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South African Rugby-crossing the colour line

Updated on March 21, 2017
Two interesting rugby books
Two interesting rugby books

When courage overcomes hardship

Crossing the Colour Line - Two Springbok Rugby Players.

Just finished reading two rugby book about two of the early players of "colour" who were selected to play for the Springbok Rugby team as South Africa was battling to get back into world rugby after the time of isolation due to the Apartheid Laws that were introduced by the National Party after coming into power in 1948. By the early 1970's South Africa had been excluded internationally from competing on the international sporting stage. The story of the South African Rugby Board's attempts to keep politics and sport separate is well documented in the book about Errol Tobias. In 1979 Tobias, an extremely talented fly-half from the coloured community in Caledon in the Western Cape, was one of the players selected for a fully mixed racial team known as the Barbarians, consisting of eight black, eight coloured and eight white players to tour England. Tobias became the first Springbok of colour when he ran onto the field against Ireland at Newlands in Cape Town in 1981. He was also selected for the first Springbok team to travel internationally, when in the same year, he went on the tour to New Zealand.

What comes out clearly in the book is the personal battle that Errol Tobias had to fight to overcome the resistance from his own people who saw him as an "Uncle Tom". The black and coloured community were fighting for equality in society, using the slogan: "No normal sport in an abnormal society". As a hugely talented rugby player, Errol Tobias dreamed about representing his country in his favourite sport. With his family's support and that of "Mr. Rugby", Danie Craven, he realised his dream and possibly did much to influence the changes that were taking place in South Africa in a positive way at that time. From his humble life in a "township" in Caledon he graced the rugby fields of South Africa and elsewhere in the world with his talent and determination that earmarked him as one of the best players of his time. On the stage of world rugby he will be remembered for the firsts that he achieved: first coloured player to play for Western Province (1980), first coloured player to represent the Springbok's in a home rugby test when they played against Ireland in 1981, and the first rugby player in the world to kick ten out of ten kicks successfully at international level in the game when the Springboks played against an Argentinean xv in Santiago.

Errol Tobias went on to become the Mayor of Caledon and then served his community as a lay preacher in the Anglican Church. When answering questions from the Proust questionnaire for the book, he answered the question; "What animal or person would you like to be if you returned to this world for a second time?" he replied;" Because we like to criticise white people so much, I would like to return as a white man to see if it really is that different." Interesting!

Ashwin Willemse captures the essence of his book in the title; Rugby Changed my World - The Ashwin Willemse Story. Coming from the same area in the Western Cape as Errol Tobias, he walked a different pathway. He represented the Springboks in 19 tests from 2003 to 2007. A much later time that Errol Tobias. By then sport in South Africa had become fully integrated. The battle that Ashwin fought was very different from the one that Errol Tobias had fought.

As a young talented sportsman, he came from a single parent family growing up in extremely poor conditions also in the "coloured township" at Caledon. His "missing" father whom he never knew till much later in his life, haunted him. As a teenager he fell into the wrong crowd and got heavily involved in gang and drug related activities. It was touch and go as to whether he would end up in prison or be killed in gang warfare. Thanks to his talent and raw speed and the influence of others in his life, he discovered a life in rugby. He played in the under-21 World Cup in Johannesburg in 2002 as part of the "Baby Boks", and went on to be part of Jake White's squad that won the World Cup in 2007.

As a young delinquent on the brink of tragedy, he was present in a school assembly where another famous "coloured" player, Breyton Paulse spoke to the school. Breyton, hearing about the talented but troubled youngster from the rugby coach at the school, sent him a bag with some kit to encourage him. Today, having retired from rugby, he is often seen on TV as a rugby analyst and with Breyton runs a foundation called the Green Smile Foundation. This organization works in the disadvantaged communities helping young people to build a better life. The smile that won him the accolade of "the smile of the year" in South Africa is the photo on the cover of his book.

It is interesting to read that the flourishing rugby culture which existed in the coloured community in the Caledon area of the Western Cape, no longer exists as it has been swallowed up by the multiracial South African Rugby Board. Going back to the places where they had played in very poor conditions, Ashwin mentions that none of those playing fields even exist today. Better facilities are there now but somehow the culture of farm leagues and township teams has been lost. However in the streets, young people still play rugby and cricket and somewhere another Errol Tobias or Ashwin Willemse dreams of one day wearing the green and gold of the Springboks and proudly singing our national anthem :"Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" at Twickenham.

Books reviewed:

Errol Tobias: Pure Gold. Tafelberg Publishers.

Rugby Changed My World: the Aswin Willemse Story. Published by Paarl Media, Paarl.

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