For decades, Dan Qeqe Stadium, in the dusty Zwide township of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, was a bedrock of black rugby and home to African Bombers, a former first-tier club. It nurtured a handful of professionals, including Springboks Akona Ndungane and Siya Kolisi. The two were among the few blacks to represent their country and earn big money.
These days Dan Qeqe is a rundown shadow of itself. The changing rooms are dilapidated and the pitch is baked hard with patches of red grass. Despite the dire condition, without fail, every winter hundreds of boys tackle each other on this pitch; the hope of becoming a Springbok lives on. As a young lad, I donned my oversized hand-me-down rugby jersey and threw my body into the tussle for the oval ball. We stomped the pitch, barefoot, until we were hardened veterans at 17. In 15 years I covered every inch and cut my knees open every week.
Fifty kilometers north of Dan Qeqe Stadium is the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, a state-of-the-art facility built for the football World Cup in 2010. It is home to Eastern Province Rugby Union (EPRU). In the hot days of summer, just before Christmas, this was the scene of a battle for the soul of grassroots African rugby. It was where managers from over 100 clubs fought their provincial bosses. It was so bad that a scuffle broke out and the security manhandled the angry.
It is part of a struggle to bring hope to black rugby in one of Africa’s hotbeds of the game. The problems run deep at EPRU. For years, there’s been no sponsorship due to lack of accountability; for months players weren’t paid and their reputable coach Carlos Spencer resigned; black players left in droves under claims of financial discrimination and the controversial signing of eight white players, compared to one black player, for the 2016 Super Rugby season.
Bantwini Matika, the coach of the rugby club Young Collegians and a chairman of a national lobby group Rugby Transformation Coalition, led the fight.
“We have identified these problems for years and followed the due process but without any reward. Now we have seen a collapse of the whole system. Financially, never before has EP Rugby been so in the red. It’s a crisis of unprecedented proportions,” says Matika.
The clubs demanded accountability and a change of management in the provincial structure. At the top of the agenda was the non-payment of EP Kings – the provincial players.
“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 (the South African Rugby Union) wanted to create a platform for black players to showcase their talent to the world and for Springbok selection. This has been in the plans of Saru since time immemorial that we need a platform for black players and then the franchise was ideal… Unfortunately the Eastern Cape, which is Border and Eastern Province, has always been unstable because of a lack of resources and lack of sponsors, no solid administrators,” says Matika.
Since 2014, EPRU has not held a quarterly meeting nor AGM. Matika says, besides the annual grant from Saru, EPRU cannot attract sponsorship because there’s no financial accountability.
“That’s a recipe for disaster. We have talent in abundance (but) our system and administration is not in place. If we don’t have ethical and decisive leadership, if we don’t have proper resources to create an enabling environment for our young people to prosper, we are doomed to fail. Hence you see them running to other unions at a young age. The rot is within the administration,” says Matika.
Mervin Green is Saru’s general manager in strategic performance. He says EPRU made it difficult for Saru to support them in running the business.
“Saru does not interfere with union’s domestic affairs, such as clubs and schools development. We support unions with finances and expertise to ensure they deliver on their own development programs. It is indeed not an ideal situation for everyone what is currently happening at EPRU. However, it is only the clubs that can change the situation,” says Green.
Transformation Rugby Coalition was launched in Soweto, Johannesburg, in 2012. Matika, the former University of Fort Hare captain and coach, was its founding chairman. He laments the lack of transformation in the Springboks.
“After realizing that all the agreements around transformation, whether it is through charters or Saru development plans since 2000, every three years we have a new document that is fruitless. All the rugby activists and (concerned) managers nationwide decided to launch this national structure in 2013 in Soweto. I am glad now we are speaking with one voice and seem to be making a difference and the approach is working for us.”
A few months before the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, calls were made not to send the Springboks because they didn’t have enough black players. Political party, Agency for New Agenda, made a court bid to block the team from leaving. They lost the case. This followed Saru’s climb down from the 50% black Springbok representation by 2015, they moved it to 2019. The move did not go down well with Transformation Rugby Coalition.
“The disappointing factor is that we are not getting a hearing. We speak and we write to Saru but they are not interested in what we saying. At the personal and individual capacity, Saru President Oregan Hoskins would respond with promises but there’s nothing happening, nor do we get any recognition from Sascoc (South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee). We would expect that as a lobby group we should have a budget from government but we are currently sustaining ourselves from our own pockets,” says Matika.
The African dream of playing professional rugby reaches far beyond the Eastern Cape. It’s mid-January, a thousand kilometers north of Dan Qeqe stadium. About 40 barefoot boys, aged between nine and 13, are taken through their paces on a rugby field in Braamfischerville, at the Soweto Rugby Club. Their coach is 35-year-old, chubby and outspoken, Zola Ntlokoma.
“We don’t only create rugby players here, we encourage discipline and we want them to pass with good marks. If you don’t go to school, we have no business with you,” Ntlokoma tells me.
Like his counterpart, Matika in Port Elizabeth, Ntlokoma decries the lack of support for grassroots rugby and asserts that he will transform Braamfischerville into a rugby hotbed. Soweto is a football area with three clubs in the Premier Soccer League.
“Out of 49 townships there’s none with a junior team anymore after [the Golden] Lions Rugby Union took over development and government pumped money to them to champion development. But the money is not filtered down to grassroots where it is needed most. Hence we were forced by those circumstances to form Soweto Rugby Union. It’s not a racial thing, it is just we are tired of complaining. We won’t beg someone to play rugby, we love rugby,” he says.
Ntlokoma, who is also the secretary of Transformation Rugby Coalition, says in the 1990s Soweto Rugby Club dominated the Golden Lions Rugby junior teams with star player Stanley Mlotshwa representing the junior national team in 1998. The last was Malungisa Nkosi, who played for the under-19s in the World Championships in 2006, in Dubai.
Transformation Rugby Coalition researched why black players were not as involved in South African rugby as they should be.
“We discovered that rugby is not run as it is portrayed in the media. There’s a lot that our government doesn’t understand about how rugby runs. We felt that this is a mafia-like organization. It is held to ransom by businesspeople in Stellenbosch who are controlling the executive of Saru, telling them this is the direction they must take. It is that rich white group that decides who is going to be the president of Saru and the coach of the Springboks,” says Ntlokoma.
“Englishmen introduced rugby in South Africa, not the Afrikaners. Now should we give up and say it is the Afrikaners’ sport, I don’t think we will be doing justice to back off. It is a South African sport, that’s why we should continue embracing it. Some of us still hate the Springbok emblem because it reminds us of apartheid… I was a gangster and this sport gave me a second chance in life. Rugby, like any other sport, it changes people’s lives,” he says.
Liz McGregor, a rugby writer based in Cape Town, says Saru has enough money to expedite transformation. She’s sceptical about the target of 50% black representation in 2019.
“If our promising young black players are not being given regular game time at this level now, the next target – 50% of black Springboks by 2019 – also looks like a chimera. I have heard complaints about marginalization from black players for years, at provincial and national level. If the strategic transformation plan were effective, marginalization should be a thing of the past,” she says.
McGregor raises concerns about Hoskins’ silence about the failure to hit targets in the Springbok teams.
“Grassroots development will always be a 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,” counters Green.
Green says Saru’s recruitment drive in 2015 saw 80,000 new players from over 300 schools around South Africa.
“The program for participation will be extended to high schools this year and we hope to reach township and rural schools to be in organized leagues. Our focus is also on capacitation programs of thousands of teachers and volunteers as certificated coaches, match officials and administrators,” says Green.
Clearly there are not enough to help more black Africans play the sport.