But he was frank about the reason for stressing this: “We have to believe we can beat them, otherwise we’ll be wasting our time on Saturday.”

There is another subtle emotional shift that is cheering Meyer up. Having Fourie du Preez as captain is taking him back to a happy space.

It was with Du Preez at his side that he built the Bulls from a bunch of losers, languishing at the bottom of what was then the Super 12, into the best team in SA and the first (and only) South African team to win the Super Rugby trophy.

With Fourie, Meyer has experienced winning against all expectations and that is the emotional memory he appears to be invoking now.

“I have worked with Fourie since he was 19,” said Meyer at the post-game news conference on Saturday. “We were in desperation mode.

“Fourie is so driven, probably even more than me! He really wants to win. And his desperation rubs off on the team.”

As with the Bulls of yesteryear, the Boks have experienced a series of humiliating defeats but, phoenix-like, they appear to be rising from the ashes. On Wednesday, Meyer articulated it thus: “We had a very bad start at the beginning of this season. These 23 guys (who will make up Saturday’s squad) have been together under a huge amount of pressure since the beginning of the year.

“We stick together, coming through that adversity.”

It appears that, just at the crucial time, Meyer has found the chemistry he has been hankering after for the past four years: the recreation of the Bulls’ dynamic during the past decade.

Most of his coaching staff are from that era and now his key lieutenant is as well. And the Japan game has given them the excuse to revert to the game that served the Bulls so well: bash, barge and kick.

It helps the Boks’ chances, though, that Fourie du Preez has had international experience since he left the Bulls at the end of 2011.

Since then he has taken charge of his own career, refusing to rejoin a South African club in between Springbok and Japanese commitments. He has the confidence now to experiment, as was evident in the wonderful last-minute try he and Duane Vermeulen engineered, which took the Boks into the semifinals.

Lost (or found) in translation: English commentators call Lood de Jager “Lewd de Jaeger”. Schalk Burger becomes “Shulk”. But the most amusing was probably a Fourie du Preez response to a laboured question by a French reporter after the Wales win. Had the team come up with a name for this brilliantly innovative move so that they would more easily be able to repeat it, asked the Frenchman. No, said Du Preez, I just shouted: Duane, gaan links!

• This column first appeared in Business Day


Kindle ItShare

KEY to the Springboks’ chances of beating the All Blacks in the World Cup semifinal will be the message they are giving themselves. If they were to amass the evidence or listen to an objective third party, they wouldn’t be able to get out of bed on Saturday morning. The most recent reminder came a […]

Kindle ItShare

Hopefully, 2014 Vodacom Cup fiasco will lead to a new rugby model

News | Non Fiction | South Africa Comments Off

The New Year sees the launch of the 2014 Vodacom Cup campaign, which will be marred by a clumsy attempt by SARU to make up for their failure to promote black talent and a reactionary intervention by AfriForum. It is, however, not certain that AfriForum’s campaign – against the introduction of racial quotas – will be all that helpful to the small unions, for whom the competition is particularly significant. Callie Kriel, CEO of AfriForum, has bizarrely invoked the anti-discriminatory rules of the International Rugby Board in a letter to the South African Rugby Union. SARU has stipulated that, from 2014, all Vodacom Cup sides have to field seven players of colour in their 22-man squads, with at least five players in the starting team. At least two of the seven will also have to be among the forwards.

Mr Kriel objected on the grounds that “A quota system …does nothing to develop new players. Institutions simply import existing black players in order to comply with the quota requirements. Rugby unions should focus on development  programmes instead of discriminating against  certain players on the basis of race,” wrote Kriel.

The problem with this statement is that the small unions tend to import virtually all their players, both black and white.  What SARU objects to is that currently the players they import are almost all white.

The minor unions are in the extraordinarily privileged position of being  funded to field professional teams in the two competitions they take part in, the Vodacom Cup and the bottom tier of the Currie Cup.  They achieve this by virtue of being equal partners in the 14-union body that makes up SARU. Professional rugby is an expensive business: players, coaches, medical staff, match-day referees and security staff must be paid. Add to this travel and accommodation costs.  Most  also have their own stadia to sustain.  All this costs SARU around R10million for each union – and some of them continue to dip into the mother bodies’ funds over and above that.

And to what end? Television broadcasts of Vodacom Cup and First Division Currie Cup games show largely empty stadia.  TV viewerships are low.  It begs the question: what is the point of these unions?

The Vodacom Cup was initially conceived of as a developmental competition but, given that most unions buy in players from the schools – usually in other provinces – that actually do the developing,  that aspect of it has become farcical. It used to be argued that the Vodacom Cup provided a stage for promising players who might then be noticed by the bigger unions. No longer: the Varsity Cup has taken over as the beauty contest for incipient stars.

And as Mr Kriel correctly points out, it is not at this level that the goal of transformation is most effectively  pursued.  “Instead of playing the numbers game in a top-down manipulation, SARU and the government should address their own failure to develop young black talent at school level”.

AfriForum’s  campaign inadvertently raises the question: should we not be thinking of an entirely new model for South African rugby?  The Super Rugby franchises might, for example, consider following the lead of the English premiership clubs and break away from the union structure.  Our big clubs could argue, as the English clubs have done, that they attract the money – from SuperSport and the big sponsors – so why should they have to share it?  And why should they continue to allow the small unions to have such a disproportionately big say in the formation of policy?

Should the small unions not drop their professional pretensions and focus instead on fostering club rugby?

Or we could look at the system followed by the current world champions, the All Blacks.  The New Zealand Rugby Union General Meeting allocates votes to member unions based on the number of teams each is responsible for. Thus a union with fewer than sixty affiliated teams (which includes high school teams) gets two votes. The number of votes per union graduates upwards to seven votes for unions with 225 or more affiliates.

By contrast, the SARU General Meeting gives two equally weighted votes to each of its 14 component unions. If we followed the New Zealand example, South African rugby would be dominated by the Western and Eastern Cape.  At least there would be a stronger democratic base for SARU. It would also mean performance would be rewarded in that clubs which work to spread and strengthen grassroots rugby would be able to increase their voting power.

The NZRU system is much more agile and responsive than ours.  Super Rugby franchises are operated separately from the provinces and their boards contain independent business people with the appropriate skills. The All Blacks are centrally contracted and managed by a high performance department.

Mr Kriel’s intervention might be motivated by special pleading for a particular interest group but if it sparked new thinking on how we managed our rugby, it wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome.

This column by Liz McGregor first appeared in Business Day


McGregor is author of Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be a Bok (Jonathan Ball Publishers)








Kindle ItShare

The New Year sees the launch of the 2014 Vodacom Cup campaign, which will be marred by a clumsy attempt by SARU to make up for their failure to promote black talent and a reactionary intervention by AfriForum. It is, however, not certain that AfriForum’s campaign – against the introduction of racial quotas – will be […]

Kindle ItShare

Mandela and rugby: it all began on Robben Island

Non Fiction | South Africa Comments Off

Walk through the maze of passages and courtyards that make up the prisoners’ quarters of Robben Island – past the chilly cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life – and through the communal cells of the D-section and you will come upon an open field.  It is overgrown now – covered in high green weeds – but otherwise it is still pretty much as it was when Madiba was here. One side is flanked by a row of benches.  Behind the poles is the watchtower that gave the guards a bird’s eye view of the games.  Beyond the far edge, scrubland stretches towards the shoreline. Seagulls screech and the air has a salty tang.

It was on this unremarkable patch of earth that South Africa’s future leaders planted the seeds that were to grow into one of South African rugby’s greatest moments: the joint lifting of the Webb Ellis Cup by Nelson Mandela and Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, at Ellis Park on June 24 ,1995.

Buried in the Mayibuye Robben Island Archives is the constitution of the IRB -  not, in this case, the International Rugby Board, custodian of global rugby, but the Island Rugby Board. It is a poignant document – a total of 20 pages on rough, lined paper – and covered school book-style in brown paper and plastic. Dated January 1972 and neatly hand-written in blue ballpoint, it is signed off by Steve Tshwete, IRB president, later to be appointed by Mandela as the first sports minister of a democratic South Africa, and IRB secretary, Sedick Isaacs.

Tshwete, who grew up in the Eastern Cape and became secretary of the Border regional command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing, was arrested, in 1963 and the following year, convicted of belonging to a banned organisation and sentenced to 15 years on Robben Island. Another key figure was former Defence Minister, Mosiuoa Lekota.  Lekota was not yet 30 when he found himself locked up on the island for six years. Mosiuoa Lekota, better known as “Terror” because of his early feats on the soccer field, was born in Kroonstad, Free State, in 1948 into a working class family. The eldest of seven children, he was educated in Kroonstad until the last couple of years of high school when he was sent to St Francis College in Marianhill, alma mater of Steve Biko. Biko, later to die at the hands of the security police, pioneered the Black Consciousness Movement, which quickly gained traction amongst black students. This included Lekota, who enrolled at the University of the North in 1971 and within a couple of years, became a full-time organiser for the South African Student Association, a leading proponent of black consciousness.  When Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1974, Lekota and eight other SASO members were arrested for organising celebrations. He was found guilty under the Terrorism Act and sentenced to six years on Robben Island. Nelson Mandela, together with Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Govan Mbeki had been on the Island since 1964, having been sentenced to life imprisonment  at the Rivonia Trial for planning acts  of sabotage.

Subsequent trials brought in successive waves of new prisoners, many of them, like Lekota, still energetic young men, who had suddenly found their hectic, driven lives brought to a full stop. They had to find new ways to create meaning and purpose in their lives while they waited out their sentences. More importantly, they had to get on with each other.  And thus was set in process the use of sport as a vehicle for reconciliation.

All “non-European” male long-term political prisoners were sent to Robben Island.  This included coloured, Indian and African men, from both South Africa and Namibia, then a South African protectorate also fighting for independence.

So, flung together in stressful, confined conditions were the leaders of such disparate parties as the Pan African Congress; the Black Consciousness Movement, the Azanian Peoples’ Organisation (Azapo); the Liberal Party; the Trotskyite non-European Unity Movement; the South African Communist Party; the South West African Peoples’ Organisation (Swapo) as well as the ANC. Lekota explains how fraught this enforced promixity was.

“Not only was there tension between white warders and black prisoners but also profound tensions between the different liberation organisations.  Outside prison, they had little in common with each other. They had very different ideologies and ways of organising. And very different visions for the future of South Africa.  When you put them all together, you can imagine the tensions, which could boil over into open conflict.

“During the day, the prisoners faced their captors but, in the evening, it was the other prisoners. So we had to deal with both sets of tensions – between black and white and between different black liberation organisations. We had to find a way to deal with it.”

The very real consequences for the country of unresolved tensions was brought sharply home to them by Azapo prisoners who arrived on Robben Island subsequently. Azapo was aligned with Zanu, the Zimbabwean party which later assumed power under Robert Mugabe. The Azapo guys brought inside information from their Zanu allies to the Island: the Rhodesian government led by Ian Smith had had to keep Zanu and Zapu in separate prisons because the animosity between the rival liberation parties was so intense. This served only to deepen the mutual antagonism. The consequence, says Lekota, was the Matabeleland massacres of the early eighties, where thousands of anti-Mugabe dissidents were slaughtered.


“Our leaders realised they had to make a plan to stop this happening in South Africa after liberation.  We’ve got to have some things that make for mutual understanding; things we can share across political formations. What is there that we can do amongst ourselves that would contribute to mutual appreciation rather than antagonism? That was where the idea of sporting activities came in.”

Thought was then given to what kind of sport would work. Team sports were the obvious choice.  Prisoners who came from the north tended to prefer soccer.

{“The Cape and Natal had been British colonies so rugby thrived there. Particularly in the Cape -  the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape – there were very strong rugby roots. And of course, the prisoner warders were rugby people.”

Sedick Isaacs, a practising Muslim who gained a Phd while serving a 13 year sentence on the Island, was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of sports.  As well as being the founding secretary of the IRB, Isaacs also drove the campaign to establish football on the island, later to become known as the Makana Football Association.

Only 23 when he was first imprisoned in the mid-60s,  he was released in 1977 and served with a seven-year banning order. Isaacs, a quiet, unassuming man, died in 2012.  In an interview shortly before his death with then Fulbright scholar, Peter Alegi, Isaacs explained the emotional significance of sport for the Islanders.  The weekly cycle of matches, he said, proved crucial in fighting “eventless time” — a debilitating condition for prisoners serving lengthy sentences. The cycle worked something like this: teams started the week by analyzing the previous match and then by midweek there was growing anticipation for upcoming matches. Conversations, banter, and meetings stoked the hype and created heroes and personalities. By the weekend, excitement surrounding the matches reached fever pitch. It provided human emotions in an emotionally neutral context. Isaacs pointed out that the only positive effects of long prison sentences is that they can strengthen prisoners’ organizational skills and improve their understanding of human nature. “If it had not been for the beautiful game and these community building devices,” Isaacs concluded, “we could have become psychological and physical wrecks incapable of integration into a multicultural world, let alone be able to contribute positively to it.’


Apartheid, of course, extended to prisons.  White political prisoners were sent to Pretoria Central Prison. And even though Indian, coloured and African prisoners were all held together on Robben Island, the divide and rule system operated there too, which could have driven wedges between Africans such as Lekota and a coloured man like Isaacs. Even their diet was calibrated according to the status accorded to different races by the apartheid government.


Lekota explains: “We were all defined as non-Europeans and later as non-whites. The pattern of life outside repeated inside. Even when it came to food: the diet of white prisoners much better than that of black prisoners. And diet of African prisoners significantly different to that of coloureds and Indians. For example, milk was given to Indians and coloureds but not to Africans.  Initially Africans were not given bread either but that was slowly introduced.  Africans get could a slice a bread on a Wednesday and one on either Saturday or Sunday. ” Their diet consisted solely of pap [soft porridge]. “In the early days, there was no fruit but when it was in season, large amounts of it was dumped on it and then it suddenly ceased.”

With so much operating against peaceful co-existence, sports acquired a huge significance as a vehicle for cohesion.


“We divided ourselves into groups that transcended political groupings – so each group had to contain members from the ANC or PAC and so on,“ explains Lekota, who is now leader of the opposition party, COPE. “Each group then held a meeting and chose a name. When this process was over, we had six teams and they then formed a league.

“Some of the older African people had come from soccer teams outside so we obtained a book of soccer rules and rugby rules and they read the rules and they then formed a referee association.”

One of the many team lists laboriously hand-written and preserved in the Mayibuye archives names Lekota as prop. He laughs about this now.  “The team I was chosen for needed a prop and a kicker. They thought because I had played soccer I would be able to kick but of course, it is very different type of kicking. So I became the prop who also kicked but it meant we lost all our conversions!”


“Towards the end of the year, we would dismantle the league and set teams for knock-out competitions. We also had the annual Olympic games which included rugby, soccer, volley ball and 100metre athletics.”

One thing the prisoners had in abundance was time, which was useful as all these advances took years of haggling and negotiating with the prison authorities.  They were given nothing. All the facilities they needed they had to provide themselves, using considerable ingenuity.  It also involved meticulous, secret planning.

“Prisoners had to do these things by stealth – they would grow grass quietly themselves in stages – in clumps alongside the cells until we had enough to cover the pitch. We had to build long benches so that people could sit and watch games. So when we were given building jobs, we would take a bit extra sand and cement. ”

They had long and medium term plans, all of which helped to give meaning to prisoners’ lives and a common goal.  One of the long term goals involved the building of a tennis court. “So, when you see a flat, cemented patch now, you know it was mostly built with stolen cement.”

They would work out what they needed and then surreptitiously build it into the next job. “So, if we had to paint windows, say, we would keep some of the cement to paint lines.” Making it all work required lots of lateral thinking. For example, there was only one field for both soccer and rugby.

“A rugby field is longer than a soccer field so rugby’s 22 lines would be the outer lines for soccer and we’d put the poles there. Then we got the authorities eventually to agree to allow moveable poles. For nets, we would take ropes we found that had been discarded by ships and we would knit them together. We took lime to designate different areas.”

The shared rugby/soccer field threatened to introduce new tensions – between the soccer-inclined prisoners from the north and the rugby-lovers from the south. “So we discussed it and came to an agreement that it would be one weekend for soccer and one for rugby.” This led to further expansion of skills. “Young people have energy,” explained Lekota. Soccer players did not want to sit out every other weekend so they each starting learning the other’s game so that they could participate every weekend.


“The rugby guys showed you what to do – you push the guys away from the ball. So many of us who came from upcountry became outstanding rugby players and rugby guys learnt soccer so we learnt to appreciate each other.”

All this took endless negotiation.

And not only between prisoners. They eventually drew in the warders and, in the process, discovered a common humanity.

“This took away the tension. And the warders also developed an interest. Some of them became referees and it helped relieve their boredom too.

You have to realize that these whites were also imprisoned on Robben Island. They would have to stay there for a fortnight. They couldn’t go over to the mainland for a movie. They had to stay there for two weeks and then, once a fortnight, they could come to Cape Town to visit their families and girlfriends.

“In the early days, the government tried to recruit guys who were married and came with families. In the later years, they had to send young guys. They took them from orphanages and trained them in Kroonstad, my home town.”

Through the mutual understanding gained through shared sporting activities, the prisoners also came to see the human being in their captors. They realised that they were young men, like themselves, who were being used to enforce a pernicious system.  “They were being used to control us. The young of South Africa were made to fight each other. So the police who had arrested us for not having passes etc outside – who were used to make life impossible for us – and to fight us on the borders – were also being used.

“On both sides, we were young, poor people.  Often there were generations of warders from individual families. Warders were recruited from poor communities.  The children of wardens married children of police and soldiers. They were recruited from the same level of society.

“They were told we were terrorists and communists and they were not allowed to speak about politics with us.  Because the authorities realized that if they were exposed, this would open their minds.”

Lekota says that the fact he spoke Afrikaans and came from Kroonstad, where many of them had trained, meant he was able to establish common ground. “They see this guy who is so reasonable but we were told they were communists!”

This shared interest in sport opened up other avenues for empathy.

“We were not allowed news from outside but when the wardens went to Cape Town, they would watch say Western Province against the Bulls and they would tell us what was happening.  In due course, we would ask them to check soccer and rugby scores. There was always news hunger among us.

“So from that we learnt that sport was an activity with high potential for reconciling people; for learning to appreciate each others’ talents and creating mutual respect. So even though warders weretold we were terrorists and communists and black people were less intelligent they saw we were not.”


While Robben Island operated as a laboratory for rugby as unifier, on the mainland, the game remained profoundly divisive.  Another young sport-loving political activist, Trevor Manuel, who was later to become Nelson Mandela’s first Minister of Finance –and like, Steve Tshwete in the corresponding sport portfolio, the first black South African ever to serve in this position – grew up in a community which loved rugby with as much passion as white people. Yet this passion was infused with bewilderment and anger.  Manuel, now the universally respected Minister in the Presidency and architect of the National Development Plan, the blueprint for the country’s development, recalled his youthful experience of being a rugby fan.


“I remember as a kid going to Newlands and sitting in the South Stands [the only seats open to black people]. When I got home, people would say: ‘What are you doing there?’ Remember that a lot of the every-day communication about apartheid was through things like sport, the Group Areas Act, the Job Reservation Act and so on.” In other words, the apartheid policies that restricted life opportunities for people of colour.

In 1971, when Manuel was 15, New Zealand toured South Africa.  The great Bryan Williams had just become one of the first Pacific Islanders to be made an All Black. This created a problem for the apartheid government which forbade sport between black and white players.  They got around this by bestowing the bizarre and insulting status of “honorary white” on Williams. He went on to play brilliantly, scoring 13 tries in 14 games. This, combined with the fact that, as a Samoan, his skin was a similar colour to that of coloured people and he was subjected to the same indignities as a result, made him a hero in these communities.  It led to an enduring affection among sections of coloured people in the Cape for the All Blacks.

Manuel was initially one of these.

“When I think back to rugby heroes of my youth, there would have been the Frederick brothers and Cassiem Jabaar – a scrumhalf of note – and Pieter Jooste, who was a captain of Tygerberg.  When you think of all of those guys who were incredibly talented but could never make it through, the notion of no normal sport in an abnormal society was not a hollow slogan. You never knew because you were never tested. You never tested Cassiem Jabaar against Dawie de Villiers – it would have been an interesting test because they were contemporaries but the opportunities  never arose.

Manuel says attitudes hardened over the years. “Initially, people of my generation  who followed sport went to Hartleyvale or Green Point Stadium and watched white teams playing football. But then there was a break and we decided we weren’t going to support white teams anymore and we went to Athlone Stadium.

“This kind of thing crept through the consciousness: you had all this talent. These guys were so good and they worked so hard but it is all being snuffed out by apartheid. They were our heroes but you knew they were never going to be recognized.”

At the time,  rugby administration was divided along racial lines. The South African Rugby Union (the original SARU founded in 1966) was a non-racial body which operated parallel to the whites-only South African Rugby Board. SARU was a founding member of the South African Council on Sport (SACOS) which maintained that there could be “no normal sport in an abnormal society” and was at the forefront of campaigning for the sports boycott against South African teams. SARU was mostly composed of coloured teams until they affiliated with the Kwazakehle Rugby Union (KWARU), which was mostly African. There was also the South African Rugby Federation.


Steve Tshwete was freed from Robben Island in 1978 and returned to the Border region.  Terror Lekota was released  in 1982.  Both were to become deeply involved in a key political movement which was launched the following year, the United Democratic Front. This was an umbrella organisation for a myriad of grassroots anti-apartheid groupings, including the non-racial rugby clubs.

Under the influence of leaders like Mandela on Robben Island, Lekota had abandoned his Black Consciousness affiliations and embraced non-racialism.  He became heavily involved in the UDF , taking on the role of Publicity Secretary.  Tshwete became president of the UDF’s Border region. Manuel was UDF regional secretary and a member of the national executive committee. All three were subjected to incessant state harassment. Manuel was to spend almost three years in detention in the 1980s.


He takes up the story: “We launched the UDF on the 20th of August 1983 in Mitchells Plain. We didn’t have a big delegation – and I’m not sure we even had a proper delegation – from the Eastern Cape. Steve Tshwete wasn’t with us at the launch of the UDF but he was in town. He was quite a pugnacious sort of chap – his attitude was: ‘Who are you and what is your authority?’ and so on and we had to persuade him that we were genuinely ANC.”


But the Border Union, KWARU and SACOS were to form a close association with the UDF and together they drove an acceleration of the international sports boycott. “We deployed Stoff to New Zealand to campaign against the All Black tour of 1984.” “Stoff” was Makhenkesi Arnold Stofile, who was to become Minister of Sport and Recreation from 2004 to 2010.


When Nelson Mandela was finally released in 1990, after 27 years in prison, the nation trembled on the edge of racial war.  Black people celebrated in the knowledge that finally freedom was imminent.  But there was also a lot of anger, which was particularly raw after the last decade of intensified repression by the apartheid government.  Among white people, there was fear. Would Mandela not want revenge after being incarcerated for 27 years?  And they knew their lives would be fundamentally changed but had no idea what form this might take.  Some stockpiled tinned foods in anticipation of chaos.  Meanwhile,  far right paramilitary groupings, led by Eugene TerreBlanche, mobilised for war.  To them, Mandela was a communist, a terrorist. He should be hanged, not freed.  They dug out their khakis and loaded their guns. “Mandela doesn’t want peace. He wants war and he will get it!” roared the bellicose TerreBlanche.

White resistance groups set off bombs in an attempt to destabilise the country. Some 21 people were killed and 173 were injured. The situation was extremely volatile.

Mandela, meanwhile, realised he not only had to calm white fears but he also had to cool black anger. He persuaded both the ANC and the National Party that a negotiated future was the only way.  The politicians gathered to battle out a settlement all parties could agree on.

But on Robben Island, Mandela had learnt that you also needed non-cerebral activity to transcend differences on a deeper, emotional level.  He had experienced the power of team sport  to unite warring communities. He also understood the visceral attachment to rugby among white people and how painful the spurning of South African rugby teams by the international community had been.  The fact that South Africa’s top rugby team could not compete against their peers in global rugby and that young people in New Zealand, their biggest rivals, were staging violent protests against the Springboks, had been among the most powerful punishments for apartheid.

In his book, Playing the Enemy, journalist John Carlin describes how Nelson Mandela used white people’s love of rugby to seduce its more recalcitrant elements into accepting the new political dispensation in South Africa. Carlin’s book was the basis for two excellent films, Invictus, and The 16th Man, directed by Clifford Bestall. Both are compelling accounts of  Mandela’s brilliant gamble on a game with  extremely high stakes.


Mandela decided he would bring the 1995 Rugby World Cup to South Africa as reward – and bribe – for whites’ participation in the first ever democratic elections.

His statesmanship – and extraordinary magnanimity, given the extent of his own suffering at the hands of the party he was now negotiating with as equals – set an example that South Africa and in particular South African rugby still aspires to live up to.

In 1994, he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president but he knew the foundations for unity remained fragile.  As another of his Robben Island fellow inmates, Tokyo Sexwale, points out in The 16th Man, he was “still very nervous. He was surrounded by generals. He was sleeping with one eye open.”

In his dealings with rugby in the first half of the 1990s, Mandela acted alone. He was ahead of his own party on this and stuck his neck out to make the ultimate gesture of reconciliation to the white community.

Verne Harris, director of research at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, says  he remembers “SACOS people in the early nineties – in cricket, rugby and soccer – being very hurt and feeling betrayed when there was this unseemly rush to get back into the international arena. The feeling was that we were being rushed back into international sport before proper transformation.

“We had one black player in the 1995 team and in 2007, we had two black players in the team that won the RWC. So I don’t think the rugby establishment repaid that gesture.

“I think that Madiba’s argument was that with such gestures – like including  bits of Die Stem in the national anthem – you show generosity and you will evoke a generous response and we need that flow of positive energy if we are to get through this difficult period for reconciliation. As a strategy, you can’t dismiss it. But then you need a lot of hard work to follow those gestures .

“It was a strategy he used in different guises throughout his life – treating the prison warders with respect – learning their language and writing letters in Afrikaans.  Even letters of complaint had a basic courtesy.”

In 95, he wasn’t consulting – he went out on a limb. He was not developing a consensus. “One of his attributes as a leader was that when he could act decisively and immediately and it’s’ got to be dramatic – and he has so often got those moments right.  It is a quality most great leaders have.”

Trevor Manuel recalls similar misgivings: “In the UDF, there was a strong overlap with the SARU crowd and there was a fair amount of dissatisfaction about the way the merger happened between SARFU, which was then headed by Louis Luyt and SARU, which was then headed by Ebrahim Patel.

But it happened and there was never unanimity about how to deal with the issue and going into 1994 and the build-up to ’95 was, for people on the ground, quite hard. Madiba saw things that we didn’t. I think he was also moved largely by Steve Tshwete. And Steve’s commitment to rugby and to SARU was unequivocal.

“So there was always that edge. Steve was the first Minister of Sport in 1994 and there was the whole thing with Luyt and I was not enamoured of this man and his behaviour relative to Madiba. I was then a Minister but every part of me was still the activist and the fact that this fertiliser king was now being engaged was for me quite difficult. But Madiba and Steve contrived to use the events of 95 not as an end but as a means to an end.

“I’ll admit to having been incredibly torn because even though I would go to Newlands,  I drew succour from the All Blacks partly because they wouldn’t relent on the Maori issue and when the Boks toured New Zealand, the games were called off week after week because of anti-apartheid protests.

“So on the issues of nation-building I’ll admit to having been a slow taker. My sense was that the other side needed to do better than Chester.  And in a funny kind of way, I had the argument with Madiba. The question in his mind was whether this could be an opportunity for nation-building.  There wasn’t unanimity but you deferred to greater objectives.

“In retrospect, Madiba’s role – his leadership, his ability to transcend leading the ANC  to leading the nation – was fundamentally important. When you have a country as complex and varied as ours is, it is smart politics to use that which transcends the normalcy of the divisions and sport is going to bring that.“

When the ANC voted to do away with the springbok as the emblem for the national team, Mandela intervened. Arriving late at the meeting, he insisted it be retained. He understood its significance to white rugby lovers. And he continued to press every button that counted.

Just before the first 1995 RWC game, Mandela popped into a Springbok practice session and put on a Springbok cap.

He told the stunned players: “If we hadn’t been kept out of international games, we know who would have won!“

The Boks’ official slogan became, significantly: one team, one country. The team visited Mandela’s old cell on Robben Island to understand what he had been through, a hugely charged visit.

Mandela carried on working on his own constituency. Just before the semi-final in Durban when the Boks took on France, he appeared at a rally of black people and ostentatiously put on his Springbok cap.  The crowd booed but he persisted.

“This cap does honour to our boys who are playing France tomorrow,” he told them. “I ask you all to stand behind them tomorrow because they are our pride! They are your pride!”

On June 24, 1995,  white people punched the air and cheered as Mandela’s cavalcade drove past on its way to Ellis Park. Once there, he walked into the Springbok changing room – wearing a team jersey, with the springbok over his heart.  In an extraordinary moment, the mostly white crowd in the stands began chanting: “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!”

And one that was echoed in crowds gathered around TV sets in suburbs and townships throughout the country.

As Joel Stransky dropped his winning kick across the bars, millions of black and white South Africans erupted in delight.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarked afterwards: “Who would imagine people dancing in streets in Soweto over the rugby victory of a Springbok side – but they did!”

The last word must go to the man who made it all happen: former president, Nelson Mandela:  “Sport can create hope where there was only despair. It has done more than governments in breaking down racial barriers. Sport has the power to change the world.”

Copywright: Liz McGregor

Below are some extracts from Robben Island documents:


Ref 35-72

REPORT: Joint delegation – Rugby/Soccer  3rd stage 25-8-72

(to be read in conjuction with reports 32-72, 33-72 and 34-72)

Interview with Head and V/Head of the Prison



The joint delegation was called to the office on the afternoon of Thursday, 24th August, 1972. Present was Lt v. d. Westhuizen, c/w Nortje, S Tshwete, S Isaacs (Rugby), J Naidoo and M Mkunqwana.

The delegation re-expressed its task – to get a clear definition of the status of our recreation as outlined in our letter of 23/7/72.

The Lt indicated that as far as he is concerned there is no problem at all. The last time he has interfered with our sport (and it was only for once) was on 15th July when he stopped soccer (he said) and since then the sections were always opened for us to go and play. Only for this coming Saturday (26/8/72), a group will have to go and crush stones as a punishment for not having performed sufficient work during the working week. He has the power, he says, of making the whole prison work on Saturdays. This system of punishment has been sanctioned “at a high level” and he is not concerned if we do not play on Saturdays or for the next 10 years.

The Lt was asked why he does not invoke the prison regulations against people who do not work.  He replied that people are not prepared to take mealslips. He was then asked why these alleged defaulters are not charged to which he replied that he does not want to see the place full of lawyers. The delegation emphasized that legal defense would make the test (trial) more objective. He did not accept this.

On the question of seeing the CO the Lt stated that our letter of 23/7/72 is phrased in a form of a threat and the CO is not allowing himself to be thus threatened. In any event the situation is not as yet 100% normal since we are refusing to play on Saturday.

Referring now to people who do not wake with the bell the Lt is quite convinced that more than 50% were at fault on Thursday 24/8/72 and since they are not man enough to own up he will have to take measures that will affect the whole population (viz ring the bell at 5.00am and open at 6.00am.

It is the impression of the delegation that the Lt is awaiting a response from us.



As given


Signed S Tshwete

Sedick Isaacs  25/8/72 RUGBY




  1. Tabled at the joint meeting of IRB and MFA
  2. 2. A copy sent to each Rugby Club

Signed Sedick Isaacs



Robben Island Prison

14th April 1974


The Secretary





Judging from the spirit that prevailed during yesterdays match ie inside and particularly outside the field of play, we have a feeling that it would do us good, in order to revive the spirit in rugby, to stage the same match again. If impossible, another of the same stature should be staged.


I thank you,

Yours in sport,

D Phuthi

(for Selection Panel)



The Secretary




A difference of opinion is at the moment prevalent within our Rugby circles and in sport in general that it is with deep dismay that my executive have to observe that the differences are not tolerated by some individuals in a healthy spirit that is promotive (sic) for sport, for good communal living and for free exchange of opinion.

Contestants too frequently use swear words like “sell-outs”, narrow mindedness” with the false hope of shocking their opponents into adopting their point of view rather than appealing to that uniquely human faculty: reason. Such tactics and malice-loaded attitudes can only lead to estrangements and had feelings in our already affect-laden community.

An opinion defender should make use of the forum provided by his club to air and debate his views instead of making slanderous statements that is (sic) not only injurious to his own character and our community spirit but also to our code.

Many still have a long way to go in their sentences and sport and other community ventures is supposed to help us retain as much of our mental health and group morale as possible.


Rugby Referees’ Association

Robben Island Prison


12th September 1974

The Rt Hon Chief Warder Gerber

Robben Island Prison




I have been instructed by my executive to request you to do us the honour of officiating as referee over a rugby match scheduled for 21st Sept 1974.


We are sure that if you ascede (sic) to our request we stand to gain greatly in rugby refereeing technique.


Yours respectfully in sport,


Secretary, B Mjo






Constitution of the IRB dateline Robben Island

Date January 1972

Signed by president, S Tshwete. And secretary, Sedick Isaacs.


Constitution “drafted by constitutions committee appointed by the Board in 1969 and approved and signed on Jan 30, 1972. Written in blue ballpoint on rough paper and covered in brown paper with a plastic covering. 20 pages written on both sides – ruled exercise book paper A3.

Aims and objectives:

a)    To inculcate the spirit of sportsmanship and co-operation amongst the inmates of Robben Island in all matters of sport and recreation in general.

b)   To serve as the sole liaison between the prison authorities and other sporting codes on one hand and the various rugby clubs as set up within the framework of the Board on the other hand.


c)    To arrange fixtures for play on a competitive basis and arrange for friendly matches when competitive matches are in progress.


d)   To arrange exhibition/variety matches for the purposes of promoting and displaying the game.


e)    To elect/select the Ruggerite of the Year on the basis of merit both on and off the field.


f)     To register and assist in the formation of clubs by the inmates.


g)    To protect the game against abuse in the form of  foul play by players on the field and insults and other such obscene language as to bring discredit to the game and the Island Rugby Board.





Each club had A and B divisions and each club had to submit at the beg of the season the names of players in each division. Clubs were called: The Volcanoes;  The Boys; The Arsenals; Medumo – fixtures set up way in advance by the IRB. On Saturdays – record of one meeting between tshwete, Isaacs and the chief prison warder on the problem of some prisoners being forced to crush rocks on Saturdays on the grounds that they hadn’t workded hard enough during the week.


This was taken very seriously because it interfered with the fixtures.

Scores recorded and a trophy awarded at the end of te season.; the Lions.


There was a court for trying alleged infringements of the consittuion and a board of appeal.

Letters to each other start with Sir


Eg Sun Beams RC

1st December 1975


The Secretary

Gqala AFC




I beg to make a loan of your stockings for a rugby match played to be played on Saturday  6.12.75.


Yours in Sport,

M Bengu (Sec)


I red cross seemed to have helped with cash for jerseys, socks, shorts. All of which were meticulously signed out and returned for each game.


Lekota in 1981 Komesho RFC (3) got seven points.










Kindle ItShare

Walk through the maze of passages and courtyards that make up the prisoners’ quarters of Robben Island – past the chilly cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life – and through the communal cells of the D-section and you will come upon an open field.  It is overgrown now – covered in […]

Kindle ItShare

The Boks must be paid more

Uncategorized Comments Off

The core of the Springbok team have committed themselves until after the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Heyneke Meyer can now build his team around Jean de Villiers, Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Adriaan Strauss, confident that they won’t be lured abroad by better pay in the next two years. It is a big step forward. Kudos to the South African Rugby Union for making this happen. And serious respect to the players concerned: it shows loyalty and a willingness to sacrifice material gain to stick with their country. There has been speculation that the Du Plessis brothers would go abroad next year. Their current Sharks contracts end this season and it has been suggested that Bismarck, in particular, would have difficulties with new CEO John Smit, given their rivalry over the position of hooker when Peter de Villiers was Springbok coach. But it appears both parties have risen above it: Jannie and Bismarck have signed new contracts with the Sharks as well.
Ever since his initial year-by-year appointment as Springbok captain, Jean de Villiers has made it clear he feels no sense of entitlement: he needs to continually earn his position. At a press conference in June this year, he committed himself only as far as 2014, when his current Stormers contract comes to an end. But his sterling performances, both on and the field, have settled this question. There is every likelihood now that Jean de Villiers will lead the Springboks at the Rugby World Cup.
SARU have made another clever move: cognizant of the Springboks’ dire away record against the Wallabies and the All Blacks, they have offered an additional incentive. Their win against Australia in Brisbane gained all 23 members of the match-day squad a bonus of just over R100,000. If they’d gone on to beat the All Blacks in Auckland, it would have doubled last their takings. This an extraordinary reward for an extraordinary challenge: the same bonus is not on offer for any other games.
But the issue of inadequate pay remains unresolved. A breakdown of Springboks’ earnings shows the financial sacrifice these players have made in staying here, particularly those whose careers will taper off after 2015, limiting the options for earning proper retirement funds while they are still marketable.
Springboks are paid between R900,000 and R1.4million a year, depending on their levels on seniority. Their franchises pay them an additional salary, which ranges between R600,000 and R3.5million. This means a newly capped Bok is likely to be on a total of R1.5million a year while an experienced player at the top of his game will be on R5million. If they win all 12 Tests in a year, they will each get an additional sum of around R1million.
But that is gross income. So, 40% of that goes to SARS. Players have to pay their own injury insurance, which is between 5% and 10% of their salaries, depending on which franchise they are contracted to. A couple of the franchises continue to pay players their full salaries for six months if injury keeps them out of the game. At others, they are paid only for two months, despite the fact that these injuries were sustained on the job. Players also have to pay their own medical aid contributions – at the top rate, because the job inevitably requires expensive treatment. Added to that is a compulsory contribution to a retirement fund.
Look at what our players are paid overseas by comparison: Toulon gives Bryan Habana R8million a year, whether his team wins or loses. In Japan, Jaque Fourie earns around R10million for playing around 10 games a year.
SARU does not pay our players enough. And the reason for this is that the Springboks have to subsidise the professional aspirations of its minor union members.
Just under R700 million a year pours into SARU’s coffers each year. The vast majority of this comes from the sale of broadcast rights and from sponsors, chiefly Absa. It is our national team that earns most of this – it is the Springboks whom DSTV customers will pay top dollar to watch and it is with the Springboks that sponsors are most eager to ally their brands. Yet, aside from their franchise pay, only 10% of this R700million goes to the Springboks each year – and that includes salaries, travel and training camps. An almost equal amount goes to SARU’s smallest and least effective unions. Each gets R7.4million of the joint SARU income from the sale of broadcasting rights and another three-odd million to fund the accommodation and travel costs of their Vodacom Cup and Currie Cup teams. Added to this is another R1million or so for “development” costs. What development? There is virtually no rugby played in some of these provinces. They just buy in second tier players from the schools who do the actual development, pay them around R10,000 a month, and give them the illusion they might one day be Springboks. It’s not fair on them and the cost of it is crippling the true professionals.

**This column first appeared in Business Day

Kindle ItShare

The core of the Springbok team have committed themselves until after the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Heyneke Meyer can now build his team around Jean de Villiers, Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Adriaan Strauss, confident that they won’t be lured abroad by better pay in the next two years. It is […]

Kindle ItShare