Bent but unbowed by the crippling strike, Rustenburg Impala’s rugby team has triumphed.
Shortly before 6pm on Easter Monday, Rustenburg received a rare bit of good news: Rustenburg Impala Rugby Club had just beaten Roodepoort 13-11 in the final of the Cell C Community Cup in George. For an instant, the agonies of the 12-week mine strike were suspended, if not forgotten.
Amid the outpourings of elation, Rustenburg Impala coach and former Sharks assistant coach Hugh Reece-Edwards even found himself the recipient of some cheesy Rustenburg humour, something which has been in understandably short supply since the strike took hold in late January. "We might not be able to mine," read a text message on his cellphone, "but we sure as hell can play rugby."
It rather goes without saying that the club, which has Amplats and Lonmin miners as members, hasn't had the easiest of years. According to Andries de Kock, the rugby club chairperson, they've leaked a full rugby side plus substitutes as the strike has stretched into April, and now have only three full senior sides rather than the usual four.
Lack of motivation, fear of the future and, to a lesser extent, intimidation have all played their part in the dwindling numbers, as rugby has taken a backseat to concern about what will transpire with regard to the strike that was rumoured to finally be rumbling towards its end earlier this week.
Some miners have simply turned their back on the platinum belt and headed back to their homes in the Eastern or Western Cape.
"Everything's been difficult because the mine buses haven't been running, so the club has had to subsidise transport," says De Kock. "We've had to be careful on behalf of our players. Not everyone is happy they're continuing to play rugby."
Estimates vary, but the consensus is that about 80% of the club's 300 senior members are in some way associated with the platinum mines. Some rugby players work at the rock face, while there are also shift bosses and artisans of various sorts.
Most members of the first team work above the ground as human resources managers or electrical contractors. Wherever they work, life has become steadily harder as summer has come to an end and the first chills of winter begin to bite.
"Players have been under tremendous pressure," says De Kock, who is a recently retired human resources manager from one of the nearby mines. "A lot of them are doing learnerships to become artisans and rock breakers. They've had to put those on hold. Other players are studying towards certificates of competency. Some of them want to become electrical or mechanical engineers and they need their certificates. Everything has been suspended."
The rugby, though, has continued. Before the Community Cup, Rustenburg Impala played a host of friendlies against Wits, Tukkies (Pretoria), Pukke (Potchefstroom) and Centurion. Win bonuses were offered to their players, with takings from the hall and bar flowing into club coffers.
The proceeds were used to subsidise transport and some profits doubtless found their way directly towards food or keeping up with monthly car instalments. "The payment of school fees from guys at the club is right down; we know that," admits Reece-Edwards.
"Memberships have dropped and guys' cars are being repossessed. The whole community – not just the rugby club – feels the effect of the strike. Usually the malls are busy; now there's hardly anyone there."
Reece-Edwards tells me that he never used the strike as a motivational tool but at the same time believed it often "played at the back of the guys' minds".
After being sacked in the cleanout that also saw the turfing of former coach John Plumtree at the top-flight Sharks last season, Reece-Edwards gives the impression of loving life in what one senses is, for him, pure rugby country.
"The fact that they're miners or work on the mines, that gives a nice tough edge to the boys – you can see it in their play," he says.
"They're up at 3.30am and underground by 5am. They put in a shift until the afternoon, and then they're in the gym before practice for another couple of hours."
Nicknamed "Reece" by his team (in time-honoured rugby fashion, they refuse to call him Hugh or Reece-Edwards), he hasn't exactly slummed it, but let's just say that he doesn't have the disposable income of, say, Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho – or even Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane.
"Once a week I'm at the laundromat doing my washing," he says matter-of-factly. "I drive a sponsored car from Potchefstroom and live in mining accommodation. It's like a small hotel room. The guys ended up speaking English to me, not Afrikaans, so I appreciated that. Things ended up working out really well."
Rustenburg Impala's seemingly unassailable run to the play-offs in George was almost stopped dead in its tracks by Hamiltons Rugby Club: the Cape Town club travelled up to North West for the final round of group-stage matches and promptly gave the locals a sjamboking.
Reece-Edwards noted Hammies' superiority and by the time the miners got to George over the Easter weekend by qualifying behind Hamiltons as the second-placed side in their group, they had been drilled in the pragmatics of knockout rugby.
They beat Roses of Wellington 66-13 in the quarterfinals, then administered a 31-13 snotklap to College Rovers in the semis. Against Roodepoort in the final they came perilously close to collapsing under the rockfall, but held on to their two-point lead until the final whistle.
Reece-Edwards sees it as a victory for sheer bloody-mindedness, something for which platinum miners are increasingly becoming known. "Knockout rugby is won by defence," he says flatly, a sentiment with which most will agree.
When the post-match interviews were over and the first beers had been opened, the text messages started flooding in.
One of them came from former Springbok legend Frik du Preez, who had adopted the side in their march to the final. "Mooi so [well done]," the message read.
Given what the mining industry has been through lately, you would have to agree.