Posts Tagged ‘Nelson Mandela’

How activists took on Big Pharma and won

News | Non Fiction | South Africa | Uncategorized Comments Off


THE government funds antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for 3.1-million HIV-positive people at a cost of R40,000 per person a year in the largest and most ambitious ARV programme in the world. HIV, once the harbinger of death, is now just another chronic disease.

The extraordinary tale of how this was achieved is told in the book No Valley Without Shadows: MSF and the Fight for Affordable ARVs in SA, to be launched next week. It is the inside story of how courage, cunning and determination overcame the combined might of global corporate greed, government denialism and the conservatism of the medical establishment.

THE current state of affairs could be said to hang off a single courtesy phone call. In 1999, Dr Eric Goemaere, a long-serving Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) volunteer, came to SA hoping to prove that ARVs could safely be given outside of a first world hospital setting to poor HIV-positive expectant mothers so they wouldn’t infect their babies.

It almost didn’t happen. Goemaere’s first stop was at the office of Dr Nono Simelela, the national director of the HIV programme, who reluctantly broke the news that the health minister had blocked the public sector use of AZT to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

About to fly home to Belgium, defeated, Goemaere put in a last-minute courtesy call to an e-mail acquaintance, the activist Zackie Achmat, who had started the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) the year before.

Achmat revealed that a limited mother-to-child transmission pilot study was under way in Khayelitsha, on the outskirts of Cape Town.

In partnership with the University of Cape Town, MSF set to work in Khayelitsha, systematising the pilot study to ensure it was sufficiently rigorous to convince an ambivalent medical community.

However, they soon became frustrated that, although they were able to save babies’ lives, they were unable to save their parents.

Dr Francoise Louis, a French doctor who hoped to share her skills, described it like this: “I witnessed the introduction of ARVs in France and what it meant to people. When I discovered the impossible levels of HIV in Southern Africa, I became obsessed.”

BUT without ARVs to prescribe, she felt useless. “How does a clinician feel if, whatever you do to care for your patient, he comes back sicker; the wretched headache does not go away; the excruciating diarrhoea does not stop? The situation was inhuman for them. It was inhuman for us, who knew that a treatment to keep them alive was available,” she said.

The struggle to save the lives of poor, powerless people at the tip of Africa might have gone unnoticed by the wider world if it had not played into a broader agenda then being implemented in the boardrooms of the first world.

In 1995, the World Trade Organisation started enforcing Trips, the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. This compelled all member countries — including SA — to introduce 20-year patents on medicines. This meant that ARV treatment cost between $10,000 and $12,000 per person per year.

In an attempt to circumvent this, the government introduced the Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act of 1997, which would allow the health minister to cancel patent rights or import generic medicines.

The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association, representing 39 companies, lodged a challenge. In a landmark case that became known as Big Pharma vs Nelson Mandela, the global drug industry made it quite clear that it would fight to the last to protect its profits, even it translated very tangibly and publicly into the loss of thousands of lives. The case dragged on for three years, with no end in sight.

Spotting the perfect opportunity to highlight the high cost of ARVs, TAC joined the case as amicus curiae (friends of the court), presenting a powerful dossier of evidence on the human impact of patent protection.

Together with MSF, they launched a highly successful international campaign called Drop The Case.

When it became clear how damaging this was to their image, the pharmaceutical companies withdrew their case.

MSF underwent seismic changes as a result of the struggle for affordable ARVs.

Its model had always been the provision of emergency medical intervention. Now, it was being asked to fund long-term treatment for possibly thousands of patients.

For the first time, an MSF board would be making a financial commitment that would extend beyond its own tenure and place an obligation on its successors.


INITIALLY, it agreed to fund 180 patients. This led to agonising decisions having to be made by doctors in Khayelitsha: who should be given life-saving treatment and who should be left to die? The pressure for universal, affordable ARV treatment intensified.

The drug companies were invited to the Khayelitsha clinic. Only one came. The chairman of Boehringer Ingelheim arrived while Goemaere was treating an emaciated nine-year-old orphan, who was slowly and painfully dying from AIDS. Deeply discomfited, he offered to pay for the boy’s treatment personally, but confessed that he did not have the power to change his company’s global policy on patent protection.

The response from another pharmaceutical company, Bristol-Myers Squibb, revealed a surprise. While it had the licence for the antiretroviral stavudine, the patent was owned by Yale University. A direct approach from MSF to Yale was stonewalled by the university, which was earning $40m a year from the stavudine licence in 1999.

The activists sprung into action. A couple of first-year Yale law students tracked down the inventor, Dr William Prusoff, who wrote a stirring letter to the New York Times reflecting on his position as a scientist contributing to the discovery of a life-saving medication and then witnessing how commercial interests were protected so stringently that those in need of it were denied help.

Yale caved in and Bristol-Myers Squibb announced “emergency patent relief” shortly afterwards.

A year after initiating the first patient on ARVs, the Khayelitsha team believed it had enough material to prove to the medical establishment that resource-poor clinics and nonspecialist staff could effectively deliver ARVs.

Several reputable journals turned them down, either for fear of offending the pharmaceutical companies or out of prejudice.

But when the findings were eventually published, they were explosive. After two years, 91% of patients were taking their medication as prescribed and had an undetectable viral load.

The struggle then entered a new phase — forcing the government to implement treatment for its citizens.

TAC played a critical part. The first really effective post-apartheid civil society organisation, it fought stigma, empowered the HIV-positive and shamed the government.

TAC set the bar for the vibrant civil society movement that exists in SA today.

• McGregor is co-author of No Valley without Shadows: MSF and the Fight for Affordable ARVs in South Africa. Published by MSF, it will be launched at the Book Lounge, Roeland Street, Cape Town, on November 30. All proceeds from the sale on the night will go to TAC

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  THE government funds antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for 3.1-million HIV-positive people at a cost of R40,000 per person a year in the largest and most ambitious ARV programme in the world. HIV, once the harbinger of death, is now just another chronic disease. The extraordinary tale of how this was achieved is told in the […]

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It’s time to tackle inequality

News | Non Fiction | South Africa Comments Off

WHENEVER I write about race in rugby, I have to brace myself for some particularly nasty hate mail. Suitably braced, here goes.

The recent commemoration of the 1995 Rugby World Cup pretty much summed up rugby’s transformation record in the intervening two decades — lots of glossy, feel-good stuff that tried but failed to smother the elephant in the room: that, 20 years on, a quota system is still required to ensure there are more than a couple of black players in the Springbok team.

One of the main reasons the South African Rugby Union has failed to develop black players in large numbers is that they rely almost exclusively on the 40-odd rugby specialist schools to produce players. These schools are mostly private or former Model C schools. All are based in areas that are still mostly white and therefore attract mostly white pupils. This cements the racial status quo in rugby and intensifies the inequality of opportunity for black children who want to make it to the top.

If Saru had responded appropriately to Nelson Mandela’s challenge in 1995, it would have directed a large proportion of the TV money brought in by the launch of professionalism the following year to developing rugby in targeted schools in black areas.

What is puzzling is that it is still not being done. Ever more ambitious quotas are being set for high-profile teams such as the Springboks but there is no concomitant strategy to give more black players a proper shot at achieving at this level. Saru has set up a couple of academies in the Eastern Cape but they serve a tiny minority of players.

The levels of inequality in SA remain stubbornly high. More middle-class black kids are going to richer schools but the vast majority of black children are in poorer state schools. Few have decent sporting facilities.

Waiting for the government to sort this out is not an option. But, given the will, rugby can make a difference. The obstacle is Saru’s love affair with professionalism.

Each of the 14 unions insists on its rights to field professional teams. This means that, in little towns all over the country, unions are pumping millions of rand into the maintenance of stadiums and salary packets for administrators, coaches, medical teams and squads of players. There is very little left over for development.

Most of the players they contract have been developed by the rugby schools. The same players are then recycled between different unions. The unions themselves do not have to pay for their development. The schools provide that, subsidised by parents and old boys. These are drawn mostly from communities who have a decades-long head start on the accumulation of social and financial capital.

If the French economist Thomas Piketty is right, the imbalance between them and communities who were prevented from accruing capital during apartheid will not change soon.

If Saru is serious about meeting its transformation targets, it might be wise to adopt a model that is better suited to a developing country. Professionalism could be confined to the Super Rugby franchises. They could focus on maintaining a globally competitive layer of players to feed the Springbok and Super Rugby teams.

A substantial portion of Saru’s income should be going into clubs and schools, particularly the black rugby schools in the Eastern Cape.

Now they get nothing from either Saru or the government to develop their rugby talent, and we wonder why, 20 years on from the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the team at the top is still mostly white.

Saru’s contribution is to dust off those hazy memories — which really just serve to remind us of a promise unfulfilled — to invoke rugby as nation-builder.

The teams fielded in Super Rugby this year were, as could be expected, mostly white. Except for the best local team in Super Rugby: the Stormers.

At around the same time that the class of ’95 were being celebrated, SA was waving goodbye to Allister Coetzee.

Coetzee, who routinely fielded 10 black players, dismisses talk of quotas and transformation charters as “utter rubbish”. He has a sophisticated understanding of race dynamics — born of his own experience of racism as an apartheid-era player and that of having to meld a racially diverse team in the cauldron of high-performance rugby.

One can’t pretend race doesn’t exist, he says.

What you have to do is to try to understand where each player is coming from: the white boy from Constantia or Bellville; the African boy from Khayelitsha; the coloured guy from Hawston.

To get the best out of each boy, a coach must work out what his triggers are.

That means making the effort to understand the player’s circumstances.

The coach who expects every boy to conform to his own cultural norms is never going to be able to successfully field a racially diverse team.

This does not mean the coach has to be black: an open-minded white coach prepared to venture out of his tribal comfort zone could also do it.

Critical for Coetzee is to provide role models. If a boy in Khayelitsha sees Siya Kolisi in a Stormers or Springbok jersey, he can see himself in one too. As long as “he is prepared to work his butt off and realise that it is about equal opportunity”, he too can make it.

In other words, don’t even think about making it on the back of a quota.

 *This column first appeared in Business Day
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WHENEVER I write about race in rugby, I have to brace myself for some particularly nasty hate mail. Suitably braced, here goes. The recent commemoration of the 1995 Rugby World Cup pretty much summed up rugby’s transformation record in the intervening two decades — lots of glossy, feel-good stuff that tried but failed to smother […]

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Too true, Archbishop Tutu!

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imagesRUGBY, like any other high profile sport, is about heroes. This is good, because we need heroes. Boys, for instance, will look at the guy in the Springbok jersey, note his extraordinary skill and athleticism; his loyalty to team and country; his magnetic capacity to attract adoration, money and pretty girls and think: I want to be him.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about how, given SA’s world record-breaking levels of inequality, it was so much harder for black boys to become Springboks — and acquire the accompanying hero status (A tale of two would-be rugby Springboks — Johannes and Fikile, September 4)

One of the many responses I got was from another international hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He wrote: “Of course, she is right, that we need the transformation of our society. But you do have black players who have emerged and it is up to us to nurture them as we seek to transform society. Precisely because they have made it against such formidable odds, they should be treasured. Even when they are obviously better than their white counterparts, they have white players who have all the advantages she mentions picked ahead of them.

“You have the (Siya) Kolisis, etc, who, precisely because they have come out of the morass of disadvantage, should be snapped up. Her argument seems to be that we should wait until, as it were, the fields have been levelled before we can demand that more black players are picked.

“Of course, we must transform SA and in the meantime pick those who have made it against all odds. They should be rewarded for their remarkable tenacity.”

I was pleased to get this, partly because some of the other responses I got were along the lines of: oh well, we are off the hook now. Until the government gets round to feeding and educating black boysproperly, we can’t have more black Springboks.

Which is not what I meant at all.

But mainly I’m delighted that someone of Tutu’s stature is engaging in the debate about transformation ahead of our next big milestone — the 2015 Rugby World Cup — and I hope he continues to do so.

Tutu’s credentials for this debate are impeccable: not only did he play rugby but he is also intimately acquainted with the hardships of growing up black and poor under apartheid.

“Tutu joined the most junior of the school’s rugby teams (the Johannesburg Bantu High School in Western Native Township), his slightness dictating that he play scrumhalf. This was the beginning of a life-long love of the sport: on Saturdays, carrying sandwiches made by his mother, he caught a train on his own to the original Ellis Park rugby ground in Johannesburg and, from the small pen set aside for black spectators, watched Transvaal rugby heroes such as Jan Lotz,” Tutu’s biographer, John Allen, records in Rabble-rouser for Peace.

Allen goes on to describe how Tutu was sent to stay with an uncle closer to his school when his parents could no longer afford the train fare. He shared a backyard shack with two to five others at a time and had to wash at a communal outdoor cold tap. Much of his and his fellow pupils’ time outside the classroom went into finding food.

Like Nelson Mandela, Tutu displayed an early and extraordinary magnanimity towards the then recalcitrant white rugby community. Unlike Mandela, who was largely politically motivated, Tutu’s love of rugby also kicked in.

At the Springboks’ first game in the 1995 Rugby World Cup — against Australia at Newlands — the Springboks gave Tutu a No24 jersey. Afterwards, he told Die Burger that, if the Boks won, he wouldwalk down Adderley Street wearing the jersey. A promise he duly went on to fulfil after that historic victory in the final against the All Blacks at Ellis Park, where Tutu was once confined to the hokkie set aside for “bantus”.

There is a back story to each of the men about to don Springbok jerseys for next month’s end-of-year tour to Europe and it is mostly far from glamorous. Obviously, great natural talent is a starting point, but what gets any player to the point where he is good enough to represent his country is hard work, sacrifice and discipline.

Above all, it is about determination and perseverance in the face of the many obstacles that will block the paths of any aspirant Springbok: failure, rejection, injury. The ability to absorb these setbacks and nevertheless continue to pursue the dream is what marks out anyone who makes it to the top in the highly competitive world of professional sport.

As Tutu points out, the black players from poor backgrounds who have made it into rugby’s highest ranks have displayed extraordinary tenacity. This means that they possess in buckets one of the more important characteristics of a top rugby player. That alone should give them added value to a Bok team.

On top of that is the hope and inspiration it gives to thousands of other poor black boys dreaming of joining the ranks of their heroes.



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RUGBY, like any other high profile sport, is about heroes. This is good, because we need heroes. Boys, for instance, will look at the guy in the Springbok jersey, note his extraordinary skill and athleticism; his loyalty to team and country; his magnetic capacity to attract adoration, money and pretty girls and think: I want […]

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A tale of two would-be Springboks: Johannes and Fikile

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NO LESS a figure than Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has weighed in on the rugby transformation debate.

In a letter to the Cape Times, written as the Springboks were preparing to take on Argentina in Salta last month, Tutu remarked that it was “particularly hurtful” to see the selection of black players as “peripheral squad members never given the chance to settle down and earn their spurs”.

“Now, 20 years later, I lament the tortoise pace at which transformation at the highest level is being effected.”

The country, he wrote, deserved a Springbok team that was representative of the “full spectrum of the rainbow that defines us — not on the basis of quotas or affirmative action or window-dressing, but on merit and for our long-term wellbeing as a nation”.

Tutu is entirely correct in lamenting the paucity of black Springboks and, as spiritual successor to Nelson Mandela, his words carry particular weight.

But I’m not sure they make a useful contribution to a debate that has become shallow and polarised. With accusations as serious as racism being bandied about, the South African Rugby Union is becoming increasingly paranoid and defensive. The government, under pressure from its own constituency, issues threats. Coaches, already under intense pressure to win no matter what is thrown at them, feel under siege. Racial quotas result in black boys from poor areas becoming commodities, bought by richer schools to bring up their numbers — and then ruthlessly discarded if they lose form.

A proper debate needs to be opened up about the role of rugby in SA which takes into account the fact that it cannot be separated from the ecosystem in which it operates. It can be argued, for instance, that the Springbok team is mostly white because, even in 2014, SA still affords white people the best chance of fulfilling their potential: and not only in sport.

We know that we live in the most unequal society on earth, with the biggest gap between rich and poor anywhere in the world. And the post-apartheid dispensation has only increased the concentration of wealth in the upper echelons.

Figures released by Stats SA earlier this year show that the poorest households are black and headed by women. Black rugby talent is largely concentrated in the Eastern Cape. Stats SA revealed that, in the Buffalo City metro, for instance, 45.8% of households are female-headed. Only 52.6% have piped water into their homes.

Almost one in five live below the poverty line.

Poverty follows a child from such a home — let’s call him Fikile — to school: where he is likely to encounter inadequate buildings, poorly motivated and educated teachers, little or nothing in the way of sporting or training facilities. It’s likely to be a non-fee-paying school, so operating with minimal resources.

No matter how talented a rugby player he is, his chances of developing his skills are limited.

Compare him to a pupil — let’s call him Johannes — at Grey College, Bloemfontein, the most prolific producer of Springboks. Grey College comes weighted with more than a century of investment from the ranks of SA’s privileged. Its buildings and sports facilities are magnificent. Parents can afford to pay for extra staff to supplement teacher numbers. Old boys are willing and able to make generous donations.

Johannes also benefits from historically enriched social capital: his mother will be waiting in her car to pick him up after practice. He will go home to a hot shower, a comfortable bed and a nutritious meal. He will likely have access to nutritional supplements. On match days his family will be out in force to support him.

Meanwhile, Fikile is more likely to have to make his own way home. He will have to fetch water from a communal shower to wash; his evening meal will be bread or pap. There will be little in the way of the protein essential in this adolescent growth phase to build the muscle required to make it as a top South African rugby player.

On match days he will have to hustle for taxi money to get to the field. His mother, single-handedly supporting her family, probably on a social grant, is unlikely to have either the money or the time to accompany him.

Both Fikile and Johannes will dream of one day donning the green and gold. But the lives each has been born into will determine which one has any chance of realising his dream.

This inequality extends beyond school. Black players have spoken about the additional stress poverty imposes on them even if they make it to semi-professional teams. One told how, throughout a training session, he would be fretting about whether he had enough cash for the taxi home afterwards, while his white teammate climbed into the Golf bought for him by his father.

This is serious because it distracts the black player from what should be single-minded concentration on his performance. The coach notices and chalks it up to lack of commitment — and he ends up being sidelined. Poverty brings with it a sense of shame so the black player is unlikely to try to explain his predicament in such a competitive environment.

Even at the highest level the emotional toll of inequality puts many black players at a disadvantage. For instance, Jean de Villiers’ dad, Andre, still accompanies him to almost every game, no matter where he plays. Andre de Villiers makes no demands on his son but is simply there to offer support.

By contrast, Siya Kolisi, who grew up in poverty in Zwide, has spoken of how he experiences his family as an additional source of stress: “If I don’t play,” he told me, “people in the township don’t eat.” So he has to deal not only with the psychic wounds of a deprived childhood but an ongoing dearth of emotional support.

Playing at Springbok level requires emotional resilience: you need to be able to bounce back from long injury lay-offs, poor results, losing your place in the team. Only players who have this kind of resilience are able to cement their places in the starting line-up. Life has given Jean de Villiers the best chance of acquiring this. Kolisi is one of thousands of talented black players for whom it will always be a struggle.

We are not going to be able to close the inequality gap in the short term so we need to think about how to draw on rugby as a nation-builder in the meantime.

*This column first appeared in Business Day


LIZ McGregor’s brilliant analysis (A tale of two would-be rugby Springboks — Johannes and Fikile, September 4) has clarified and verbalised the thoughts that I, and perhaps others, have had about the question of black representation in the Springbok rugby side.

Her final paragraph is worth repeating: “We are not going to be able to close the inequality gap in the short term so we need to think about how to draw on rugby as a nation builder in the meantime.”

Thank you, Ms McGregor.

Cedric Harris
Via e-mail

Thank you, Cedric, for your kind words. It would be good if everyone interested in the game could talk about this more and come up with a more intelligent way of running the game.



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NO LESS a figure than Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has weighed in on the rugby transformation debate. In a letter to the Cape Times, written as the Springboks were preparing to take on Argentina in Salta last month, Tutu remarked that it was “particularly hurtful” to see the selection of black players as “peripheral squad […]

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No quarter for quotas

News | Non Fiction | South Africa No Comments

IN THE current hullabaloo around Fikile Mbalula’s quota threats, the 20-year anniversary celebrations of the first democratic vote and other election point-scoring, it’s a good time to take a deep breath and retreat to a quiet corner of the library at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

In two cardboard boxes in the Mayibuye-Robben Island archives housed there are a set of documents which show how the men pivotal to our democracy went about organising sport.

It’s an object lesson in how to identify goals and then go about achieving them.

It is also a heartening reminder of how good we can be at this, if we just go about it in the right spirit.

The documents reveal how Robben Island functioned as a laboratory for the exploitation of team sports as a unifier of disparate interest groups. After Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and the rest of the Rivonia trialists were imprisoned on Robben Island in 1964, they were joined by successive waves of young men whose hectic, meaningful lives had been brought to an abrupt halt.

The leaders recognised that sport could help provide both entertainment and a common purpose.

So prisoners divided themselves into soccer — and, later, rugby — teams, each of which had to contain a member of each of the political parties forced to share this confined, straitened space, from the nationalist Pan African Congress to the South African Communist Party to the South West African People’s Organisation.

Establishing the necessary facilities required co-operation as it all had to be done by stealth. Clumps of grass were cultivated outside the cells until enough had been grown to create a pitch. Prisoners given building jobs would secrete enough cement and sand to build benches for spectators and paint to draw the lines. For soccer nets, they would knit together ropes discarded by ships. The quarry provided lime.

New bonds were created through the formation of rugby and soccer leagues. Rule books were compiled; heroes and personalities were created across political, race and class lines.

It also worked as an organisational tool. The cardboard boxes at UWC include the original polite but persistent letters to prison officials, which, by the end of the ’70s, led to certain privileges becoming enshrined: such as Saturdays off from the daily grind of stone-crushing in the quarries as well as permission to erect moveable poles on the makeshift pitch. This was necessary because the pitch had to accommodate the different lengths needed by rugby and soccer.

Warders were drawn in as referees. This mutual absorption in the game enabled black prisoners and white warders to recognise what they had in common, rather than what differentiated them.

Steve Tshwete was the first president of the Island Rugby Board (IRB) and Sedick Isaacs, a practising Muslim who gained his PhD while on the island, was the secretary. Both signed the founding IRB constitution, a poignant document — handwritten in impeccable English on rough, lined paper — in 1972.

Upon his release in 1978, Tshwete was catapulted into the messy real world where sport — particularly rugby — had remained profoundly divisive.

But he built on what he had learnt in prison: when the United Democratic Front was formed in 1983, Tshwete became president of its Border branch and, together with the South African Council on Sport and the South African Rugby Union (which was mostly composed of coloured teams until it affiliated with the mostly African Kwazakhele Rugby Union), drove an acceleration of the international sports boycott, a significant factor in the downfall of apartheid.

It was on his island experience that Mandela drew when, as president, he reached out to the white community through rugby.

The point of churning up all of this history is to show that we have deep institutional knowledge of how to get it right.

The challenges now are different: we need sport — and particularly rugby — to unify and strengthen us as a nation. But we also want it to boost national pride by producing world-beating professional teams.

We should cherish the depth of rugby talent and passion in the Afrikaans community. We should also acknowledge that it is not only apartheid that is to blame for the ongoing failure to adequately develop black talent.

The Eastern Cape, the reservoir of black rugby talent, is still handicapped by poverty. Statistics South Africa’s 2014 report shows that almost one in five people in the Eastern Cape live below the poverty line. A dysfunctional education department means most schools aren’t developing young athletes.

Instead of all the grandstanding and finger-pointing, all the stakeholders in rugby should sit down together, hammer out a common objective and then work together to make it happen.

A good place to start would be to recognise that in 2014, there needs to be a sharp distinction made between professionalism and development.

We should be giving our top athletes everything they need to make us shine in the international sporting arena. And we should give every South African child the opportunity to play rugby — or any other sport — even if only for the love of it.

• McGregor is author of Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be a Bok

This column first appeared in Business Day





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IN THE current hullabaloo around Fikile Mbalula’s quota threats, the 20-year anniversary celebrations of the first democratic vote and other election point-scoring, it’s a good time to take a deep breath and retreat to a quiet corner of the library at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). In two cardboard boxes in the Mayibuye-Robben […]

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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.










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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 […]

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