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Red, Black And Covered In Glory

It’s a small school in a small town in Africa but it’s a breeding ground for champions.

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It is noisy and crowded at the 155th birthday of Dale College in King William’s Town. Everyone, even people who never went to school here, are dressed in red and black school colours. The school army cadets march through the crowds with a clatter of boots. All, from toddlers to old men leaning on sticks, head for the CB Jennings rugby field; a sacred place at this school, affectionately known as ‘The Graveyard’ for it is where opposition teams are buried.

The noise around the field is deafening as the lean and lithe players jog slowly out onto the green grass. This weekend revolves around rugby and this pitch is a cradle of champions. Some of the biggest names in rugby cut their teeth – and probably a bit of flesh – on this ground: All Black Greg Somerville; Springbok wing Bjorn Basson; former Springbok and Blue Bulls hooker Bandise Maku; the first black captain of the Sharks Lubabalo Mtembu; former Proteas bowler Monde Zondeki; Sharks looseforward Keegan Daniel. Makhaya Ntini – the record holding South African test cricket player – also sprinted down the wing on this ground.

Steve Biko – the Black Consciousness Movement leader who grew up in Ginsberg a few kilometres down the road – would have been proud. Biko, who died in police custody just over 40 years ago, was also a rugby player as well as an idealist and activist.

It is likely even Biko would have been surprised by the slow, but sure transformation at this former whites-only elite school.

As the first team prepares for the kick off, Hennie Otto is the only white player. The other 14 are all black. Even the heaving stands that rise up around the pitch are a sign of the times. Each group of reunited former pupils sits together in the same row according to school year. The stands used to be all white. With every passing year a white row is replaced by a black one.

“Out of 550 odd learners, there are about 25 white, colored, Indian and other races. The rest of the learners are all African black, which is a fair representation of the town they come from and the country as a whole,” says Dale College Headmaster, Mike Eddy.

According to Eddy, Dale College took the lead in accepting black African learners in former Model C schools during the early 90s. While the school’s racial demographics may have changed over the years, the first team coach, Grant Griffiths, maintains that the school’s traditions and values have not.

“We’ve kept all our traditions when it comes to sports, especially rugby. The jersey hand out, the sing-songs, the slapping, initiation, and all those things. The learners and players want to keep it from A to Z,” says Griffiths.

Griffiths too was at Dale College. He captained the last unbeaten rugby team in 1993.

This year’s team has beaten all their rivals in the province, and is number one in the Eastern Cape and sixth in the country.

Dale’s coach says while not much has changed in the style of play, compared to the team he captained, the biggest challenge comes with culture.

As a predominantly Xhosa province, the boys have to undergo a month long initiation in the mountain, as part of their rite of passage to manhood.

“It’s always difficult with the boys having to go to the mountain for initiation school but we’re working around that. The six weeks straight after coming back is the most important. Diet wise, nutrition, gym. We’re never going to be the biggest side in the world but as long as we’re strong and fit, we’ll be able to keep up with the big boys,” says Griffiths.

“People go, they come back and they change. For example, if you are a new cap, when you come back from the mountain you’ll have that mentality of ndingu bhuti ngoku [I’m a man now] so I can’t go around picking up cones. We always manage to work around that though,” says Kwanda Dimaza, who has also been to the mountain and is set to go to one of the country’s top rugby unions, the Sharks, next year. He made the SA Schools under-18 team last year when he was still in grade 11.

Another hindrance to Dale College’s abilities is students choosing more prestigious high schools after primary school. South Africa’s 200-meter national record holder and one of the fastest men in Africa, Anaso Jobodwana, is one of the many who left for the college’s fierce rival, Selborne College in East London. Stormers hooker, Siyabonga ‘Scarra’ Ntubeni, is another who left for King Edward VII School in Johannesburg.

“It’s been difficult over the years but we’ve managed to hold on to more now,” says Griffiths.

Dale Junior headmistress, Patricia Thatcher, the first woman to head Dale’s primary school, says the learners are taught to be the best.

“It is about the commitment and the passion of the staff first of all. With them on your side, you start instilling the discipline and commitment in the kids from grade ‘R’ and once they’ve got it, it’s there,” says Thatcher.

Interestingly, Thatcher doesn’t even know the racial demographics of Dale Junior.

“It’s not even an issue of transformation anymore, it just is. A lot of people ask ‘how do you get it right?’ It’s not a case of getting it right, it’s what comes natural to us,” says Thatcher.

While transformation remains a thorn in the side of South African rugby, Dale’s first team coach says it has hampered the future of some players he has coached. Griffiths says rugby unions often take players from Dale College and those players, more often than not, spend their time at those unions on the bench.

“A player like Ace Joe for example got lost in the Blue Bulls set up for two years, which is a hell of an important two years for him. I think he got 20 minutes of game time that whole season which basically cost him his career,” says Griffiths.

He says the unions now guarantee the players game time when signing the youngsters.

He hopes to see players like Aphelele Fassi, who has already been offered a contract by the Sharks while in grade 11, Dimaza, who is also set to join the Sharks, and many others with offers at various unions, one day don the Springbok jersey.

“I’ve never seen that being hard. I think the players that come through, if they get looked after, after school like we do at Dale College, with the rugby and the players managed well, as well as given opportunities, I don’t see that ever being a problem.”

So while South African sport struggles against the twin problems of transformation and creating excellence, it could perhaps learn something from Dale College.

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