Plans to make a film about the rugby legends have been red-carded after a potential funder in the United States abruptly pulled out because of the movie's "potentially sensitive topic".
De Akker Vyftiental (the Acorn Fifteen) was an anomaly in apartheid South Africa at the time and competed in black rugby leagues.
A South African expatriate, Anton Nel, who is raising money for a film about the team – for which he played during his university days – has accused CNH, a prospective funder, of racism and deceit, saying: "I believe rugby today is still being poisoned by people like this."
CNH, the result of a merger in 2000 between Case Corporation, International Harvester and New Holland, which is represented in South Africa by Invicta Holdings subsidiary Northmec, is one of the premier agricultural equipment companies in the world.
Ironically, an earlier incarnation of CNH was instrumental in helping to found the club in 1986. Named after the Stellenbosch pub of the same name, the formation of De Akker Vyftiental was made possible through a grant from Barney Strydom, chief executive of Case International at the time – perhaps as a way of sanitising the company's image amid deafening calls by the anti-apartheid movement for companies to disinvest from South Africa.
Twenty-six years later, the company has snubbed Nel. It emerged from emails between CNH and Nel that his funding and product placement proposal were turned down because Northmec, CNH's local agent, felt the subject matter was "potentially sensitive". Now Nel believes the only "sensitivity" is a potentially negative reaction from its client base of mainly white farmers.
Kelly Hrajnoha, a CNH corporate communications employee, wrote to Nel on May 25 saying: "I don't doubt the amount of publicity that this opportunity would bring. But as I understand it, the concern regarding your request was more about aligning the Case IH brand with a potentially sensitive topic, rather than levels of exposure."
When Nel pressed the company further about the meaning of "potentially sensitive," it sparked what he believes is a series of cover-ups.
Liana Iacobelli, CNH's head of corporate communications for North America, spearheaded the supposed cover-up. In an email sent to Iacobelli on May 31, Nel referred to a phone call in which Iacobelli claimed that Hrajnoha was "emotional" at the time she sent the May 25 email. She also claimed that Hrajnoha was new to the organisation.
Nel wrote: "I am sure you can … understand my amazement … when I later learned that Kelly had been in your employment since April 2007 and has in fact been contributing editor with you for some time on the 'CNH & You' intranet publication.
"On review, it is clear Kelly's writing was not emotional but factual, pointed and articulated or reproduced from stated verbiage where a calculation of perception was done."
The company's legal representative, Richard Konrath, made no attempt to clarify the meaning of "potentially sensitive" when the Mail & Guardian approached him. Instead, he threatened legal action if the matter was pursued further.
"Regardless of any correspondence that you have received or your potential interpretation thereof, Mr Nel's request did not present any particular sensitivities nor did it trigger any separate analysis other than that which we would consider for any request associated with funding or product placement," Konrath wrote in an email to the M&G.
Arno du Plessis, Case IH product manager at Northmec, said the company had not influenced CNH's decision and was "never in contact with CNH on this matter".
In a letter to CNH, Nel said: "There still remains a very small group of apartheid supporters and neo-racists for which this jubilation and triumph that we will depict in our film will not be received well, and yes, they are mostly found outside of the cities, and yes, probably within the target group of CASE IH.
"However, kowtowing to them and their views really dilutes the value of your brand, your contribution and your code of ethics, in South Africa especially but also internationally and obviously morally."
Although he is disappointed, Nel said he was well on his way to finding alternative funding to tell the story of the apartheid-busting rugby team on film.
'Tool to improve race relations'
If it was not for the efforts of club chairperson John Donaldson, the story of De Akker would have faded with time.
Today, the bearded, retiring Donaldson has the air of a world-weary hippy. He preserves a treasure trove of photos, collates press clippings and keeps in touch with his former teammates on Facebook, where he posts pictures of their wild adventures on and off the rugby field.
"When [Case International's Barney] Strydom gave us the R33000 grant, we went on a countrywide tour in July 1987 and played similar teams," said Donaldson.
"Former Springbok Tommy Bedford, who was a liberal guy in his day, put together a mixed team, which was unprecedented in Durban at that stage.
"We played Transkei and Ciskei club teams, a mining team in Newcastle and a similar team at the University of Pretoria."
The club was formed over drinks in De Akker, the pub they all patronised in Stellenbosch, when the barman, Aubrey Makunu, introduced the Matie students to black players from Kayamandi, the township outside Stellenbosch.
The newspaper clippings of that time quote Donaldson as saying that the club was formed "as a tool to improve race relations".
Donaldson said most of the players did not join the club for political reasons: "We just didn't like the rules at the time. We just played rugby and had a lot of beers afterwards."
In 1988 the club called it quits after artwork for a brochure to publicise a planned tour of Zimbabwe was stolen from Donaldson's garage and the funding never materialised.
"There must have been an informant because all the artwork disappeared," said Donaldson."We never locked the place."
Donaldson said he was at pains to figure out why a movie about De Akker would be a sensitive topic. "Maybe 30 years ago, but not today."