The late 1990s to early 2000s were the dark ages for post-unity rugby in South Africa, a time when black players, specifically African, were largely disposable.
The top Super 12-playing franchises — Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Cats — were graveyards of black African talent. Rugby’s power levers were in white hands and with the press of a button the gallows would open and swallow a talented black player, never to be seen or spoken about again.
Transformation policies weren’t worth the paper they were written on. It was also a time for ravenous black rugby administrators to have their turn to eat and there was not enough to share with their playing kin.
The result was that talented black players seldom scaled the heights for which they were destined. It was the kind of robbery that still, in 2019, has effects.
Few players have been as scorned by rugby’s stubborn resistance to change as former Border Bulldogs winger Ian Fihlani, who played during this time of intransigence and came out bruised, broke and displaced.
Fihlani joined Border in 1998, one of their rare rural products who had sprung literally from the dirt to make his mark in provincial rugby. His timing was excellent. He landed in Gert Smal’s hands, the then Bulldogs coach, who is known for his propensity to go against the grain.
Smal gave South Africa’s first black African Test-capped Springbok, Kaya Malotana, his provincial debut and helped to change the complexion of the professional game in the Eastern Cape. In the offices above Smal’s, though, sinister moves were afoot.
At the peak of his try-scoring powers, Fihlani was denied a place in the Sharks Super 12 squad — and thereby a probable Springbok call-up — because of the nonsensical reason that he “couldn’t speak English”.
In 2019, it seems unbelievable but, back then, your inability to mimic whiteness in rugby was a crippling disadvantage. And Fihlani, born in Tsholomnqa, a place where historic Xhosa battles were once fought, was just an African herd boy with an innate ability to move cunningly around a rugby field.
“Rugby wasn’t a pleasant landscape for a black player at the time, but Border didn’t really have many options in terms of wingers and there would be major questions if I was sidelined, although I was performing,” Fihlani says.
“The year I arrived, I was the union’s Player of the Year, outdoing players who had been there before me, like David Maidza. People didn’t even know where Tsholomnqa was on the map, let alone the kind of talent that was there.
“Smal brought rural rugby into focus and he was out there watching rural rugby games and scouting for talent. You would find him in places like Mooiplaas, Nxarhuni and Tsholomnqa during his spare time.
“When I was spotted, I was playing for Home Boys, the Sunday league rugby club team that I turned out for as a youngster. Selector Sid Laubscher, who came to me while we were playing Berlin United, was the one who approached me. He told me to report to East London on Monday and I did.”
A journey that started with promise turned into a toll road once Fihlani started to display express pace and an eye for a gap. He captured the country’s attention around 2001, the year he considers his best season. The Sharks came calling.
No sooner had he answered their call to go to Durban for a training camp, following former Border coach Rudolf Straeuli from East London, he met rugby’s brutal dark side.
South African Rugby Football Union chief executive Mveleli Ncula, the first black person to hold the position when he was appointed in 2001, is on record as saying that Fihlani’s inability to speak English cost him his place in the Sharks side.
Despite being one of the form wingers, gifted with attributes a player can’t learn, Ncula’s inane utterances were enough to halt Fihlani’s progress.
With nearly two decades to reflect on that time, Fihlani sheds light on those dubious decisions.
“I would say I was the leading winger in domestic rugby at the time. I attracted a lot of media attention. I was chosen, along with Lonwabo ‘Black’ Mtimka, as the Border representatives in the Sharks squad.
“Mveleli Ncula, Kobus van der Merwe [Border and Sharks assistant coach to Straeuli] were the ones that caucused around which players merited selection into the final Super Rugby squad. Kobus didn’t want me to be part of that team because ‘I did not understand English’.
“This was odd, because at the camp I didn’t need a translator. In East London, Rudolf would give the instructions and I understood them perfectly and we communicated well. He would speak his English and I would speak mine.
“They felt that I was a threat to their preferred wingers and playing Super Rugby would have meant a massive wage increase. They sent Ncula to do their bidding in order to get me out of the team and he succeeded in peddling that false narrative.
“I was so gutted that I was ready to quit the game.”
Among the best
The Sharks had a talented squad that year. Led by Mark Andrews, they finished second in the Super 12 table, behind the ACT Brumbies, against whom they lost the final in Canberra.
Stefan Terblanche, Justin Swart, Andre Snyman, Deon Kayser and Ricardo Laubscher were their mainstays in the three-quarters.
If there were good playing reasons to disenfranchise Fihlani, they would probably have been accepted. But there was none.
“There were so many oddities because the main medium of instruction in rugby was Afrikaans anyway, and Rudolf and Kobus were both Afrikaans-speaking people. I understood Afrikaans perfectly,” says Fihlani.
“I figured they just didn’t want me around for fear that I might outperform guys like Terblanche and the like. This was the only thing they could use against me. I knew that, if I made it into the Sharks Super 12 team, I was definitely going to make the Springbok squad. I felt that none of the wingers there at the time were a threat to me.
“In terms of a like-for-like comparison, I would say for a wing with my qualities, Jeffrey Stevens was the only wing that was better than me. I was hurt by the fact that I never got a chance to show that I could become a Springbok. Every time I would sprint past a winger that made the Bok team during a match, I would always wonder why they were chosen and not me. I would wonder why weaker players were always picked.
“I would also question why I played the game if there was no chance of making the national team. Those kinds of questions definitely came into my mind.”
There was a thick veil over the administrators’ eyes at the time and black players seldom had an agent or managers who would speak for them in boardrooms. A black player would leave his house a man, become a boy on the field and get reduced to a eunuch in the boardroom. The pittance they took home told its own story.
“When you came from the rural areas, you seldom got shown the full lay of the land, especially at management level. We didn’t have that thing where you wanted to know what you would be earning before you got on to the field; you just wanted to play. By the time we woke up to the fact that we needed to negotiate things like contracts, the years had already gone by.
“We would get match fees and what you took home on payday was the sum of the matches you played. There was no money for a black person.
“Players that really brought the conversation about fair compensation and wages were the likes of the Ndungane brothers, Odwa and Akona, who came after us. I signed my first contract in 2002, earning just R4 000 per month.”
Chasing the facts
Popular opinion in the Eastern Cape is that the winger scored more than 100 tries for Border during his career, which lasted until 2007.
The records at the Border office, however, are so shoddy you would battle to find a match sheet. Its phone lines have long been disconnected and emails to the information desk bounce back. Its website is obsolete. Any attempt to determine the veracity of Fihlani’s 100-try legend is about as arduous as trying to find the Loch Ness monster.
South African Rugby’s statistics office recorded 35 career tries from the time he debuted against Griquas in March 1998, but Fihlani claims to have dotted down 156 times, if you include all the matches, including friendlies. It’s highly questionable whether he reached that figure, memory being so fluid.
“The biggest problem is that they never recorded all the tries I scored in my career. I counted 156 career tries in over 200 games and I battle to think of anyone who had those numbers in the game.”
Bryan Habana scored 158 tries in 294 first-class matches.
“And I never got any real recognition from the mother body for the contribution I made towards bringing a light on players from rural areas, like me. When I quit rugby, I would have loved for there to have been a plan or an initiative where I could assist the game in finding more rural talent. Kids would have appreciated having a former player coaching them at grassroots level.
“After [rugby administrator] Mahlubi Puzi left Border, we took it upon ourselves, myself and Lungelo Payi, to make sure that we try to coach young kids in our respective rural homelands.
“That’s how I ended up coaching Thembelani Bholi, who was a lock from Mooiplaas. Makazole Mapimpi also came from Tsholomnqa. But it was not easy for them to be spotted because SA Rugby has never really ploughed funds into a deep rural programme.”
As a new wave of talented wingers and outside backs bursts through to dominate rugby consciousness, players such as Sbu Nkosi, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Aphelele Fassi, Lukhanyo Am and Mapimpi, Fihlani is glad they will never have to experience some of the things he did during his playing days.
“It’s become a whole lot better in rugby for black players because we see players such as Dyantyi, Mapimpi, Am and Nkosi coming through. But it is not enough.
“I feel joy every time I see these black players play Super Rugby and for the Springboks. They are enjoying things that we never enjoyed during our playing time.
“I speak to Makazole often and I advise him to work [on] various aspects of his game so that he always stays sharp with up-and-unders. Being able to kick defensively and on attack is a crucial asset for a winger, but at some unions these things aren’t coached properly, so you have to work on them on your own.
“He grew up playing centre and he was very strong. When I watched him play for the Bulldogs in his early days, I advised them to move him to the wing so that he can unleash his pace.
“He was hidden at centre because he would have to supply players on his outside, but now he is the recipient of some good passes from Am at the Sharks and he’s doing very well.
“I think Aphiwe is versatile enough to play on the right wing as well, judging from his jink and sidestep. He likes to step to his right, which means he could also burn wingers near the touchline at the other end.
“Sbu Nkosi is a very good winger as well. Although they need to work on their defensive structures, they are our children and we must always encourage them, not discourage them.”
Rugby spat him out after his retirement at 28 and he couldn’t get work as a coach, even though he had coached the Border Women’s team and Under-21 teams. So he packed his bags for North West where he got buried in South Africa’s general workforce, taking a job at Impala Platinum in Rustenburg.
When he has time to reminisce, his mind takes him to the joyous times he had as a Bulldog and to the green-and-gold blazer he eventually earned as a Springbok Sevens player. At other times, though, he is consumed by a fog of regret at never having reached the pinnacle of the game.
This is an edited version of an article that was first published on New Frame