Posts Tagged ‘rugby’

Jonathan Kaplan calls it like it is

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IT IS well argued and highly constructive but, nevertheless, the verdict delivered on the state of the profession to which referee extraordinaire Jonathan Kaplan has devoted the past 30 years is quietly damning.

As fans and players have long claimed, refereeing is often inadequate, but this has little to do with the quality or commitment of individual referees and everything to do with a system that struggles to keep up with the demands of an ever-evolving game.

So, in the heat of a fast-paced contest, a ref must be able to discern a new trend — recognise that it is not a one-off error but a deliberate and repeated attempt to stretch the rules — and then respond appropriately. The failure of the system is that this kind of information is not included in the official feedback protocol that follows each game. This is clearly wrong. All refs officiating at similar games need to pool information on new developments and decide collectively how to deal with them. Players need fairness and consistency, and better communication between refs is crucial to providing this.

Kaplan’s book, Call It Like It Is, is compelling. It feels, though, like two books struggling to fit into one and each suffers from being curtailed and crammed in with the other. That said, it does have more depth than the average rugby biography.

He relates with insight and intelligence the impact of his parents’ divorce when he was 10. They let him decide which of them he wanted to live with — he chose his dad because his mother was moving to Joburg with her new husband and his two younger brothers and he was worried his dad would be lonely, left behind in the family home in Durban. Two years later, his father married again and his wife had twin girls.

Kaplan’s sense of abandonment and displacement is all the more powerful for being universal: the pain suffered by many children of divorced parents. He later moves to Johannesburg to live with his brothers and his mother but finds her new husband “less than adequate” as a stepfather. He describes the moment he stood up to his stepfather, who then, as with his half-sisters, disappears from the narrative.

His brothers are his emotional bedrock but both live in Canada. Kaplan lives alone with his two bulldogs with the intermittent appearance of transient love interests. One gets the sense that, from an early age, he realised he had to plough his own furrow and this psychological mind-set is perfect for a ref, the essential lone ranger. He also had to become his own “good father”: consistent, fair, emotionally intelligent and reliable. This compensates for the flawed examples of his childhood but it also has its benefits on the field. What ideally would have been a parallel book is Kaplan’s analysis of the global state of refereeing and how it could be perfected. This section is excellent and should be read by all involved in the administration of the game. A good referee is an artist, says Kaplan, akin to the conductor of an orchestra, facilitating a free-flowing performance that is balanced between attack and defence.

He has huge sympathy for fellow referees: they are under intense pressure; they have to think and move quickly — they have to be exceptionally fit. They bear the brunt of player and fan displeasure when things don’t go their way. One needs to be a very strong and self-confident individual to survive and thrive.

Kaplan’s recommendations for a smarter system for managing referees are : all world-class refs should fall globally under one coach who would be in constant contact with them to assess and rule on new developments. Now, the system is disjointed and inconsistent — with different referee managers each for South African rugby; Super Rugby and International Rugby Board (IRB) games.

Laws need to be trimmed and simplified and rendered comprehensible to players and coaches, as well the frequently bewildered fan. All deserve a better service than they are currently getting.

Kaplan says he has observed a decline in refereeing standards over the decades. The remedy, he says, is simple: better use of technology and better use of the television match official. He also believes every match should have two refs: the notion that this wonderful game can be controlled by one man is “archaic”. Two officials would obviate suspicions of bias and each could concentrate on different aspects of the game. They could also bounce decisions off each other.

Recently retired, Kaplan is only 47 and an intelligent, thoughtful man with unrivalled experience of the game at the highest level. It seems obvious that rugby authorities here and at the IRB should draw on his skills to improve their refereeing operation. It is such a crucial element of the game and the skills someone like Kaplan can offer are too rare to waste.

*This column first appeared in Business Day


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IT IS well argued and highly constructive but, nevertheless, the verdict delivered on the state of the profession to which referee extraordinaire Jonathan Kaplan has devoted the past 30 years is quietly damning. As fans and players have long claimed, refereeing is often inadequate, but this has little to do with the quality or commitment […]

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SACS takes on KES

News | Non Fiction | South Africa Comments Off

SIMMERING hostility over the poaching of schoolboy rugby talent has finally broken out into open warfare. The South African College School (Sacs), one of the oldest and best boys state schools in the country, has cut all ties with another venerable educational institution, King Edward High School (KES) in Johannesburg. Sacs’ rugby, water polo, cricket and hockey teams will no longer play against KES teams. What precipitated this dramatic gesture was the fact that Sacs arrived at the St Stithians Easter Rugby Festival last month with a squad of 23 boys and left with 22. One of their grade 10 black pupils is now a KES boy. It is suspected that the boy was offered a scholarship to persuade him to switch schools.

The top 24 state boys schools agreed just a few months ago on a sports charter “born of the concern that some of the high-profile sports at our schools are increasingly being driven by noneducational imperatives and affected by questionable (unethical) practices”. The charter rejected the practice of “approaching and offering money to boys to allow or encourage them to switch schools”.

It was agreed that scholarships and bursaries should be offered for academic achievement and financial need respectively, and should ideally be offered only in grade 8.

The charter follows a much angrier response on from Eastern Cape headmasters after last year’s Grant Khomo Week trials for under-16s, a popular hunting ground for talent scouts. At least Sacs and KES are fairly equal. This is not the case for Eastern Cape state schools, the country’s chief incubators of black rugby talent and largely based in much poorer communities.

The headmasters of Dale College, Queens College, Selborne and Hudson Park High School weighed in. Roy Hewett, headmaster of the last-mentioned school, was the most scathing: “Young men are approached in a clandestine way either at, or shortly after, the Grant Khomo Week. They are made financial offers which include free schooling, all expenses paid, clothing and a significant monthly payment, for a contractual commitment to the franchise in question. They are strongly encouraged to keep the knowledge of these negotiations from their schools and often disappear during the third-term break.”

These headmasters argue that the practice impoverishes their schools — they and their coaches have nurtured these boys for many years.

The boys have developed strong loyalties to the school: they are part of a healthy ecosystem in which sporting prowess is only part of their development. Academic achievement and character building are equally important. As rugby stars, these boys are regarded as heroes by their peers and provide inspiration and mentorship to younger boys.

Usually it is the Super Rugby franchises that initiate and fund the transfers. They place boys in stronger rugby schools in Pretoria or Durban. Sometimes, rich schools by promising players to boost their first teams or their quota of black players.

One could argue that these boys are being given a chance to move up in life: a life-changing opportunity for a better education and new networks that could enhance their career prospects.

Too often, though, it does not work out this way.

Frequently the transfer happens in grade 11 because schools don’t want to be saddled with a boy who then doesn’t perform, so they snaffle him to provide the X factor for their first teams in the last two years of school. The boys face hostility from other pupils because they are given a place in the team over others who have worked for it throughout their school career.

Being catapulted into a new school, particularly a largely white, much richer school, for the last two years of one’s school career is bound to be disorienting. The pupil will have been separated from family, community and culture.

And because he has been admitted to this institution purely to boost the rugby team, if he doesn’t perform, he is made to feel a failure.

This cynical use of young boys speaks to the power of rugby. A school whose first team performs well at rugby is considered a good school, regardless of other weaknesses. Parents with resources flock to such schools. Old boys open their wallets more eagerly. Greater resources mean schools can employ more teachers than the government will pay for, which means smaller classes and more individual attention. They can afford playing fields, libraries, computer labs and swimming pools.

Even if a black boy achieves his dream with an under-19 contract at one of the franchises, how far will he get? The racial composition of our elite teams does not bode well.

There is only one black South African Springbok with a regular starting position — Siya Kolisi. Super Rugby teams are overwhelmingly white. This year’s introduction of racial quotas for the lower rung of professional rugby, the Vodacom Cup, shows how many Saru unions have to be forced into giving their black players a proper opportunity.

The increase in tension between schools is regrettable but hopefully will result in the issue being properly addressed.


*This column first appeared in Business Day

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SIMMERING hostility over the poaching of schoolboy rugby talent has finally broken out into open warfare. The South African College School (Sacs), one of the oldest and best boys state schools in the country, has cut all ties with another venerable educational institution, King Edward High School (KES) in Johannesburg. Sacs’ rugby, water polo, cricket […]

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Amateur administrators are the problem

News | Non Fiction | South Africa Comments Off

April 8 2014 at 03:46pm

CT_oped stormers0INLSATRYING TIMES: The reason why the Stormers are at the bottom of the log is bumbling management by unaccountable amateurs who dont have a clue about how to manage some of the finest professional athletes in the world, says the writer


Liz McGregor


It was odd, last week, to see Western Province president Thelo Wakefield sitting in the seat normally occupied by Stormers captain, Jean de Villiers. In the chair beside Wakefield – the one in which us rugby writers have become used to seeing Stormers coach Allister Coetzee, week after week, was Gert Smal, whom Wakefield was introducing to us as the new director of rugby.

But what was even more disconcerting was the difference in attitude.

After the kind of loss that has devastated the Stormers over the past few weeks, De Villiers, despite a freshly battered body and ego, would have done an immediate mea culpa, an unflinching analysis of his own and his team’s role in their defeat. Allister Coetzee would have done the same. Each would evince an admirable refusal to blame. Responsibility for failure and for the rectification of mistakes would be entirely their own.

Wakefield was the opposite. Despite the fact that he is the big boss – the man ultimately in charge of this team – he showed not a shadow of self-doubt. Proudly introducing his new white knight – Smal – he kept using the word “quality”. We need to surround ourselves with quality people, he announced.

What was he saying? That the coaching team lacked quality and he was now going to save the day by imposing another leader on the pack?

CT_oped wakefield0INLSA

Watching this self-congratulatory display, I thought: this is the reason why the Stormers are at the bottom of the log: this bumbling management by unaccountable amateurs who don’t have a clue about how to manage some of the finest professional athletes in the world.

Whenever I raise this issue in Western Province circles, I am told that the problem lies in the fact that it is 91 amateur clubs which govern Western Province rugby. But surely they too must wonder why their elite team persistently fails to reach its potential? And this applies not only to the Stormers.

The Western Cape boasts the richest rugby talent in a well-endowed country. A study by the Sports Science Institute of South Africa shows that 46 percent of rugby-playing high schools are in the Western Cape. It is these schools which produce our rugby players. All the union has to do is recognise this talent and manage it to its full potential.

It is interesting to compare the Western Province Rugby Union with that of the Blue Bulls, who have reinvented themselves and modernised in the two decades of democratic rule – and the advent of professionalism. The reservoir of talent upon which the Bulls can draw is minuscule by comparison with that of WP: only 16 percent of rugby-playing schools are in Gauteng and these schools have to feed both the Lions and the Bulls. Where the Bulls excel is in quality of management. The fact that there are far fewer amateur clubs in the region is a huge advantage. The number of superannuated club presidents clogging up their board does not succeed in inhibiting a dynamic and accountable professional arm.

Each of the Bulls teams – Super Rugby, Currie Cup, under-21 and under-19 – has a phalanx of specialist coaches and fitness and medical staff. They have dedicated scouts who keep databases of every promising schoolboy in the country: they plot his progress over the years and snap up the best.

Management takes responsibility for its appointments and supports its coaching staff, both publicly and privately. Chief executive Barend van Graan resisted the public’s baying for the head of Frans Ludeke in 2008 when he lost his first 14 Super Rugby games after succeeding Heyneke Meyer as head coach. Instead he quietly worked with Ludecke, who went on to vindicate Van Graan’s faith.

The same applies to the Bulls’ management of players. They take promising youngsters and train them up. They look after their most valuable players: an excellent example is how Victor Matfield is being managed. He is not being made to play on tour now – instead he is rested so that he is in peak condition to boost the Springbok squad later this year. Meanwhile, in best Bulls tradition, he is working with young players, passing on his skills.

Western Province are lucky enough to have the Springbok captain in their ranks but they show absolutely no grace or vision in how they manage Jean de Villiers: playing him into the ground without any consideration for his own or the country’s best interests.

One of the most admirable qualities of South African rugby teams is their loyalty. Partly this is because it is enforced by draconian contracts which forbid any public criticism of their bosses.

But mostly it is to do with the dynamic of this ultimate of team sports. The reliance of teammates on each other is absolute – for their lives, ultimately – because rugby players can and do get fatally injured. So it is very rare to hear complaints from either coaches or players. But, such is the level of demoralisation in the Stormers camp at the moment that some of it is leaking out.

Players feel that skimping on medical staff exacerbates the injury crisis.

The same skimping applies to the coaching staff: Coetzee is head coach of Super Rugby and Currie Cup rugby and he has also been responsible for recruitment. There is no specialist kicking coach.

Wakefield’s grandiose unveiling of his newest appointment just when the team for which he is responsible was at their lowest ebb was, I thought, excessively shabby.

Smal may well turn out to be a wonderful addition to the Stormers. But he is just as likely to join the list of talented, dedicated men such as Rassie Erasmus and Nick Mallett who are just too big for the small men who employ them.

l McGregor is author of Touch, Pause, Engage: Exploring the Heart of South African Rugby and, most recently: Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be a Bok (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

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April 8 2014 at 03:46pm INLSATRYING TIMES: The reason why the Stormers are at the bottom of the log is bumbling management by unaccountable amateurs who dont have a clue about how to manage some of the finest professional athletes in the world, says the writer   Liz McGregor   It was odd, last week, […]

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Andile Jho says it all for the Kings

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One of the players who ran out for the Madibaz against UCT’s Ikey Tigers in Monday’s night’s Varsity Cup game embodies all the reasons why it was correct to expand the premier division of the Currie Cup to include the Southern Kings.

I first met Andile “Ace” Jho in August 2010: he had just played his last game for Dale College and he was riding high: captain of the first team and, as a consequence, the  hero of KingWilliamstown, his hometown. He’d already been recruited by the Bulls and the following year, he would move to Pretoria to become a professional rugby player.  He assumed that, as long as he worked hard enough, he would make it into the Bulls Super Rugby team and then the Springboks.

Earlier this year, over a coffee in the MacDonalds on the Port Elizabeth beachfront, he filled me in on the past three and a half years.  He had been at the Bulls for two years and it had been a fantastic experience in terms of training, facilities and sheer professionalism, he said. “But I was getting hardly any game time and that made me very unhappy. “ When he finally did get onto the field, it was only for five minutes. “I thought I’d get more the next time but I only got three minutes and it went on like that. Against the Leopards, I got half a game and then a full game against South Western Districts but I really wanted to pit myself against the big boys – the Sharks and Western Province.”

Being away from home for the first time and in an alien environment made it hard to stay positive. “When I got there, I couldn’t speak a word of Afrikaans but there were only three English okes so I told myself I had to learn Afrikaans and by the end of the first year, I could speak it.”  But it was a constant struggle against despair.

Fortuitously, just as his contract at the Bulls ended, things started happening in his home province. In 2013, the Southern Kings got their Super Rugby franchise and, together with SARU, opened a rugby academy in Port Elizabeth, run by former Springbok, Robbi Kempson.  One of Kempson’s first recruits was Ace Jho: “Bringing Ace back was a big thing because he is so revered in the black community,” Kempson told me later.

His judgement on Jho’s experience at the Bulls is blunt: “By the time he was 19, he was discarded. There are so many kids like him at the Bulls, the Sharks, Free State and that is what always happens: if they don’t step up and another kid is better, they are not given the opportunity to play.”

Now just 21, Jho is once again thriving: “I just love the Kings,” he says,” because I can easily go home and my parents can come and watch me. At the end of the day, kids don’t want to leave home. They want to stay here and be close to their families. The reason they go to the Sharks and the Bulls is because there is no Super Rugby team here and they want the exposure. Now many of these guys are coming back.”

Like Zingi Hela, who runs the SARU-Border Academy in East London, Robbi Kempson impresses as a thoughtful and dedicated mentor but Kempson has the advantage of being part of a well-run union with a coherent vision.

The academy is based at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and all his 35 charges have to be registered there for either a degree or a diploma. “We give them all the time they need for studies: gym work is done early and practice is after 4pm. We offer an all-round package: swimming lessons, driving lessons, etiquette, financial and time management.”

The Academy has taken over NMMU’s age group rugby and another Kempson recruit, former Sevens star, Mzwandile Stick, is head coach of the NMMU Young Guns. The top players have dual contracts for Varsity Cup and the Kings. Kempson and Stick work closely with local schools to unearth new talent. Some 95% of the current Academy intake are from the Eastern Cape and 67% are of colour. The aim is to avoid a repetition of the embarrassing sight of the almost all-white team of “hired mercenaries” which comprised the Kings team in their abortive Super Rugby debut last year.  In 2016, when they re-enter Super Rugby, young black players coming up through the system will have had two years’ experience of playing against the country’s best teams in the Currie Cup to get used to the pressures of  top-flight competitive rugby.

Kempson says Jho will “definitely” be in the 2016 team. Jho himself aims even higher: “In two years’ time, I’ve got a feeling I’m going to be wearing green and gold.”

This column first appeared in Business DayAndile Jho IMG_1363

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


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One of the players who ran out for the Madibaz against UCT’s Ikey Tigers in Monday’s night’s Varsity Cup game embodies all the reasons why it was correct to expand the premier division of the Currie Cup to include the Southern Kings. I first met Andile “Ace” Jho in August 2010: he had just played […]

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Bloated professional ranks starve amateur rugby

News | Non Fiction | South Africa Comments Off

Next month sees the kick-off of a competition which could, if allowed to, effect a much needed shift in  the balance between professional and amateur rugby.  On March 8, 20 teams from across the country will take each other on over a five-week period.  The top eight teams will take part in a knock-out contest during the Easter weekend, with the winner being crowned on Easter Monday.

It has been years in the making.  Then rugby journalist, Duane Heath, first took the idea to the South African Rugby Union (SARU)  four years ago. Then began the hard work and meticulous planning and refining that a competition of this size and ambition requires.   A sponsor was found and the Cell C Community Cup was  finally launched last year.  Some 600 amateur players were flown back and forth across the country – many of whom  had never been in a plane or stayed in a hotels before.  The Community Cup was judged a success. It just needs to grow.

There are around 1000 rugby clubs across South Africa but, till now, they have existed with little support.

SARU’s love affair with professional rugby over the past 20 years has seriously undermined the amateur game.  Development has been delegated to its 14 constituent unions which, by and large, means one or two dedicated and hard-working men covering vast distances in a haphazard and unco-ordinated stab at boosting club and school rugby.  Too often this means just the odd coaching clinic and the handing out of t-shirts.

Unions’ funds tend to be swallowed up by the very expensive business of maintaining professional teams: salaries for players, coaches, medical, security and administrative staff; the maintenance of stadia; travel and accommodation costs.  And for what? The production of frequently mediocre Vodacom Cup and second division Currie Cup games played in virtually empty stadia. Meanwhile many amateur clubs struggle to find the money to buy petrol to get their teams to league games.  They hire cheap, unsafe buses and have to beg or borrow equipment.

Despite this neglect, club rugby has survived: and it represents the perfect demographic profile for development:  three quarters of club players are not white. Increasingly racially diverse neighbourhoods and workplaces are reflected in  the growing number of multiracial clubs.

The launch of the Community Cup is the result of the happy convergence of various factors: Heath’s dogged determination meeting a dynamic CEO. It was after Jurie Roux was appointed in late 2010 that the notion really took off.  It also coincided with a recognition that, nearly two decades after its last major restructuring, SARU needs to rethink how it distributes the very substantial funds it gets from the sale of broadcasting rights.

There is no shortage of money in rugby: it just gets distributed irrationally.  Chief culprit is the swollen ranks of professional rugby.  At the last count, there were around 850 men and boys – and a very small number of women – who are paid to play rugby full-time.  It’s a bloated and unsustainable model   It’s a drain on the top end of professional rugby – the Springboks – and starves grassroots rugby.

The obvious answer to this problem is to hive off the unions which are truly professional – the Super 15 franchises. The eight smaller unions should be devoted to club rugby and give up any pretension to professionalism.   There should also be a rethink of the geographical bases of some of these unions: the current  distribution  is the legacy of Louis Luyt and it does not fit the rugby-playing profile of democratic South Africa. For instance, three quarters of the amateur clubs are in the Western and Eastern Cape.  It would make sense to distribute SARU’s financial and human resources in a way that reflected the amount of rugby played in each region, rather than according to Louis Luyt’s ranking of favourites.

The current make-up of SARU doesn’t allow that: each union gets the same amount. This affects the Community Cup.  Each provincial union can enter one team – so the Eastern Cape has the same quota as, say North West, where very little rugby is played.  A 15th team comes from Limpopo and the other five are “wild card” teams, whatever that means.

The Community Cup is an excellent initiative and, if allowed to grow rationally, could spark a renaissance in club rugby.  The competition is short and sharp, over in a couple of months, but it spotlights and rebrands club rugby. Several games are televised which hopefully will encourage local sponsors to support their teams.   The focus of a high-profile tournament should provide the momentum for teams to build throughout the year. And give players the dream that their talents might be recognized so that they too might have a shot at the big-time.


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

This column first appeared in Business Day










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Next month sees the kick-off of a competition which could, if allowed to, effect a much needed shift in  the balance between professional and amateur rugby.  On March 8, 20 teams from across the country will take each other on over a five-week period.  The top eight teams will take part in a knock-out contest […]

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This is why there are so few black Boks

News | Non Fiction | South Africa 1 Comment

THE one clear message from the crisis paralysing rugby administration in the Border region of the Eastern Cape is that anyone in either the South African Rugby Union (Saru) or government who complains about the scarcity of black Springboks is either deeply cynical or wilfully ignorant.


Unpacking this debacle in recent weeks has affirmed my conviction that there has never been a systematic, sustainable programme of development in this black-rugby-rich region — and things are getting worse, not better. A few former Model C and private schools do their best but as long the African National Congress (ANC) needs the support of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, we should not rely on schools to give children in poor areas a decent grounding in any sport.

One would have expected Saru, though — being mostly funded by business and therefore more agile — to have spent the past two decades running a clever, committed campaign to unearth and nurture every ounce of talent here. But it has scarcely touched the surface. The reason for this is its archaic, inefficient structure, which prioritises the ambitions of wannabe Roman Abramoviches over nation-building and the greater good of South African rugby. The drama unfolding in East London is a classic example.

In late 2011, the Border president, Buntu Ondala, did a deal with a KwaZulu-Natal businessman, Andre Kilian, in which Mr Kilian bought from Saru a 49.9% share in Border Rugby (Pty) Ltd, the professional arm of the Border Rugby Union, for a mere R1.2m. The terms were easy: he had to pay it over two years in quarterly tranches of R150,000. He also took over a loan account of R2.2m, which he could start reclaiming from the company only in June 2014, when the purchase price would have been paid in full.

Border Rugby Union has long been a nightmare of dysfunction and disappearing funds, but the Saru constitution dictates that member unions are independent and the mother body has little power to intervene.

Many unions have equity partners, but what makes the Kilian deal extraordinary are the terms of the shareholders’ agreement. Despite the Border Union being a majority shareholder, Mr Ondala signed over all rights to the coaching, selection and management, and payment of the union’s professional teams: the Border Bulldogs, the under 21s and the under 19s. To run these teams, Mr Kilian was guaranteed the bulk of the union’s income, including Border’s share of Saru broadcasting rights income (R7.4m a year), all travel fees and Currie Cup grants from Saru, and all stadium hire, sponsorship and suite-holder lease fees.

What followed was what one Eastern Cape rugby coach described as “the sickest thing that has happened in South African rugby for a long time”. Armed with his contract, Mr Kilian launched his own professional team on the back of Border Rugby. He and two relatives made up half of the six-strong board; the other three seats went to the president, his deputy and another Border Union representative. Mr Kilian’s son-in-law was brought in as a coach. But what really upset the black Border rugby fraternity was that he got rid of local black contracted players and replaced them with a squad of mostly white players from outside.

On the wave of local fury, Mr Ondala was deposed last year by ANC heavyweight Pumlani Mkolo. Mr Mkolo declared war on Mr Kilian by removing his signing rights to the joint account. Without the monthly R600,000-odd payment from Saru, Mr Kilian was unable to pay the squad he had contracted, or the coaches and management staff. He went to court, where the validity of the shareholders’ agreement was affirmed and Mr Mkolo was ordered to pay the funds over. When Mr Mkolo failed to do so, Mr Kilian went back to court and again won.

Mr Mkolo has acquired demon status among his opponents, but I gained a different impression after an hour spent with him in the airless cubicle in the ANC’s East London headquarters from which he is running two campaigns: to reclaim Border rugby and to increase the ANC’s electoral majority in the region from 71% to 80%.

Mr Mkolo describes the Kilian “takeover” as another example of 400 years of white imperialist pillage of the region, which is a bit extreme, but most of what he says does, in fact, makes sense.

“The Border region is located in a predominantly black community. In our premier league division, we have 20 teams, of which 16 are black. Only four are white. The Border Bulldogs are the opposite. Some 98% of the current squad are white and 85% from elsewhere.

“The basis for our dispute with Kilian,” he told me, “is that the current Border Bulldogs team is full of players who come from outside. He does not have regard for local talent. Our task is to reposition Border rugby so that we develop black talent and produce black players. You can’t transform Super Rugby without developing black players here.

“Sport has a mandate to play a role in transforming … a nation and you can’t unite a nation without redressing the imbalances of the past. The Boks do not command the support of all South Africans because you can’t support something that does not reflect your demographics.”

Mr Mkolo is a local man, born and raised in Mdantsane. He knows what he is talking about when he says: “Rugby is the number one sport in Border region — in every village and township, there is a rugby field and team. There are 365 registered rugby clubs.” In the Transkei, which falls under Border, many clubs have not even been counted.

I point out that one of the reasons for this debacle is that the all-powerful Saru general council — of which, as union president, he is a member — prioritises professional rugby over development. “That is a structural defect in Saru,” he says. “You can’t reward Cup victory over social cohesion.”

At 36, Mr Mkolo is roughly half the age of most of his fellow presidents in Saru. He is also the only black African. On March 31 the Saru presidency and most of the executive council positions come up for re-election: Mr Mkolo’s two votes on behalf of Border will lend him added influence as the power mongers seek to build alliances. Once the dust has settled, he is unlikely to have much of an effect.

But he is not giving up on the battle to get rid of Mr Kilian. “This is our terrain,” he says. “We control it. Things are going to get very rough.”

Mr Kilian, meanwhile, is fighting a more primal battle. He has spent most of this month in an oncology centre in Durban. When I spoke to him, he had just had a blood transfusion to repair some of the damage done by chemotherapy. I asked whether he was still game for the battle. “My health is the most important thing,” he said weakly. “I have to focus on getting it back.”

But he vigorously defends his foray into Border. He points out that the court ruled in his favour, that his agreement with Mr Ondala is valid and enforceable.

I put to him the grievances I have heard repeatedly in black rugby circles in East London — not just from Mr Mkolo — that he dispensed with local black players and brought in mostly white players from outside. The local players weren’t good enough, he says. And anyway, there were always at least seven players of colour in the squad. “The white players were there on merit,” he insists. “You select the best players to win. That is why you play professional rugby.”

From his point of view, he was acting within his rights. He was offered an amazing opportunity and he seized it. But from every other perspective, his intervention has been a disaster. It has polarised black and white, and staff and contracted players are mobilising to sue the union for unpaid wages. What little development there is, is paralysed.

Given the scale of this crisis in one of its most important member unions, one would hope that the Saru general council would react appropriately. In two-and-a-half months’ time it will elect new leaders. At the very least, candidates should undertake to institute an independent inquiry into the Border debacle; to examine the structural weaknesses that allowed it to happen; and to commit to whatever reforms will prevent it recurring. Anything less is a betrayal of their claimed commitment to nation-building.

Ideally, Sport and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula should work with Saru to institute a proper development programme in the Eastern Cape. Given the widespread popularity of the game, it has huge potential to strengthen communities. It is played by men and women; many villages sport their own teams. But there is an almost universal dearth of resources: boots, jerseys, balls, trained coaches, refs and medical staff — never mind buses and administrative capacity for club leagues.

Unfortunately, neither of the above scenarios is likely. More feasible is to nurture the less ambitious but more realistic initiatives already under way.

Saru headquarters, which boasts some able and principled staff, does what it can within the limits of its remit. One of the most impressive members of the East London rugby fraternity is Zingi Hela, GM of the Saru-Border Rugby Academy set up by Saru with lottery money in 2012 — a separate academy from Mr Kilian’s similarly named Border Rugby Academy, which closed last year. Hela comes from Alice, so he understands local rugby politics. He has managed to protect his academy from the fallout of the union feuding, and this year he has 25 charges, all contracted locally. It is a small beginning but he has a very clear understanding of what is needed to develop the region, and the passion and skills to do it.

Hela is employed, managed and supported by Saru headquarters. The academy could provide a base from which to explore a region-wide development programme run and funded — very substantially — by Saru headquarters.

It will be a long time before the Border Rugby Union sorts itself out sufficiently to undertake such an important task. Historically it has shown itself incapable of doing so, handicapped as it is by the Saru constitution. Whenever I write about lack of development in the Eastern Cape, I get inquiries from businesspeople eager to help. South Africa, by and large, wants a more racially representative Springbok team. But they need a clean, effective, grassroots operation through which to channel funds. Hela’s academy, managed by Saru headquarters, seems to me a good place to start.

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

This column first appeared in Business Day



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THE one clear message from the crisis paralysing rugby administration in the Border region of the Eastern Cape is that anyone in either the South African Rugby Union (Saru) or government who complains about the scarcity of black Springboks is either deeply cynical or wilfully ignorant.   Unpacking this debacle in recent weeks has affirmed […]

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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)








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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 […]

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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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We should look at the real rugby factories

News | Non Fiction | South Africa 0 No Comments


A couple of months ago, in the final fixture of the school year, Dale Junior School’s Under 13A team beat Bishops 13A by 50 points to 5.  It was not the first time. In 2010, a touring Bishops Under 13A team got beaten 50-nil by Dale. This so intrigued me, given that Bishops is one of the richest schools in the country and Dale a struggling state school in one of our worst run provinces, that I headed to KingWilliamstown to investigate.

I found a veritable little rugby factory:  there are 500 boys and almost all of them play rugby. The 10 male teachers all double as rugby coaches.  They coach for four hours a week and the boys put in two hours of practice every day.  Obviously this produces great rugby. But it was the by-product that I found most interesting: two thirds of these boys come from single parent families so the coaches double as father figure.  It is from the coaches that these boys absorb what it is to be a man. And it’s all good, from what I could see: they learn discipline, team spirit, respect, confidence, emotional resilience and how to channel aggression into a measured fearlessness.

A little further up the hill is the senior school,  another grand, colonial era  building.  Here the picture is less rosy.  Despite its best efforts, Dale College suffers from the eco-system in which it operates.  Here the boys reach that adolescent growth phase where protein is crucial to building muscle and strong bones. Instead, poverty dictates that the boys eat bread three times a day.  Because the school has a 98% matric pass rate in a sea of failing schools, it attracts pupils from as far as Mdantsane, 50 kilometres away. Getting to practice and matches means hustling for extra taxi money.

Dale has a small, basic gym. Their rugby coach doubles as buildings administrator because they can’t afford a full-time coach.  The only help they get from their local SARU union, Border, is some part-time coaching from one of their coaches, which the school has to pay for.

This is in sharp contrast to schools like Bishops, Paarl Gym or Grey College who have entire departments devoted to rugby:  specialist coaches, biokineticists, physiotherapists and state-of-the-art training equipment.  What Dale has in abundance is talent, passion and culture. In the lofty corridors at Dale,  I encountered the same sort of courtesy  as I get from the boys at St Johns or Bishops. As the coach, Grant Griffiths, pointed out: “You couldn’t ask for a better bunch of boys. They are so polite, so humble, so hard-working.’

I stayed on for their annual derby against their traditional rival: Queens College from nearby Queenstown, another 90% black school still steeped in the traditions of British public schools. Aside from the game itself, – which Dale won 21-8 – what I found fascinating was how both schools had integrated the various traditions.  At the start of the game, the boys massed in stands at the edge of the field – Queens all in yellow; Dale in red and black – sang their traditional school songs. Initially these were in English and  Latin. As the game progressed, the drums got louder and the songs switched to isiXhosa. The boys told me that, at home,  they tap their elders for ancient war songs and apartheid-era struggle songs and integrate them into a repertoire.

The point of all this is that this is where we should be looking if we want more black Springboks.  It is schools that produce Springboks. Since 1992,  some 21 schools have produced 40% of all the Boks capped since then.  All these schools are either private schools or former Model C schools, which means that most of their pupils are white. This is why we produce so few black Springboks.  The obvious solution is to strengthen former Model C schools which are now mostly black. Like Dale College. Bishops – which Dale consistently beats the hell out of in the junior years – goes on to produce twice as many Springboks. Six to Dale’s three.  And that is simply a case of better resources. The most productive is Grey College in Bloemfontein, with 22 Boks. Second is Paarl Gymnasium with 10.  Both these schools have highly organized and committed old boys’ organisations who pump funds into the schools.

By contrast, Dale, which has in the two decades since apartheid ended, transformed from a wholly white school to a predominantly black one, gets very little help from its old boys.  The only sponsorship it gets is R40,000 from FNB every alternate year for the hosting of its Classic Clash against Queens.

If we want the Springboks to become consistent world-beaters, we need to be nurturing talent wherever it is to be found.  And it is to be found in abundance at Dale. It seems to me an opportunity waiting to be seized: it costs only around R30,000 a year for tuition and boarding fees. Putting a boy in the hostel means he will be properly fed and won’t have to beg for taxi money to get to practice.   Invest in the same coaches, mentors and training equipment that Bishops and Grey Bloem enjoy and you’d soon find yourself with another Springbok factory.


McGregor is author of Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be  Bok (Jonathan Ball Publishers R195)

This column first appeared in Business Day



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  A couple of months ago, in the final fixture of the school year, Dale Junior School’s Under 13A team beat Bishops 13A by 50 points to 5.  It was not the first time. In 2010, a touring Bishops Under 13A team got beaten 50-nil by Dale. This so intrigued me, given that Bishops is […]

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