Rugby Union: Hope develops from black and white negative: England's tourists will be cocooned from the changing situation in South Africa. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
THERE is a little town called Patensie in the Gamtoos Valley of the eastern Cape which reveals more about the development of post-apartheid South African rugby than England's forthcoming tour ever could. Patensie conveys a message of confusion, violence and fear but above all of hope.

It is not that black and white are walking hand in hand - you have only to know of the interminable and fruitless attempts to bring together Patensie's rugby club with its township equivalent to realise the depth of black distrust and resentment that will long linger.

But the very fact that the white men who play for Patensie wish to open their doors to blacks, have swallowed their spurious pride and conquered their fear in order to play in the townships 100 miles away in Port Elizabeth, to appreciate that the Afrikaner's game, his icon, can be a force for reconciliation.

The England tour party, who will be sanitised and cocooned, will probably see none of it when, or rather if, they arrive in South Africa in mid-May a fortnight after the country's first non-racial general election. But here at the heart of rural Afrikanerdom is a vision of a sporting future that one day may even work tolerably well.

Patensie Rugby Club adopted a non-racial constitution from the beginning of 1993 and by the end of the year had become the first country side to win through to the premier Eastern Province club competition. In this, they lost their first match to the Defence Force 12 days ago.

Espie Ferreira, farmer and club president with three sons in the first team, has been the driving force behind the club's coming-out into the multi-racial world. It is a remarkable story, told in Christopher Terrill's inspiring film for BBC2 tonight.

'When we talk about Patensie,' Trevor Jennings, president of the Eastern Province Rugby Union, says, 'they are really lucky to have a person of the calibre of Espie Ferreira who basically . . . shares the very conservative views of his neighbours.'

Jennings presumably knows him better than Terrill does, but it is Ferreira's unbending determination to make multi- racial rugby work in a multi- racial South Africa, that sets him apart - even from his sons, who are as querulous and doubtful as their father is certain.

Patensie set out on their first visit to a township to play Motherwell, whom they trounce 68-12. For Espie the result is secondary to the event, for his players a safe return home more important than the result. 'If anything happens in that ground that looks like getting out of control I will exercise the presidential prerogative and stop the game there and then,' Jennings has told them.

Things pass peaceably but there is the constant fear of the scores of centuries being settled in these games and the film avoids the most violent excesses of black opponents just as we are never let in on the real depth of critical white opinion in Patensie.

In Motherwell the spirit is generous. 'We are here to forgive and forget what has happened in the past and take them for brothers,' Wilfred Nangu, a club official, says. But not all are as accepting. Later, when Patensie are playing a township team called Highlands, one black spectator complains: 'Apartheid is still alive and kicking. It is still in the hearts.'

So much for black attitudes to still-white Patensie. The Highlands game is the first since township visits had been resumed six months after the assassination of the ANC youth leader, Chris Hani, a calamity which plunges Espie Ferreira into despair: 'I haven't got words now to express myself. I feel ashamed that I've got a white skin.'

Apartheid may be alive and kicking but not in such grand old men as Espie Ferreira, for whom the stress was such that he ended up in hospital with heart trouble. But he did get better again, a metaphor for his beloved club and his beloved rugby.

'It's a terrible setback,' says Gideon Huishanen, a liberal lawyer and friend of the family, as they celebrate Ferreira's 60th birthday shortly after the Hani killing, 'but knowing Espie, he doesn't give up.'

Beloved Country: Black Men Bite, produced by Christopher Terrill, BBC2 9.30 tonight.