Caught in the shadow of apartheid: John Carlin reports from Johannesburg on slow progress in the development of rugby union in South Africa's black communities

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TO LOOK at Mono Badela now, you would be hard-pressed to believe that he played provincial rugby - black provincial rugby, that is - 30-odd years ago. A journalist in Johannesburg with a prize pot-belly, Mono needs little encouragement to wax nostalgic about the days he played centre threequarters for the Border team, down in the Eastern Cape where he was born and where rugby enjoys a measure of enthusiasm among blacks not found anywhere else in South Africa.

He needs still less encouragement to get into a rage about the manner in which the white rugby authorities have deliberately neglected, as he sees it, the development of rugby in the black communities. 'We used to go and watch the white teams play, thousands of us. But with all the money and all the support we gave them they've done nothing for us. It's because for those Boer boys rugby is a second religion and they see it as their exclusive domain. We've had many players with Springbok potential but they never gave us a chance.'

Mono said he had personally warned officials in the recently formed South African Rugby Football Union - a not particularly happy merger of the black and white rugby bodies - that they had to put development first, not international tours.

Zola Yeye is one of the people attempting to promote rugby among the township youngsters of Port Elizabeth, Mono's home town. From a less emotional position, he agrees with Mono that the fundamental reason for the frictions that have arisen this week between SARFU and the Olympic Sports Congress, a pro-African National Congress body, is that the rugby old guard still live in the apartheid dark ages.

'I always like to make a comparison with cricket,' Yeye said yesterday. 'There they did their homework. They genuinely started afresh, analysed the situation and set up coaching programmes to make things merrier for everybody. From the white SARFU bosses, who are so uptight and so arrogant, all we get is a trickle of interest.'

The SARFU has responded by saying that it has set aside 6m rand ( pounds 1.25m) for development of rugby in the black townships. But Yeye's point is that it is no good merely throwing money at the problem. 'The rugby union here have appointed a director of coaching, yes. But he has no programmes geared to basic development. Look - again - at cricket. There they have designed courses for women schoolteachers even to coach cricket at primary school level. And then they groom the boys right up to national level.'

Yeye is not, however, standing still. He is director of coaching of a body launched in Port Elizabeth on the third of this month called the Veteran Rugby Players Association. 'The idea,' the association's public relations officer, Daniel 'Cheeky' Watson, said, 'is to contribute to the junior players' evolution in the game. We've got some members over 60 years old, for example, who have said they are prepared to coach in the townships for free.'

But then comes the problem of facilities. 'In the Port Elizabeth area there are three usable pitches available to blacks, who make up more than one million people. Whites, who are about 150,000, have 50 to 60 pitches.'

Watson, who is white, was a Springbok trialist in 1976, at the age of 21, but he abandoned the chance of international glory when he decided to follow his conscience and play in the black leagues. (His conscience, his political activism, also landed him in jail for six months without trial a few years later.) The launch of the veterans association, he said, was marked by a match unique in the history of the South African game bringing together some of the local and national rugby greats at the Twickenham of Port Elizabeth's New Brighton township, Dan Qeqe Stadium.

'Any doubts about the passion rugby generates and the potential it holds were put to rest when a crowd of more than 20,000 turned up to watch. Can you imagine that for such a match anywhere else in the world? But the facilities were absolutely shocking. We had Morne du Plessis playing and there he was, a player of his standing, getting changed by the side of the field. And as for other basic necessities, I had to hire six portable toilets.'

Du Plessis is the once mighty No 8 who captained the Springboks between 1975 and 1980, leading them to a famous Test series victory against the All Blacks in 1976. 'The match at Dan Qeqe was one of the most memorable rugby occasions of my entire life,' Du Plessis said yesterday. 'We were in the middle of a township in front of a crowd of 20,000 black people and I cannot tell you the emotions that went through me when they all stood up and cheered us for a full 10 minutes.'

Struck by the generosity and goodwill, he agreed with Yeye that what rugby needed was a change in attitude at the top. 'It's not just a question of money, of building a few pitches and a few stadiums. That's been my mistake too. We have to learn from Cheeky, who was persecuted for doing what he did. White rugby has to undergo a radical change in mentality. We have to look and learn and do things not from the top down, but from the bottom up.'