By Thobile Hans
Dan Qeqe Stadium 2020. PIC: Sebenzile Zalabe
A few days before the Springboks/England third test match at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in 2012, I chaperoned a handful of Bath Rugby and English players to Emsengeni Primary School in the dusty Zwide township. Four township schools received miscellaneous second-hand rugby kits and equipment sponsored by Bath Rugby and LV= SOS Kit Aid.
The current captain of Springboks Siyamthanda Kolisi had started his elementary education at Emsengeni and played rugby under the tutelage of coach and teacher Eric Songwiqi before the affluent Grey school snatched him for his talent. At the time, Kolisi had graduated as Baby Bok and was trainee Bok. He watched the Test in his tracksuits and waited eagerly for his day, which happened exactly a year later, on August 15 2013, against Scotland in Nelspruit.
At the kit hand-over, as the EP Rugby Union’s spokesman, SOS Kit Aid asked for my comment, which I nervously gave. But I was proud, ecstatic to be catalyst in the making of more Gqwashus, as we affectionately address the current Bok captain in Zwide:
“Guys, I don’t have words to explain it, but what you have brought here is amazingly great. I am telling you, some of the kids here will make it to professional rugby. What I also love about it, you have brought smiles in the faces of these kids – it’s not only boys you can see also girls playing in this school. South Africa is one of the best countries that play female rugby in the world. Believe you me, more of these kids will go through the ranks of Eastern Province, and up to South Africa. This gesture to us means a lot – it is a great, great, great thing that has to come to us.”
In December 2015, I was back to Nelson Mandela Bay, but now as a pesky journalist. EP Rugby management and the amateur clubs affiliated to it were at loggerheads. There were myriad issues that these over 100 clubs were not happy about, including being under the leadership of President Cheeky Watson. For many years EP Rugby could not secure sponsorship, for months EP Rugby professional players continued playing without salaries, resulting to the resignation of their coach Carlos Spencer; and EP Rugby hemorrhaged black players to the well-off unions (where they hardly got any game time) amid claims of financial discrimination and the controversial signing of eight white players, compared to one black player, for the 2016 Super Rugby season (the Southern Kings franchise).
I interviewed the chairman of Rugby Transformation Coalition, a national lobby group, Bantwini Matika, at Dan Qeqe Stadium – the bedrock of black rugby where Kolisi, Akhona Ndungane, Solomzi Tyibilika and Thando Manana and many others, plied their skills before they turned professional. These days Dan Qeqe is a shadow of its former self – no sport is taking place there. It is now a Mecca for nyaope boys and has long ceased to be a home to those aspiring to be the next Gqwashu. I am told there is an ugly squabble over Dan Qeqe’s ownership at the expense of unearthing new talent. The passionate Matika told me EP Rugby was faced with crisis of “unprecedented proportions”, hence the clubs he led demanded accountability and the change of management in the provincial structure.
“We are in a serious crisis in the Eastern Cape. This is the home of black rugby. The only reason we got the Super Rugby franchise was solely because Saru (South African Rugby Union) wanted to create a platform for black players to showcase their talent to the world and for Springbok selection.”
Matika further lamented the lack of financial accountability, lack of sponsorship and poor administration that ran for years and as a result hindered progress in the province.
“… If we do not have ethical and decisive leadership, if we don’t have proper resources to create enabling environment for our young people to prosper, we are doomed to fail. Hence you see them running to other unions at the young age. The rot is within the administration,” Matika summed up his case.
Subsequently, Matika and the clubs got their wish when the well-connected Cheeky Watson was voted out in 2017, and was replaced by Andre Rademan. Matika was voted in as deputy president, and the former Springbok flanker Thando Manana became the team manager. Manana, author of Being Black Springbok, the third black Bok post 1992 unification, was also well-known as a member of the hard-hitting Room Dividers on Robert Marawa’s radio show.
Change of leadership brought nothing at EP Rugby
Did the problems of maladministration at EP Rugby vanish with the mastermind Cheeky Watson who is currently charged with fraud and money laundering related to the city’s Integrated Public Transport? No. Just before Covid-19 epidemic locked us down, Matika and two other officials were no longer reporting at Imatu House in Sydenham (stone’s thrown away from Port Elizabeth court). President Rademan served them with suspension for fraud allegations. An amount of R450K was at the centre of their charges. Matika, vice president Eldridge Februarie and consultant John Scheepers, have all since resigned from their positions without saying much. The threesome was influential in the ousting of Cheeky back in 2017.
The new administration, elected by the disgruntled clubs, lured what turned out to be a short-lived business acquisition with the Greatest Rugby Company in the Whole World (GRC) (an ambitious name, right). In March 2019, GRC was announcing the take-over of 74% believed to be at the cost of R45 million, from Saru, but in June this year, Saru severed the ties with GRC after the company failed to meet its financial commitments relating to the acquisition of the shareholding.
It was so bad that, for April’s payroll, GRC could only pay salaries to players and staff 10 days later.
When GRC could not hold on to its 74% stake in the Kings franchise, Saru president Mark Alexander had this to say: “It is our last resort and we are keen to explore ways to return the shareholding to another hands, in conjunction with the EPRU, the minority shareholder, who have given the required approval to the decision … The next step is to appoint a new board to oversee the franchise’s affairs and ensure the team is match-ready for when we are able to resume playing.”
Do I feel sorry GRC whose chairman, Loyiso Dotwana, undermined black coaches in South Africa, including Peter de Villiers, to scout for some unknown person at the rugby world cup? Hell no! In any case, how was he intending to pay the international coach?
Dan Qeqe Stadium 2020. PIC: Sebenzile Zalabe
How badly we need Transformation Rugby Coalition and more lobby groups
It is difficult to say what happened to Transformation Rugby Coalition which was born in Soweto, of all places, in 2012. But the legitimacy of such lobby group cannot be faulted. I will try and avoid what is currently happening at Cricket South Africa with #BlackLivesMatter, and the whole open can of worms, and the sudden jumping on the bandwagon by journalists. Fact is we knew what was happening in the federation but turned a blind eye and simply protected our free lunch and accreditation.
Pardon me for I digress, Transformation Rugby Coalition and the political formation Agency for New Agenda took Saru to task when the rugby federation reneged from its 50% black Springbok representation commitment by 2015 at the rugby world cup in England, which was extended to 2019 (in Japan).
Fellow rugby writer, Liz McGregor, dismissed the 2019 Saru’s commitment as the chimera, but the then Saru’s general manager in strategic performance, Mervin Green, did not get tired of lying:
“Grassroots development will always be key strategic imperative of Saru. The current strategic transformation plan emphasizes the importance of this transformation dimension. We are actively involved in all unions to ensure we provide access to the game and particularly focusing on schools where there was no rugby before.”
Just before we went to the world cup, Eastern Province Craven Week Under 18 team presented a team without a single grassroots school; Framesby and Die Brandwag had 6 boys each, St Andrew 4, Grey High 3 and Daniel Pienaar, Despatch, Kingswood and Marlow all had one player. At Border the same; Selborne 13, Hudson Park 4, Dale 3, Queen’s 2 and Grens 1. Thanks to Covid-19, we did not have to witness the same embarrassment this year.
Twenty-19 happened and yet there was no 50% black representation in sight, not unless Kolisi’s ceremonial captaincy accounted for 25% black at the world cup. If so, it was pricey for a country constituting 85% black. As the nation has come to know him, Kolisi has a beautiful heart, he is the antithesis of his Grey High alumnus Luke Watson – a rabble-rouser – who had expressed his disgust with Bok culture. Kolisi did not lose his temper when he was yanked out for no legitimate reason but to give the world cup journeyman Francois Louw grand swansong at his expense (against New Zealand Kolisi played 50minutes, semi-final 73 minutes and he watched the last minutes of the final from the bench).
Kolisi is probably the first captain not to finish his 50th Test match and the final of the world cup. The country failed to exorcise the white ghost that has been haunting the Bok camp for decades, but as usual, we did not see the bigger picture. We were caught in the euphoria.
In my acerbic opinion, you can ignore it at your own ignorance, it looks as though coach Rassie Erasmus, the Stellenbosch advisers and the loaded funders outsmarted the rest of the country. They gave us captain Kolisi, and the whole noise about transformations died out. It is notable that rugby writers tread carefully around the subject. And the winning of the 2019 Webb Ellis Trophy legitimized Erasmus, now director of rugby, a rugby god in South Africa as he anointed a lesser-known Jacques Nienaber as his successor without following the necessary employment process that all other coaches had taken.
Fellow sports writers and fanatics seem to have taken a cushy posture when dealing with the Jacques Nienaber and Mark Boucher’s (overlooking the deserving Enoch Nkwe) anointments by their old friends. This is not the time to walk on eggshells, and nepotism is not a term reserved for black people.
Me thinks, it took Lungi Ngindi’s courageous initiative to put Cricket South Africa on the spotlight, and now questions around Graeme Smith appointing his clique member Boucher (Herschelle Gibbs will agree) started to come from media. It seems to me in the Springbok camp white privilege will continue unabated as long the victim of racism willingly cover-up for “Bomb Squad” because he either suffered Stockholm Syndrome or inferiority complex.
Thinking back to my statement to SOS Kit Aid, I was pretty naïve to day-dream those Nelson Mandela Bay kids stood a chance to eke out a living from what they love – RUGBY.
Can we defer the black dream forever?