Can the Rainbow Nation ever shine through South Africa’s fog of racism?

Community rugby. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Community rugby. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Malwande Mhamhe is the same age as South Africa’s multiracial democracy. He will not be pulling on the green and gold of the Springboks at the World Cup this month, but studying in university lecture halls and libraries in Johannesburg. His professional playing career appears finished at 21, a tale of what might have been.

For this he blames racism, which he contends is still rife in the sport despite the fall of apartheid in 1994. Mhamhe claims that he was offered a derisory club contract, told to work twice as hard as white players and warned that he should learn Afrikaans – the language of a white minority descended from predominantly Dutch settlers – if he wanted a future in the game.

“It’s like you don’t belong, like ‘What are you doing here?’” the flanker says. “It’s not a matter of talent. It’s a matter of opportunities. Black people are not being given these opportunities.” 

The backdrop to South Africa’s World Cup campaign, which begins on Saturday in Brighton when they play Japan , has been characterised by tensions over the racial make-up of the squad even though it fulfils the 30% quota of non-white players. Like a generation of young black players anointed “future Springboks”, Mhamhe hit a glass ceiling and never made it at senior or international level. His allegations offer an insight into why South Africa still sends a sea of white faces to the World Cup to represent a country where just one person in 10 is white. 

And yet last week, amid the ongoing criticism, Oregan Hoskins, president of the South African Rugby Union, insisted in an open letter: “Let us get one thing absolutely clear: our sport is massively transformed from where it was in 1992. The idea of an ‘exclusive’, ‘white-dominated’ game is frankly laughable.” The son of a single mother law graduate, Mhamhe was a prodigy at Dale College, which has maintained its success in school rugby while transforming from an exclusively white school to a largely black one. “I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist in school rugby but there is a lot more integration,” he says. “You don’t hear about discrimination. It’s a schoolboy utopia where you get selected on merit and there is a racial kaleidoscope of black, coloured, Indian, white.” 

But when he turned 18, there was a rude wake-up call. Mhamhe was offered a professional contract by the Blue Bulls club in the capital, Pretoria. Instead of the typical pay offer of 5 000 or 6 000 rand per month, he claims, it was a meagre 3 000 rand.      

“I looked at it and said this contract doesn’t make sense. I compared it to the rest of the guys who weren’t the same calibre as me. It was because they were van der Merwe and de Klerk: the Bulls are very Afrikaans.”      

Working twice as hard
Mhamhe rejected the offer and instead joined the Johannesburg-based Golden Lions for 10 000 rand per month, but soon found it an uphill struggle to get a place in the under-19 team, though the club disputes his explanation for this.      

“I thought jeez, what’s going on here? I’m working hard, and I’m going to the gym, I’m putting in the hours.” 

He says he was competing for a place with the son of a former Springbok, and the forwards coach warned him that the player’s father was putting pressure on the management to pick him. “He called me aside and said, ‘You don’t have the pedigree. Your father wasn’t a Springbok. You’ve got to work twice as hard.’” 

There were incidents of casual racism, he continues, such as when he asked a white player for a lift to training. The player refused, claiming that his car would be full. But later Mhamhe saw him drive to training with no passengers. Even white players of British descent at the Bulls were given the cold shoulder by Afrikaners, Mhamhe recalls. “So you can imagine how much more to the black guy. Rugby is how Afrikaners define themselves. It’s part of their culture. They will protect it and perpetuate the system of white supremacy as long as they can. ‘You’re changing corporate boardrooms but we’ll hold on to rugby as long as we can.’”

On one occasion, a coach allegedly told him: “If you want a future at this union, you’ve got to speak Afrikaans.” 

Mhamhe adds: “What does that tell you about cultural affiliations? When you have cultural superiority and racial superiority, you have a problem.” Mhamhe played half a dozen matches but was informed that his contract would not be renewed and he should concentrate on his studies at Johannesburg’s Wits University, where he is now in the final year of a politics and international relations degree. “They were pissed off because they don’t like the fact I was an academic who spoke well. They like a black boy who is not well educated and is going to take it lying down and not speak.” 

The Lions reject his version of events. Bafana Nhleko, who was under-19s coach at the time, insists: “There is no substance of fact in any of the accusations made by Mr Mhamhe. On the contrary, I believe he was extremely well treated by the Golden Lions and given every opportunity to succeed. For a start, while I can understand Afrikaans, I certainly do not speak it. Most of the instruction he would therefore have received from me would either have been in English or in vernacular.”  

Nhleko says Malwande was found to have a heart defect, which prevented him from joining the off-season programme from the start, and underwent surgery and rehabilitation. “It is also way off the mark for Malwande to make accusations about team selection. In his case the white assistant coach had talked him up to the head coach but, when given a chance to play in pre-season, he was considered to be not up to standard.”     

Black talent
While rugby and football have traditionally been divided along racial lines in South Africa – often used as an excuse for the paucity of black Springboks – it is not quite that simple. In Eastern Cape province, home to Dale College, black people have played rugby for generations. Mhamhe says: “That part of Eastern Cape just breeds more and more black talent. You find so many players coming out of there. But you never see them progress beyond under-21 level.” 

Why? The gap between under-21s and senior level is so great that most players fall short, including many whites. But for young black hopefuls it is even harder, he believes. “If you’re being marginalised at under-19, it’s very unlikely you’ll make that bridge. And, from a marketing point of view, the clubs know what the Afrikaner audience is. Imagine a predominantly black Bulls side. Do you think the crowd would still flock to the stadium?”   

The solution, he believes, must begin at the grassroots. “The quota system should be at coaching level as well as playing level. You need a black coach and a white coach. Coaching is a very intimate and subjective thing. You’re only as good as the coach thinks you are. If you come from a similar background, you’re going to understand each other better.” 

Dale College has produced leading black and “coloured” (mixed race ancestry) sportsmen including Makhaya Ntini, Monde Zondeki, Bandise Maku, Bjorn Basson and Gcobani Bobo. But it lacks the investment and resources – including donations from old boys – enjoyed by the schools that produced most Springboks in the past two decades: around 40 private or semi-private rugby specialist schools where most of the pupils are white. Former Springbok prop Robbie Kempson, manager of the Saru Kings Rugby Academy in Port Elizabeth, says: “Dale College is a hotbed of black talent but they still don’t have a fully-fledged director of rugby. If the government had ploughed 20 years of funding into Dale College I think it would have made a big difference. If you had seen the young players getting the right attention, the Springboks would look a bit different now.”  

The right diet
When a club like the Bulls gets 60 to 90 under-19 players coming through the system, he adds, competition is fierce and differences in experience and diet are crucial. “The white kids have been playing in the big Afrikaner schools in front of 15 to 20 000 people, whereas the black boys have been playing in front of 8 000 and not consistently against the top schools. These kids are not getting the opportunities, they are behind the kids in the big urban areas.     

“If the government has got all this lottery funding, why don’t they go to a school like Dale and make sure they get proper nutrition? 

“There’s no doubt kids don’t have the right diet at the moment: the ones who come from Dale are six months behind somewhere like Grey High School in Port Elizabeth. South African coaches in general are besotted with size, particularly when it comes to the forwards. There are 18-year-old Afrikaners who are 1.98m tall and 115 kilos. A black kid is lucky to get there at the age of 20.”

Eastern Cape was the birthplace of Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black president, but is one of its poorest provinces. Many black boys attending a government school there are likely to encounter inadequate buildings, poorly motivated and educated teachers and few sporting or training facilities, according to journalist and author Liz McGregor. A white boy at an elite private school, by contrast, will benefit from magnificent facilities and extra staff as well as “historically enriched social capital: his mother will be waiting in her car to pick him up after practice,” McGregor wrote in South Africa’s Business Day newspaper last year. “He will go home to a hot shower, a comfortable bed and a nutritious meal. He will likely have access to nutritional supplements. On match days his family will be out in force to support him.” 

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

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

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

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

Support structures for boys at the critical age when they have just left school are inadequate, according to Richard Visagie, deputy head and head of sport at Paarl Boys’ High School, Western Cape, currently top of the school rugby rankings.“Schools of our calibre develop these boys,” he says. “We take them to a certain level and they get contracted. I feel the under-19 age group is the vital one. They are so talented but the competition is incredibly keen and they get lost in the system there. It’s so easy to fall through the cracks.”

He adds: “I would not say it’s a racist thing. Between 19 and 21 they need to be developed more. They need to be encouraged, but at community level they don’t get the same attention as when they’re at school with food and boarding and being looked after. Some sign professionally for clubs at 18 or 19 but they have to be taught how to manage. Agents must play a role. There has to be a back-up system.” 

Others argue that black people who attend leading schools have many options beyond rugby, some of which are significantly more lucrative. Max Norman, deputy principal at Selborne College High School in Eastern Cape, argues: “A lot of kids that play first-team rugby don’t want to be professional players. They want to be doctors, lawyers, accountants or whatever. We had a lot of talented guys who are also academically-talented and they’ve pursued professional careers instead of sporting careers.” 

There was just one black player in South Africa’s winning team in the 1995 World Cup final, when Mandela wore the Springbok jersey in a gesture of reconciliation, and only two when they regained the trophy in 2007. This time coach Heyneke Meyer has appeased some critics by naming eight black or “coloured” members of his 31-man squad.

But some patterns, and attitudes, die hard. Shawn van Rensburg, director of rugby at Glenwood High School in Durban, describes as “crap” suggestions that racism infects Springbok selection. “At the end of the day, if you pick the best black 15 players and go and play Australia or New Zealand, you’ll see what happens. But pick on merit and you’ll have a chance. Rugby was always played by white people and football was always a black sport. That’s just how it was in this country.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015



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