SA rugby welcomes first black team owner

Robert Gumede remembers the first rugby match he went to. Nelson Mandela was there, too.

They weren’t the only two black spectators, but there weren’t many others. Gumede’s first rugby game was the World Cup final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
June 24, 1995.

Mandela wore a South Africa rugby jersey and a cap with the team’s Springbok emblem. He walked onto the pitch, smiled and waved to the crowd. It became one of sport’s iconic images and one of South Africa’s most poignant moments. It even inspired a Hollywood movie.

Gumede watched as a black man, dressed in green and gold, won over 65 000 white fans by embracing rugby, the sport favoured by the old apartheid government. Mandela’s decision to wear the Springbok, the symbol once hated by black South Africans, also spoke of change. It said that rugby, for so long shunned by the black population, was now for all South Africans.

Yet 15 years on from that day, when the Springboks beat New Zealand to win the world title, rugby crowds in South Africa are still predominantly white. And, until this week, the top teams’ owners were exclusively white.

Gumede changed that on Tuesday.

Now a billionaire, he returned to Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium to announce he was the first black shareholder in a major South African rugby team.

“There are many people who say they support change, who say ‘change, but not in my back yard,”’ he said. “We are throwing that out of the window. We are going to bring change because change is good. It’s change that has brought all of us here.”

Gumede and his longtime friend and business partner Ivor Ichikowitz have bought a 49,9% stake in Johannesburg’s Golden Lions team, formerly Transvaal. It is a former powerhouse of South African rugby, the former team of seven members of that 1995 World Cup-winning lineup, including captain Francois Pienaar. It also used to be one of the conservative hearts of white South African rugby.

Gumede and Ichikowitz, one black and one white, say making the Lions’ support appeal to fans of every race is “fundamental” to them and their “stated goal”.

Their own partnership, says Gumede, represents what they want to achieve. “I think what brought us together was our vision of seeing transformation in South Africa,” Gumede said.

The former Springboks and Lions player Owen Nkumane said: “The move by these two guys is extremely significant. It’s huge. It’s never happened before.”

Nkumane was born and grew up in Soweto. He is now a leading rugby pundit on South African television. He is the black African player, and now fan, that the country has not seen enough of in the 15 years since Mandela pulled on a Springboks jersey.

“For me, personally, the reasons black players and black fans don’t come through is because black business doesn’t support rugby,” Nkumane said.

“There have always been question marks over rugby. Rugby in South Africa is still very conservative, but at the end of the day it’s not a responsibility of the system. Individuals need to make the difference. Individuals need to step up.”

Chance of transformation
On Tuesday, Gumede stepped onto the Ellis Park field to pull on a red and white Lions jersey. He stood next to the tall, blonde-haired Lions captain Franco van der Merwe, as Mandela had done with Pienaar on the same pitch in 1995. The moment was not nearly as moving, but it might prove as significant.

Gumede is one of the leaders of the country’s new black middle class, and the fact he has chosen rugby means the game has a genuine chance of transformation. A chance because Gumede, a flamboyant, successful IT mogul, and Ichikowitz, the head of Africa’s largest defence and aerospace contractor, have serious money. Money they say they will plow into their mission.

The mission is to develop a multiracial fan base. To take Lions games to Soweto and its population of more than one million, mainly black, people. To host games at the township’s 94 000 seat FNB Stadium, the venue for the football World Cup final, and the Orlando Stadium, as well as Ellis Park.

South African rugby has certainly enjoyed progress on the pitch. The Springboks, World Cup winners again in 2007, have a black coach and a growing number of young black players. But the sport wants to engage black fans.

“There have been missed opportunities,” Nkumane said. “We’ve won two World Cups but we haven’t done what could have been done and what should have been done. We haven’t developed rugby in the urban areas, especially in Johannesburg and especially in Soweto.”

Now, rugby has to win a black following to stay alive, Gumede says, after the massive boost given to football by this year’s World Cup.

There was another moment, earlier this year, that rekindled the spirit of ‘95. The Bulls team from up the highway in Pretoria took the first major rugby game to Soweto in May. The Bulls team, with a reputation for being even more conservative than the Lions, were welcomed and celebrated.

Back at Ellis Park, the Lions have hit hard times since they won an early version of the southern hemisphere club title in 1993. In May, they finished the Super 14 competition with an 0-13 record, the worst season by a team in the competition. Crowds have dwindled. It’s not 65 000 chanting fans at Ellis Park, it’s maybe 10 000—on a good day.

“This announcement is a business announcement, but it’s not about the business,” Ichikowitz said. “Robert and I see this as an opportunity to take a brand that at one stage had absolute cult status. It marginally lost direction, but it’s on the way back again. We believe we can turn it back into the cult that it was before, but not just for traditional rugby supporters, for all South Africans.”

On Tuesday, Lions president Kevin de Klerk, a former Springboks player in the all-white team of the 1970s, introduced Mathews Phosa, a former anti-apartheid activist and now treasurer-general of the ruling African National Congress party, as the team’s new patron.

Phosa made a speech meters from where Mandela had stood in June 1995. He turned to Gumede, Ichikowitz and De Klerk, who were sitting beside him.

“You may not be aware, and I choose my words very carefully,” Phosa told them, “you have made history today. History on our soil, history in rugby and history in sport.” - AFP

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