Rugby Union: The Lion heart of South Africa

From Robbie of Ireland to John of the high veld, a former scrum- half has become the conscience of his new nation; Douglas Rogers meets the quick-talking Dubliner who has won over Johannesburg
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Of the last British Lions team to tour South Africa, Bill Beaumont's beaten 1980 side, one player proceeded to make an impact in the former land of apartheid far beyond what most modern sportsmen would be capable of today. The Irish scrum-half John Robbie came out as a replacement for the injured Terry Holmes, played eight games, was never on a losing side and was on the field the last time the red jerseys took on the Springboks in a Test - a 17-13 victory in Pretoria. But it is not on the rugby field that Robbie has made his mark on South Africa.

For the past six years he has hosted his own current-affairs phone-in programme, The John Robbie Show, on Radio 702, South Africa's premier independent talk-radio station. With a regular audience of 500,000, Robbie is the station's most popular presenter. Forty years old, scrum-half stocky with rugged, Irish good looks, he talks in a fast, machine-gun staccato, as if still winding up an opposition back-row forward. His confrontational style has made him a cult personality in South Africa and one of the most respected opinion-formers in the country. His face stares out from highway advertising billboards and magazine covers, and even Nelson Mandela is a fan. And in true shock-jock fashion, he has his share of psychos queueing up to put a bullet in his head.

Robbie settled in South Africa a year after the Lions tour, in 1981. He had come out with the Ireland team and in so doing, lost his job with Guinness in Dublin for breaking the anti-apartheid sports boycott. He accepted a job in Johannesburg instead, ostensibly to play rugby, which he did with much success, playing a record number of games for Transvaal and coming within a boot-lace of a Springbok cap in 1985. But the leap from rugby star to radio-jock occurred by accident. After retiring in 1988, Robbie drifted into sports reporting, and was working as a sports editor at Radio 702 in January 1990 when he stood in for one week on a tame, late-night phone-in programme called Talk at Ten.

"I had no experience at all," Robbie said. "They didn't tell me what to do except not to talk sport. That wasn't hard. There were far more important things happening in South Africa at the time." True enough: the country was rocked by political violence, the ANC was still banned and apartheid looked as if it could grind on forever. 702 was a feisty new independent talk-radio station - the only one in the country - and with 300,000 listeners from the white, right-wing suburbs of Pretoria to the shanty towns of Soweto, its audience was ripe for confrontational radio. Robbie gave it to them.

"He was a phenomenon," Alan Matthews, 702 programme director and Robbie's producer at the time, said. "As an outsider who had grown up in Ireland he was perfect - quick witted, naturally talkative and not afraid to say what he thought. He attacked old racist attitudes in a way no South African broadcaster had ever done before."

On Talk at Ten Robbie attacked issues that state radio ignored - township violence, government corruption, brutality, racism. He invited in black guests whose views had never been aired before and when the bigots called in to unleash their invective Robbie hit back. "It was like arguing in an Irish pub," he said. "I love a good argument but I made certain rules. If someone phoned in to defend apartheid I would tell them to shut up. In the first week I slammed the phone down on an old white women who said all blacks were thieves, I called someone else a moron and generally got involved in these late-night slanging matches. As a result I was rude, arrogant, a communist. But I loved it."

It made irresistible radio. In a week, Talk at Ten became a cult hit and Robbie was immediately offered a full-time contract. Then history played a hand. He had only been doing the show full-time for a few days when then-president F W de Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela. "It was like the Berlin Wall coming down," Robbie said. "Overnight, South Africa became the most exciting country in the world."

When political detainees were released and exiles returned, Robbie immediately invited them on to his show. South Africans, used to the dull Calvinist tones of nationalist politicians, stayed up for hours to listen, as if they were wartime broadcasts. Of all the historic events of 1990, his interview with Joe Slovo, the leader of the South African Communist Party, soon after he returned from exile, remains of the most astonishing. "Whites genuinely believed Slovo was the anti-Christ," Robbie said. "Some thought he was a Russian colonel. And here was this witty, charming man speaking with such intelligence and dealing with this vitriol coming in from these calls with such calm dignity. You literally felt the whole of South Africa was listening."

Within a year, Talk at Ten became The John Robbie Show and moved to a prime-time morning slot. Listeners trebled and increasingly controversial guests came on. There was Robert McBride, a convicted ANC murderer who had blown up four whites in a bar in Durban in the 1980s. And there was Barend Strydom, a racist mass murderer who had shot eight black bystanders to death in Pretoria. Robbie greeted him with the words, "You make me sick". Most moving of all, there was Chris Hani, the second-most popular black leader in South Africa after Mandela. "I remember joking with him about football outside this office," Robbie said. Hani was assassinated by a white gunman two weeks after the interview.

By 1994 Robbie could have gone the same way. Death threats from those furious at his style and choice of guests piled up. The record for one programme was 14. During that year's elections, his name appeared on a hit-list recovered from a right-wing terrorist. A politician on the list had already been assassinated. Only one threat though, really worried him. "I got a letter describing where I lived, what car my wife drove, where my children were at school. That was scary. We had to have a police guard outside our house for weeks."

Not that the average South African policeman was too sympathetic. During recent Truth Commission hearings in Johannesburg, a policeman admitted there was a ministerially-approved plot to have Robbie shot. "I had accused some of the police of dirty tricks and instigating violence and it turns out they were so outraged I could suggest such a thing that they planned to shoot me. I've since spoke to the policeman involved and he still doesn't get the irony."

For all this, those who found his preaching hard to swallow had a point. After all, his own presence in South Africa was down to the old order. Coming on the Lions tour in 1980 broke the anti-apartheid sports boycott, and outraged millions. Worse, he returned the following year with the Irish team. Robbie is genuinely remorseful. "I think about it all the time," he said. "I just wanted to play rugby and although obviously I knew what was happening, I felt there was nothing I could do. But when I think of it now, of how many people I hurt, it is something I'm deeply ashamed of. Given my time again, I would say no."

It is a heartfelt apology which other sporting mercenaries to South Africa have yet to make. But shame or not, Robbie's rugby career took off in South Africa. He played a record 83 times at scrum-half for Transvaal up until 1988 - his Afrikaans team-mates jokingly called him the commie soutpiel (an insult for a foreigner) - and he was a Springbok reserve when South Africa thrashed England twice in 1984. In 1985 he was actually selected by the Springboks for the All Black tour of South Africa, but in an ironic twist, the tour was called off amid protests and demonstrations in New Zealand.

And today? Eight years on from his Talk at Ten debut, South Africa has changed dramatically: "Politics is less important now," says Robbie. "Now crime is everything. You don't get those bigoted callers any more which is a good thing but I realise now why these people had such bizarre views. Apartheid put people in pigeon holes, kept one section of the population so stupid they wouldn't question things, and didn't allow the other section to speak. Those people are still here, it's just that they think differently."

Politics may have changed, but Robbie's passion for rugby never has. He believes the Lions will come close in the series, but not close enough. "They're catching up," he says. "Getting bigger and faster. But today it's the players who make things happen that win games and South Africa have two." He mentions the Springbok full-back Andre Joubert - "without a running full-back these days, you don't have a back line" - and the brilliant scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen. "He's a phenomenal player," says Robbie. "Every game I see him play he does things I never managed in my entire career."

On the rugby field maybe. But Robbie's radio career has helped to transform a nation, and few sportsmen can ever say that.