Cheeky Watson: 'I am disappointed in the integrity and character of the people leading South African rugby'

Peter Bills
Wednesday 29 April 2009 14:59 BST

Some men, it seems, spend their lives fighting. Not necessarily in a physical sense, although violence and the threat of it is no stranger to Cheeky Watson.

But in a mental sense, Watson has been battling against the odds, against the authorities for much of his 54 years. This man of South Africa has been at odds with differing ruling bodies within this country for so long. The Apartheid Government, the current South African Rugby Union, past Springbok coaches: doesn't Watson become weary at a never ending list of battles? After all, even Napoleon got fatigued by constant campaigns. So can he imagine a day when he won't have a battle to fight?

He shifts his (not inconsiderable) frame in the chair and smiles. "I look forward to that day, I honestly do" he tells me. "Sometimes you get tired of fighting. There is a time when you want just to relax and reflect. Frankly, I would like to walk away from all the fighting and sit back. Has all this wearied or enhanced me ? It has wearied me, there is no doubt. But I have become very disappointed in the integrity and character of many people that are leading South African rugby. I won't name names but they know who they are.

"What you expect these people to do is lead like rugby players normally play the game: hard and tough without compromise, but in a fair and honest way. I don't see that from them, though. It is very sad that South African rugby is riddled with treachery, lies and skulduggery. What we need is for more top class ex-rugby players to be involved in the administration of the game. They are the ones that understand how the game should be administered."

Perhaps it was divine fate that Cheeky Watson grew up in an era of such huge conflict within his own country. The son of Daniel John Watson, a devout Christian, he was one of four brothers, Gavin (the eldest), Ronnie, Valence and Cheeky (the youngest). Their parents taught them firm Christian values and Cheeky went to a government school, Graeme College HS for Boys at Grahamstown. It was founded in 1873 and was established as a high class, un-denominational school.

"The thing that was drummed down our throats was, love the Lord above all else and your neighbour, as yourself. We were taught that you cannot do one without the other. So we were taught not to see colour from the cradle. The first language we spoke was Xhosa and then we learned English."

Watson's father was a lay preacher and a farmer. But because of his beliefs, he struggled, never being offered a land back loan that was reserved for the conservative whites. Watson Senior fought against that prejudice and the youngest of his four sons quietly watched his struggles. It set his mind for the rest of his life.

"During World War 2, there was quite a bit of anti-Jewish sentiment in South Africa and my father also fought against that."

But above all, Watson Senior (and later, junior) detested everything about the apartheid system. That was why, says Cheeky, his father brought up his kids to believe in fairness and all four brothers grasped the same values. They perceived an evil and rejected it, in all its forms.

He went to the Army for his national service and found his philosophy completely alien in that ultra conservative, formulaic environment. They could never answer him, as he puts it, why the black brothers and sisters with whom he'd played games like marbles whilst growing up on the farm, should now be separated from him. The Army seldom strays into the realms of philosophy; few in its service have the mental capacity to do so. But his unanswered, politically indelicate questions forged a chasm between the two that could never heal.

"The indoctrination at the time was unbelievable" he remembers. "I look at the media today that enjoys such freedom yet a large part of this freedom they abuse. They upheld the apartheid Government by covering up everything about it. More than that, they supported it. Therefore, is it any surprise that in a lot of circles you find that among the people who have been involved in the apartheid struggle, there is a tremendous suspicion of the media."

Like most young white South African boys, Cheeky Watson soon took to rugby football and was very good at it, as his own son Luke has turned out to be. But Watson Senior enraged the apartheid rulers and the conservative South African rugby officials of his time by rejecting any suggestion of representing the famous Springboks, a sporting institution he saw as the epitome of the white racist government. It earned him enemies all over his country.

Instead, together with his brother Valence, he went off and played for Kwa-ru, a rugby team from the Kwazakhele Township. Furthermore, he affiliated himself with the ANC in the late 1970s, a decision that brought him into focus as a so-called ‘enemy of the state'.

The consequences soon followed. The opprobrium, the revulsion among his fellow whites was widespread; there was, he says, a tremendous amount of internal pressure. There were thoughts of going into exile and taking the fight outside the country. "My kids were threatened, I was threatened. My wife, Tracey, was threatened and our car tyres slashed."

Watson continued to play rugby alongside his beloved black brothers, defying the threats. In the 1970s, he refused the chance to represent the Springboks' against the French, preferring to coach a black township team. The loathing continued for a decade and more; in 1986, his business and later his house were burned down by white vigilantes and he was shot at. "We were arrested, questioned and detained many times. There was this constant, in-bred thing that your life was on the line. It was certainly a pressurised type of lifestyle; you watched your rear view mirror all the time."

But when South Africa was freed from what calls "that tyranny", his whole family rejoiced. Happily, his father lived long enough to see it. "His feeling was one of absolute elation, a sense of…Thank God it is over'. We always felt it would end but thought it would finish a lot sooner."

That would have happened, he maintains to this day, if international sporting teams, most of them from one key sport, rugby union, had not continued to deal with the devil. "I think of the 1980 British & Irish Lions who came here, none of whom, the captain Bill Beaumont included, ever showed any interest in the reality of what was going on in this country. Beaumont's attitude was, he didn't want anything to do with us.

"Only one player wanted to find out the truth and that was Tony Ward of Ireland. His actions gave us a lot of hope. He said, ‘Show me what's happening' and we took him to the Townships.

"The other Lions who just weren't interested ? I believe they have a lot of blood on their hands. They are just as guilty as the people that oppressed this country. And I have equally little respect for those who came on those rebel tours. We found out afterwards that teams like the Cavaliers came just for money. Blood money."

But his battles continue. He could not bring himself to support the Springboks at either the 1995 or 2007 Rugby World Cups when they won the trophy because he felt they represented something with which he couldn't identify, a largely exclusive white majority side. He maintains his fears were confirmed by Chester Williams' book in the light of the ‘95 tournament.

He had equally little taste for the Jake White regime at the last World Cup. He has, of course, campaigned for the removal of the Springbok emblem because, he maintains, South Africa needs a more unifying emblem.

Watson's whole raison d'etre is that some guys just don't get it with transformation. SA Rugby President Oregan Hoskins tried to shoot down his critics recently by querying "Aren't I black enough" ?

Watson demolishes such an approach with a withering blast. "It's not about being black enough; it's nothing to do with that. It is about what is in the heart of a man. There is this discussion about ‘are you black enough or white enough'. It's not about the colour of your skin but the condition of your heart. People know what you stand for, what your values are. They know whether you are a puppet on a string being controlled by others in the background.

"There has been so much emphasis on reconciliation that transformation was overlooked in most areas of society in this country. That is why you are still having a fight over transformation in sports teams, in the economy, in land distribution etc. We still face an uphill battle."

He refuses to countenance the view that Mandela, a great freedom fighter, was not of the same quality when assessed as a politician. "If transformation had really been addressed vigorously, then you could have had blood shed in this country. Mandela had to step straight out of prison into a leadership role. In my book, he scores 10 out of 10, he did a wonderful job.

"The tragedy was, he was kept in prison for so long and all those years were lost. That is why I say there is tremendous anger among the non-racial rugby fraternity towards the pace of transformation that is taking place."

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