South Africa’s History of Black Rugby Dates Back More Than a Century
Siyamthanda Kolisi made history this year, but he’s part of a long tradition.
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Siyamthanda Kolisi just made history. But he's part of a long tradition.
The South African Coloured Rugby Football Board (SACRFB) was formed way back in 1897 — just eight years after its whites-only equivalent. As a Xhosa newspaper of the day noted, the SACRFB did not discriminate on the basis of “bala, luhhlanga, lulwimi, nalunqulo” (color, nationality, language or religion). The SACFRB was ahead of its time — and not only in a sporting sense. It predated the African National Congress (Nelson Mandela’s political party) by 15 years.
South Africa’s recent Rugby World Cup win under Siyamthanda Kolisi, the first Black captain of the Springboks, has been hailed a watershed moment for racial transformation in South Africa. Springbok rugby — that bastion of apartheid — has clearly come a long way. But what most of the euphoric coverage doesn’t mention is that Black rugby has a “long, proud and largely forgotten history in South Africa,” says Dr. Hendrik Snyders, a Black rugby historian based at the National Museum in Bloemfontein.
Kolisi himself started his career at African Bombers, a Black club formed in 1954. And Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe — the scorers of the final’s only tries — hail from Black clubs that are both almost 100 years old.
South Africa’s White rugby team (known as the Springboks since their 1906 tour of the U.K.) played their first test match in 1891. But over the first 101 years of their history, only two (of 557) players were Black — and even they were specially selected in an attempt to appease the international community and were labeled turncoats by anti-apartheid opponents of the system.
Generations of South Africans were fed the myth that Blacks were better off playing soccer. It was even said that Blacks weren’t man enough to play rugby.
Try telling that to the Black rugby pioneers who often played barefoot and had to walk long distances — 40-mile round trips were commonplace — to matches played on makeshift fields “riven by ditches, located on slopes or acting as public thoroughfares,” as historian Jeff Peires puts it. And things didn’t get much better in later years. A White government official who attended the 1940 African rugby tournament in East London noted, half-apologetically, that only tough men would be able “to play on a field like this one.” Snyders — whose own lengthy career started in the late 1970s — recalls playing on gravel and sand pitches without any restrooms and practicing by the light of car head lamps.
The off-field challenges were even greater. Almost as soon as the White Springboks returned from that 1906 tour, the SACRFB set about trying to arrange an overseas tour of its own. Easier said than done for an under-resourced group of non-Europeans who had to persuade their potential hosts of the political and economic benefits of a tour. The closest the SACRFB got to touring overseas was in 1939, but WWII scuppered their plans. They did, however, manufacture their kit — green and gold jerseys with a logo featuring a Springbok leaping over a rugby ball. Sound familiar? The White Springboks only added a rugby ball to their logo some 25 years later, says Snyders.
In 1935, in response to the divide-and-conquer politics of Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog (and probably also as a result of racial problems within Black ranks), a board was formed to serve Black African players. And in 1959, a Coloureds-only Federation (the term had come to signify people of mixed race) was established. Despite the turmoil, the remaining members of the SACRFB (renamed the South African Rugby Union, or SARU, in 1966) stuck to their non-racial ethos by continuing to accept members of all creeds and colors.
That said, a number of the most talented Black players — people like David Barends, Louis Neumann, Green Vigo, Goolam Abed, Enslin Dlambulo, Andile Pikoli and Winty Pandle — left South Africa to work in professional rugby leagues overseas. Some, such as Barends, even represented the national teams of their adopted countries. Pikoli, a member of the banned ANC, died in exile.
In 1978 — sagging under the pressure of international sporting sanctions — the Whites-only SARFB brought the Coloureds-only and African-only boards together under one ostensibly unified umbrella organization called the SA Rugby Board (SARB). The non-Whites who joined, explains Snyders, “probably felt they could fight the system from the inside.” The strongly anti-apartheid SARU — of which Snyders was a passionate member — saw things differently, arguing that buying into the government’s pretense of unification would “contribute to their own oppression.”
As proof of its non-racial mantra, SARU attracted a few White players, most notably Daniel “Cheeky” Watson — a talented wing who declined an invitation to participate in the 1976 Springbok trials. Instead he joined the historic Spring Rose Rugby Football Club in New Brighton, a few miles from the township where Kolisi grew up. Later that year, Cheeky and his brother Valence played their first match for the club. At the time interracial sport meetings were illegal, and the Watsons were sneaked into the stadium lying flat on the floor of the taxi transporting their Black teammates.
SARU and SARB’s eventual unification in 1992 was about far more than just a game. Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, and his party, the ANC, was unbanned.
But the first test match after “unification” featured no Black players and saw a predominantly White crowd defiantly singing the apartheid-era anthem and waving old South African flags. Three years later, when the Springboks won the World Cup, there was only one Black player on the team. But the image of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar in matching Springbok jerseys is what everyone remembers.
Thanks to films like Invictus, says Snyders, people think that Mandela (and the rest of Black South Africa) “discovered” rugby in 1995. “In actual fact, the Black schools and university he attended already had a proud rugby tradition by the 1930s.”