He was made to feel like an outsider as soon as he picked up a rugby ball for the first time. Thando Manana would go on to become the first black player to represent Griquas in the union’s 130-year history.
His plaudits are numerous. He was named Vodacom Cup Defender of the Series, and then became only the third black African to don the green and gold after unification in 1992, when he made his debut in 2000 in a tour match against Argentina A.
But his achievements have often been referenced to his skin colour.
It’s a story familiar to so many other black people in South Africa. But it is one that resonates particularly with other black rugby players.
Manana says about his biography, Being a Black Springbok: The Thando Manana Story, written by the editor of Kick-Of f magazine, Sibusiso Mjikeliso: “This book is a challenge to black African athletes in this country to own their stories, separate from white people. During my career I represented my people; African people. It was an honour to wear the Springbok jersey and I see myself as a silhouette that people can follow.”
Manana is warm and open, and walks with a confident swagger. When I stretch out my right hand for a formal handshake, he envelops it tightly in his own before jerking me into an all-encompassing “bro-hug”. He’s wearing a snapback cap that matches his glossy jacket and several thick chains around his broad neck. Aesthetically at least, he presents as not your typical rugby man in a country where the sport has been predominantly shaped by people who fit a certain mould.
“I’ve always done things my own way,” Manana says, somewhat defiantly. “I have never asked for permission. People think that black rugby players get things handed to them because of quota selections and things like that. It’s not true. We have to fight for what we deserve and no one can take away my voice when it comes to telling my story.”
On comment sections online, where Manana writes a column for SA Rugby Magazine, some question the validity of his voice. They say that the burly loose forward never represented his nation in an official Test and only wore the jersey on three occasions. Manana shrugs this off.
“There will always be someone who will doubt you and ask what your credentials are. And if I only played one game, people would have a problem. It would be the same if I only played 10 games. As a black rugby player, you always have to prove yourself. I don’t need their approval,” he says.
The book is filled with personal anecdotes, such as the time Manana was the “little spoon” while cuddling with Victor Matfield at the infamous Kamp Staaldraad to his close shave with the law while riding in a car with a bag of Mandrax in the boot.
Apart from offering a biographical account of his years before, during and after his rugby career, Manana hopes that the book will help shine a revealing light on the Rainbow Nation narrative that still desperately clings to rugby in general and the Springboks in particular. Manana experienced segregation when white players would walk past him at breakfast and sit at a different table, even if he was the only other person in the room.
“That sort of thing still exists in rugby and, believe me, it was even worse when I was playing, when there were less of us,” Manana says, amused that we would think otherwise. “As a result, I was lonely for much of my career.”
Manana did have one trick up his sleeve, something he calls his “only triumph”, that he kept secret from his teammates in Kimberley. He could speak and understand Afrikaans perfectly.
“I would speak only English at training,” he says with a wry smile. “Some of the guys didn’t like that and will probably be surprised to find this information out. I did it so I could catch a glimpse of what they really thought of me.”
When I press him on what he discovered as a result of his secret, Manana is either unwilling or unable to recall a specifically snide comment overheard from a teammate. He says that players were open about the poor form of others and would often pass jokes to the effect that a particular teammate was fortunate to be in the side. “But that was with all players, not just the black or coloured guys. Either way, I did my talking on the field.”
Despite Manana’s achievements, the quota tag followed him, as it has every “non-white” rugby player in this country when selected for a representative team. The label never bothered him.
“If I was a quota player at the time, I didn’t care,” he says. “If it allowed me the opportunity to sneak in and get a chance, then I am grateful. What was important for me was to show them that I belonged.”
The book is a definitive declaration that Springbok number 708 earned his place in the pantheon of this nation’s rugby heroes and that no one else can stake a claim to his narrative.