Reliving his personal journey to developing a passion for the game, Bongani Kona reflects on the rise and fall of three Zimbabweans in South African rugby.
You ask me to tell you about rugby. These are the facts: the game is contested between two opposing teams, with fifteen players and seven substitutes in each team. The dimensions of the field differ, depending on the variables at play (such as age group), from 90m-130m in length and ranging from 45m-90m in width. Despite these variances, the objective in every game is the same: each team must work to dot down the oval leather ball in the opposition’s in-goal area. And unlike in American football – a similar contact sport in many respects – where the quarter-back can throw the ball forward to a wide receiver, the cardinal rule in rugby is that the ball can only be passed backwards. The ball can, however, legally go forward by means of a kick. These, as I said, are the facts, the rules. Yet life is more than a compendium of facts or rules. To tell you about rugby, I have to tell you about my life and how the sport inveigled itself on my consciousness. It is a story of boyhood and transit, and maybe you will see that as we go along.
It happens like this.
My uncle, 53-years-old, is suddenly taken ill a day or two after arriving in Cape Town and he’s admitted to the general ward at Wynberg Military Hospital. As the days pass, his health worsens and he’s transferred to the neurology division at Groote Schuur on a Thursday morning. The doctors say he will have to go into surgery.
Its early summer and I can feel the last dying ebbs of winter in the rustling wind.
I have hardly slept when the day of the surgery arrives and we have to go back to the Groote Schuur for one final visit. To wish him well. On our way to the neurology ward, we walk past a haphazard cast of characters: the grief-stricken and the relieved, preachers and non-believers. The hospital itself is like a maze. The way the wide corridors, lined with bright white floor tiles offset against gray walls, lead into one another. The effect is disorientating. This goes on until finally we come up to the access controlled entrance of the neurology ward.
“We’re here to see Mr Kona,” my mother says over the buzzer. The door lock opens itself and a middle-aged nurse ushers us in.
Before we can go in to see my uncle, the nurse hands us white surgical masks that we each have to put on. The spartanly furnished room, no bigger than, say, six paces by ten, is animated by the high pitched beep-beep-beep sound of the heart-rate monitor and the whirring of other machines. My uncle lies there entangled in a web of tubes. One in particular protrudes from his abdomen area into a translucent plastic bag containing urine and faeces.
My older brother, Julian, and I stand at the foot of the bed and my mother, whose hair is normally covered in a doek, but this time sticks out in tufts of grey, sits on the only chair in room. She places her hand on his shoulder, softly, and says a few words as Julian and I look on. A few minutes later we’re driving back to my mother’s flat enveloped in a silence as heavy as lead.
That night, I dream the sky is falling.
Morning comes with the chirping of birds. Again, I haven’t slept much and on impulse I decide to go for a run – to release the tension knotting up my chest and spine. I start along the Main Road and turn up Dean Street and take the first left; I pass the new café which has just opened next to the Woolworths and I decide to take a breather once I get to the iron gates of the South African College High School. Looking at the rugby fields from across the street, aglow in the early morning sun, I find myself overtaken by nostalgia. The feeling sweeps over me and my mind drifts back in time, to another country.
I grew up in Hatfield, a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in the south of Harare. Many of the grown folks in the area held down clerical jobs in town. I didn’t grow up in money or go to a private school, which is how most people come into contact with the rugby. It was because of my now-bedridden uncle, Mr. Edwin Kona. He moved into the new neighbourhood, Msasa Park, which sprouted next to ours and he needed someone to look after his house on Sundays when he went to church. He picked me because I was bigger than most kids in my age group. That was in the late 1990s, when trouble in the country was fermenting.
The two-bedroom house came with the added benefit of DSTV. And it was there, in his dimly-lit living room, that I watched my first rugby game. Sweetest damn thing I ever did. The Super 12 games repeated on Sundays and I always made sure to catch the re-runs. My favourite players then were Australians George Gregan and his sinewy halfback partner, Stephen Larkham. The best nine-ten combination in the world at the time and it was exhilarating watching them play. “Great athletes are profundity in motion,” wrote David Foster Wallace. “They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable.”
When the time came to enrol for secondary education, my cousin, Themba, and I were sent to Prince Edward School on the outskirts of the city, a state school, yet rugby-mad and having produced the legendary Tsimba brothers. Recently, the International Rugby Board (IRB) posthumously inducted Richard Tsimba (1965-2000) and his younger brother, Kennedy, into the Hall of Fame, safeguarding a place in history for the two Zimbabweans alongside legends such as Jonah Lomu, Willie John McBride and John Eales.
“I feel humbled to receive this accolade for Richard and I,” Kennedy said at the induction ceremony, “The accolade will hopefully mark an era in history that proves you can come from nowhere and reach your goal and beyond and open doors for more black rugby players, and give them hope that they too can achieve great things.”
Richard Tsimba was the first black player to represent the Sables, Zimbabwe’s national side, and he toured with the team to the inaugural Rugby World Cup held in New Zealand in 1987. Eleven years later, in 1998, Kennedy entered the history books as the first black captain. A world-class fly half when he was at the height of his powers, he could have gone on to register another milestone as the first black player to wear the number 10 shirt for the Springboks. But a change in the IRB regulations, barring players from representing two countries in the course of their playing career, curtailed that idea. Nevertheless, the “King of Bloemfontein”, as he was fondly known during his playing career for the Cheetahs, still holds the South African record for the fastest player to get to 1000 points in first class competition.
Rugby at Prince Edward, as at many other all-boys schools across the country, was something of a religion. It was compulsory to attend all the First XV team’s games and every boy had to turn up in their “Best Dress” – a Victorian-type attire comprised of a maroon blazer with the school crest and motto on the left breast pocket, maroon and green tie, grey trousers, brown shoes and, the pièce de résistance, a basher hat (boater).
The postcolony is a strange place. The liberation war may have ushered in independence in 1980, but culturally we were anything but liberated. Many of the schools that were desegregated during the early years of uhuru may have changed the complexion of the student body, but the culture they inculcated remained intact. It strikes me now that we were being brought up as black Victorians.
Yet all of this is not to suggest that we did not love the game. The Best Dress and the manners we were taught may have been nothing more than colonial mimicry, but the love for the game was genuine. It stuck to the very fibre of our being. There were always thousands of spectators at the games and everyone knew who the best players were. Of the three Zimbaweans that went on to become Springboks – Brian Mujati, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Tonderai Chavhanga – the latter remains the best player I ever saw. A winger-cum-fullback, he could run the 100m in under 10.5 seconds and seeing that man speeding down the touchline was like a watching a bullet train on grass.
On his debut for the Springboks as a 21-year-old and against minnows Uruguay, Chavhanga scored six tries – a record-breaking feat never seen in more than 100 years of Springbok rugby. Jake White, the 2007 World Cup-winning mentor and coach of the team at the time, later recollected in his autobiography that Chavhanga was the fastest player he had ever coached. Yet his future could have been so much brighter. He could have gone on to become one of the best players in rugby union history if his career hadn’t been hampered by constant injury. The reason for this, it turned out, was because one leg was shorter than the other.
Prior to Chavhanga’s ground-breaking success in South Africa, the zenith of any schoolboy’s rugby playing career was to don the blue blazer given to members of the Zimbabwe U-18 rugby team. That would be the pinnacle before settling into a life of relative obscurity. But Chavhanga’s rise in South African rugby changed all that. Suddenly the dream transcended playing for the Zimbabwe U-18 and Chavhanga’s success became a springboard to a far greater, more ambitious dream: playing rugby professionally in South Africa. “Going pro” as they say in the language of North American sports.
When I eventually settled in Cape Town in 2004, I went to Newlands Rugby Stadium for every home game the Stormers played, just to watch Chavhanga burst out into one of his trademark runs. I spent most of that year feeling like the lone survivor of a shipwreck. Zimbabwe was sinking and I had left so many people behind – and I struggled to make friends in Cape Town. The trips to the stadium became a way of reconnecting with the past. I would sit alone in terraces and whenever Chavhanga he did something spectacular, I would nudge the person next to me and say: “You see the number 14? I went to school in Zim with that guy.”
The year 2008 ranked as something of a watershed year for Zimbabwean rugby players in South Africa. The first training squad of 30 players announced by the then national coach, Pieter de Villiers, included Mtawarira, Mujati and Chavhanga. This happened barely a month after xenophobic attacks had swept through the country, leaving scores of innocent people dead and thousands of others displaced. It gave me, and I suspect many others, a feeling of hope that it wasn’t impossible to make it in South Africa. It provided televisable proof that – to paraphrase Kennedy Tsimba’s induction speech – you could come from anywhere and reach your goal and beyond.
The jubilation was short lived though. Days before the first test match of the year, news began doing the rounds in the mainstream papers and on the internet that Brian’s father, Joseph Mujati, had expropriated a farm in Zimbabwe belonging to one Tienie Martin. Here’s the clincher: Tienie Martin, it was said, had played rugby for the SA-U24 side and would have played for the Springboks were it not for a string of injuries. Right-wing bloggers were up in arms and some even called for Brian Mujati to be withdrawn from the squad. Although Mujati distanced himself from his father and he got his first cap in the game against Wales, he later confessed in an interview, in the UK Daily Mail, that the whole saga drove him away from South African rugby:
The story broke in South Africa that my father had been involved in land-grabs and was using that to fund my career. A guy whose farm was taken by my father wrote about what happened. He had a son who played rugby. In the week leading up to my first Test for the Springboks, he was saying that there were so many opportunities his son could have had if my father hadn’t taken his farm. I didn’t even know where my father was. I tried to let it blow over, but it escalated. So when I left South Africa I was relieved and thought that everyone would just leave me alone.
As bad as Mujati’s experience was, it pales in comparison to the callous treatment of Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira by the South African Ministry of Sports and Recreation. During the Springboks’ end of year tour in 2009, the ministry went to the trouble of placing adverts in a host of newspapers questioning the legality of Mtawarira’s continued selection for the national team. The advert read:
The “Beast” is NOT A CITIZEN of South Africa. He does not even have a permit for permanent residence in South Africa… [T]he issue here is NOT HIS nationality. It is his citizenship… The officials of SARU (South African Rugby Union) even inform us that Mr. Mtawarira is currently on an exceptional skills visa (work permit). If such a work permit was issued on the basis of his skills as a prop forward, the concept of “scarce skills” was vulgarised.
Although Beast played for the Springboks during the end-of-year tests, the ministry did not relent in its pursuit of the young star until the Department of Home Affairs eventually granted him citizenship. But the episode will surely be remembered as one of the low points in South African rugby history.
A morning run takes me into Palmboom Road and in the direction of Newlands Stadium. Day is breaking and the sun is slowly rising up the mountain which is now behind me. Everyone is up by the time I get home and my mother has started making breakfast. We’re already making plans to go back to the hospital when the call, the one we have all been dreading, comes in. My mother starts to sob and we abandon breakfast and head back to Groote Schuur. Again we crisscross the wide corridors until we come to the access controlled entrance to the neurology ward.
“We’re here for Mr Kona.” This time it is me who says it. The nurse who ushers us in is much older. She locks each of us in a tight embrace before we go in to see my uncle. The room, now that the machines have been switched off, is quiet. A glimmer of sunshine passes through the window. My uncle lies there, no longer breathing. His clothes are folded into a neat pile on his chest and a white strip of tape covers the scar on his head.
“We’ll take you home” my mother says, “we’ll take you home”.
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