Airbrushed out of rugby history

National coach Jake White was presented with the names of three candidates for team manager ahead of the Springbok’s 100th Anniversary tour of England in November last year.

White indicated to SA Rugby that he was willing to work with Songezo Nayo, whom he knew from his term as deputy to former SA Rugby managing director Riaan Oberholzer. The Bok mentor rejected Liston Ntshongwana and current manager Zola Yeye because he did not know them.

White is one of the top-20 rugby personalities considered an ally in the war against racism.
One of the ironies of his position is that SA Rugby recently commissioned two books on Springbok history and on the Springbok emblem.

In the first, Ntshongwana, who represented the African Springboks against several international teams—including John Pullin’s undefeated 1972 England team and the 1975 French touring team—was profiled as one of the 100 all-time greatest South African players.

White’s ignorance about this icon is a monument to the refusal of the white component of South African rugby to acknowledge African rugby prior to unification in 1992, a refusal condoned by several institutions.

Not only did White receive a copy of the book, in which he probably ignored the African players, but he also signed copies of the book for the minister of sport and recreation and for the department’s director general.

In The Badge: A Centenary of the Springbok Emblem, which was launched while the Boks were on tour in November 2006, Ntshongwana is bracketed at flank, with dual rugby and cricket Springbok Ben Malamba in the best African rugby team of all time.

White must at least have been in high school in the late 1970s when promising Junior Springbok wing “Cheeky” Watson declined an invitation to play trials for the white Springboks and joined Spring Rose Rugby Football Club in New Brighton.

Watson’s rugby wing partner was none other than Zola Yeye, a Springbok ahead of Watson, and one of the most stylish three-quarters in the then non-racial SA Rugby Union.

In the 117-page issue of Fifteen, SA Rugby’s official magazine, the combined histories of the African and coloured Springbok emblems merited only a two-page feature.

Another incredible phenomenon when it comes to race and South African sport is the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

The national broadcaster has not, and will not, invite any black veteran Springboks such as the knowledgeable and articulate Ntshongwana as a studio guest during rugby broadcasts.

A representative of a production house contracted to the SABC contacted the writer ahead of the 2004 Tri-Nations season to find out about African achievers in rugby.

Like most white South African followers of the game, he realised that the 1974 British Lions were the dominant team, the first touring team to whitewash the Springboks on home soil. The young producer was shocked to find that Border’s Charles Mgweba, playing for the 1974 African Springboks, had been the first South African to breach the defence of Willie McBride’s all-conquering tourists.

He was excited at the prospect of flighting the try, as part of the intro.

This writer placed a bet of dinner every week for a month that Mgweba would not be invited by the SABC, and he was not. The management of the SABC know why they take this stance.

Another institution that upholds the practice of keeping black history out of the game is The Rugby Legends Association, led by former Natal and Springbok hooker John Allan. At worst, the white monopoly over rugby history reinforces contempt for black people in rugby. At best, those involved in the game are regarded protégés of white benevolence after Madiba’s endorsement in 1995.

But is the composition of the Springbok team a problem in terms of the country’s demographics? If one looks at that figure from the point of those actively involved in the game, the team represents the correct demographics.

On this matter, the hypocrisy of sport and education administrators and black parents is a crying shame.

Half the schools in African townships have probably not had organised sports programmes over the last 15 years. One sees thousands of pupils roaming the streets and shopping malls on “sports days” while African teachers take off to see to their personal interests. This includes schools which, in the period from 1950 to 1980, produced African and coloured Springboks, some of whom migrated to play professional rugby in England and Australia.

Cape Town’s Langa High school, alma mater of Bradford three-quarter Enslin Dlambulo, has not produced a team for the last five years. So is the case with Newell High school, which claims the likes of Glen Scott, the first pupil to make the black Springbok team while still at high school, Dan Qeqe and Eric Majola, regarded by many as the greatest South African flyhalf of any colour.

Too many political apparatchiks with no interest in or insight into the game are imposed on rugby to placate the government. Their presence in the administration of SA Rugby is at the expense of really knowledgeable African rugby veteran administrators. Besides former Lovedale and Healdtown captain Mveleli Ncula, Mrs Dorothy Tsotsobe and board chairperson Mpumelelo Tshume, African rugby folk would be hard-pressed to identify or justify the rest.

Black players will not make representative numbers as long as the base is mainly from white-run schools where blacks are a minority. The other critical barrier is in coaching. How an above-average player such as Kevin Putt, then with no coaching qualifications or experience, ended up coaching Natal, heaven alone knows.

The next question is when the likes of Eric Sauls, Pieter de Villiers, Dumisani Mhani, graduates from decades of coaching, will be handed professional franchises. Coaches might not be racist but often they only notice players with whom they have cultural empathy.

Vuyisa Qunta is the co-author of two books: 1891-2003: 112 Years of Springbok Rugby—Tests and Heroes (Highbury Monarch 2003) and The Badge: A Centenary of the Springbok Emblem. He works for the department of sport and recreation. He writes in his personal capacity

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