Woman in a man's world

When Mandisa Williams, the Springbok women’s captain, was introduced at age 10 to the game of rugby by her father, Million Williams, she was merely being baptised into a sports tradition in the Eastern Cape of black girls and women becoming passionate followers of rugby by watching and supporting their fathers at play.

Given the meagre financial support given to women’s rugby, it’s unlikely that Williams is ever going to become a millionaire. But at least her father, who nurtured and developed her interest in the game, planted the seed for her to have a million minutes and more of happiness on the field.

Whenever one speaks and writes about the life of a black woman in sport, her story is expected to be about poverty, racism and a girl struggling against the odds to get just one chance to play sport, let alone realise her sporting dream.

Williams’s story smashes that stereotype. She is a post-apartheid woman in sport, where restrictions because of skin colour have become unlawful and more opportunities have been created for women to participate.
Fortunately, Williams is not from a poor family—her father is a taxi owner. But, as with thousands of other South African sportswomen, she still faces the challenge of her gender, especially in the male-dominated, male-owned and male-saturated sport of rugby.

An East London resident, Williams (25) was born into a family, a community and a region passionate about rugby, where more than 2 000 registered women play club rugby in three divisions for Border and where women spectators have been part of the game for decades. “I was born in Jongalanga, a few kilometres outside East London, and here in our Border region we all love and are passionate about rugby,” she says.

Williams grew up without a mother—her mom died before she reached her teenage years—but it was her rugby-loving father who provided his daughter with encouragement galore and many opportunities to play sport. His love for rugby rubbed off on his daughter and he encouraged and supported her on every step of her journey. Million Williams played a similar role to that of Jacques Kallis’s father and Venus and Serena Williams’s dad.

“I went with my father to rugby matches from about age nine and was always going with him to club and provincial matches. Then, about 10 years ago, women’s rugby was taking off, so my father decided to start his own women’s team. I joined, at age 15, and started playing. My father was the coach, the official, the mentor; he was everything to our women’s rugby team,” says Williams.

“My father watches me when I play a club or provincial match for Border. He never misses a match when I play at home and after every match I must go home with him to do a post-match analysis, where he offers me constructive information. He’s a taxi owner, but he doesn’t worry about the taxis when I’m playing—he is concerned only about his daughter, not about money.

“I am the eldest of three children. Rugby is in my blood, my whole system and my family. My 18-year-old brother is also playing and our extended family all loves rugby. We all support and encourage one another.”

Williams’s talent was quickly noticed and at 16 she was already attending Border senior trials. She was selected for the Border provincial team and played inter-provincial rugby. Such was her potential that the call-up to Springbok selection followed swiftly.
Williams played in her first World Cup four years ago, when the South African women’s team debuted at the 2006 event in Canada. There, Williams — who plays at loose forward, position number eight — was singled out as a promising future player.

Her leadership abilities had not gone unnoticed, either, and two years ago she was named Springbok women’s captain, taking over from Nomsebenzi Tsosobe.

Williams may be considered a “veteran” of women’s rugby, but she has no thoughts of retiring. She wants to be more than merely a promising player and has her sights set on being a world-class women’s rugby player.

Williams wants to see women’s rugby grow throughout South Africa—in villages, communities, townships and suburbs. She wants to do something to promote and develop rugby because she would like to introduce the game to more coloured and white girls.

“I still have many dreams about being a women’s rugby player and I want to play for another five years. I play for the love of the game and no one is going to tell me otherwise. Black girls and women are plentiful [in rugby], but we need more coloured and white women playing rugby instead of being spectators,” says Williams, whose favourite men’s player is Springbok captain John Smit.

Unable to gain full-time employment at home since completing her studies, this sports management graduate of the former Border Technikon may soon have to leave her beloved rugby region if an employment opportunity arises elsewhere. “I must get a job, anywhere in the country, or else I may have to look at another field of study, like public relations or communications.”

Williams and the Springbok squad are currently in training for the women’s Rugby World Cup, taking place in August in England. She follows a five-day week of intensive high-performance training both on and off the field. It’s a tough World Cup draw, with South Africa having drawn New Zealand and Australia in their group.

But, despite her ambition, vast talent and love for the game, Williams may not achieve all that she should. And that’s because this woman has a passion for a sport that is focused on men’s participation and achievements.

The South African Rugby Union (Saru) “supports” women’s rugby, but the women are treated as a development unit. Their budget is not only small, it’s very small. The national women’s team gets to play some international matches but they need to play many more to measure up against the world’s best teams.

Training costs are carried by Saru and the Springbok women’s team gets a match fee per player of about R5 000. Crammed with passion, talent and potential, the team is improving. The women’s sevens team reached the semifinals of the inaugural Sevens Rugby World Cup last year. But Williams is calling for much more support from Saru.

“Saru can do much more and give women’s rugby a bigger budget, but they say it depends on how we perform—the more we win, the more money we get, but we need more financial assistance to play more,” says the woman who has become a sports heroine in her community of Pesserville.

And Williams’s immediate ambition? To play a Springbok women’s match in East London in front of thousands of supporters—the home of traditional black support for the game of rugby.

Cheryl Roberts is a social commentator and analyst on the social positioning of South African sport

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