Ah, the tragedy of race in South African rugby. All that can be said is that it has ever been thus.
In 1963, the manager of the Wallabies in South Africa, former Wallaby Bill McLaughlin, was drinking whisky at a function with the President of the South African Rugby Board, Dr Danie Craven.
Craven was 26 years on from his own time as a Springbok, and now bestrode the South African game like a colossus – nothing happened but that he knew of it or was driving it.
As McLaughlin and Craven chatted, the question arose of the celebrated Aboriginal player Lloyd McDermott, who had represented the Wallabies in 1962 and then declined to tour South Africa in 1963, objecting to being classified by the South African government as an ‘honorary white’ for the purposes of the tour.
The withdrawal saved the Australian management from addressing the uncomfortable politics of selecting McDermott, although form would certainly have guaranteed his inclusion.
Discussing the withdrawal, Craven asked McLaughlin, “But you would never do that to us would you? You wouldn’t bring a black player on tour?”
To his credit, and Craven’s apparent discomfort, McLaughlin answered evenly: “Certainly we would. If a player was good enough, and he was available, we would pick him.”
The conversation never really recovered.
Indeed, it is unlikely that South Africa has ever had the luxury of such a simple selection process – that if a player was good enough, and available, then the Springboks coach could pick him.
Two years after the conversation with his Australian counterpart McLaughlin, Craven was in New Zealand with the Springboks for the last five matches of their 1965 tour. During press conferences, he was asked several times about the likely status of Maori players during the planned tour of South Africa two years hence, in 1967.
Craven answered plainly enough, saying that he was sure that the negotiations would ultimately be “satisfactory to all parties”. When quizzed further on the likelihood of coloured players playing a part in the future of South African rugby, Craven responded by saying that it was “possible that this could follow later”.
The remarks passed quietly by in Australia and New Zealand, but as the great rugby journalist Terry McLean said in his book The Bok Busters:
Within 48 hours, the Prime Minister of South Africa, Dr Verwoerd, and the Minister of the Interior, Senator de Klerk, had made statements, the burden of which was that Maoris could not be included.
When Dr Craven demurred that the press accounts… could not be accurate… he was not only publicly rebuked by de Klerk, but into the bargain the Minister affirmed, with vigour, that it would be inconceivable for the Government to relax its policies to the extent of permitting whites and non-whites to compete against each other in sport on South African fields. This had to be interpreted as a death blow.
Politics and rugby were already inseparable. Non-racial rugby appeared to be a distant dream, although one family would soon appear to challenge the status quo.
In the same year as the All Black tour in question, 1967, a photo of the Watson children shows four strong boys – Cheeky, Ronnie, Benny and Valence – standing shirtless on their farm at Alicedale, their little sister Sharon protectively held in her biggest brother’s arms.
Watson biographer Kristin Williamson said of the Watsons, “They were brought up to feel part of the African culture, speaking Xhosa better than English and believing that blacks and whites were equal. In a society where blacks were the servants of whites, this was unusual.”
All of the Watson boys were superb athletes and keen rugby players. The youngest, Cheeky, was a Springbok triallist and seemed certain to represent his country, until amazing events in 1976, when a mixed-race match was played in Port Elizabeth.
The game “provoked a greater storm of protest than anyone had anticipated. Dr Pieter Kornhoof, Minister for Sport, appealed to the players through the media – press, radio and television – to call off the game, telling them they would be breaking the law”.
Dr Craven threatened to suspend the players from white rugby. The South African security police telephoned the Watson brothers to warn them not to participate.
The convenor of the Springboks selection panel, Ian Kirkpatrick, allegedly visited Cheeky and promised him a spot on the 1977 tour to France. According to Cheeky, “He said, ‘I’m prepared to guarantee it in writing, but don’t jeopardise your chances please’.”
When the players finally took to the field for the match, there were eight whites among them – Cheeky and Valence Watson, Colin Snodgrass for Kwaru, and Rhodes University students Mark Rowles, Kevin Purcell, Al Weakly, Derek Barter and Graham Bell, playing for SEDRU.
After the match, Cheeky and Valence, and Snodgrass were chaired off the field. The newspaper headlines declared “Non-race rugby is born”.
It is hardly necessary to say that Cheeky Watson never played for the Springboks.
Cheeky’s son Luke, however, was more fortunate, at least in the sense that he did play Test rugby.
Perhaps Luke Watson was dogged by the spectres of his famous father and uncles. That said, he without doubt engineered a large part of his own misfortune.
Aside from his oft-reported (and somewhat sensationalised) comments about vomiting on the Springbok jersey, Watson found himself at the centre of the most bizarre racial selection argument of all time in 2007, when, according to the Independent newspaper, “Politicians such as Butana Komphela, ANC chairman of the parliamentary sports portfolio committee, and Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool, also insisted on Watson’s inclusion in the Springbok squad.”
Rasool went so far as to say that the white Watson should be regarded as a “black player” based on his father’s anti-apartheid contribution, and that he should therefore be included in the Springbok team ahead of “white players of equal talent”. Talk about a brain-twister.
Springbok trailblazers such as Errol Tobias and Chester Williams would have no doubt been glad to have similar special consideration.
As Tobias said of his efforts to break into the Springbok squad in 1981, “We had no say in politics. We didn’t even have a vote, so all I knew at that stage was to play rugby. My goal was to show the country and the rest of the world that we had black players who were equally as good, if not better, than the whites, and that if you are good enough you should play.”
If you are good enough you should play.
But it’s not the first time a South African rugby team has been threatened before the World Cup for issues outside pure talent. In 2007, South Africa’s chairperson on the committee of sport, the same Butana Komphela, threatened to pull the Springboks out of the World Cup in France if the team did not have enough black players.
And so to the selection oddities and sensational court case embroiling the Springboks as they desperately try to prepare in some sort of systematic way for the Rugby World Cup in 16 days.
As an outsider, what can one possibly say?
These few stories represent such a tiny fraction of the convoluted history and tangled web of politics, justification, interposition and nullification, that it appears impossible to imagine a way forward.
Aside from everything, you have to feel for the players, both black and white. Getting selected to play a Test match is incredibly difficult in any country. Imagine then aspiring to represent your country, doing all of the work that entails, and having your opportunity snatched away for no better reason than that the prevailing power structure is predominantly white, or conversely, because the quota demands are predominantly black.
Neither is better than the other, but together they show one thing, that the level of integration and transformation after 21 years is manifestly inadequate. If there are not enough topline players of colour to choose from, then the development pathway is broken. And if there are elite players of colour who are not being chosen, then the administration is broken.
Whichever it is, it is clear that the whiteness of South African rugby has a limited lifespan. The exiled journalist Donald Woods, a celebrated and persistent critic of apartheid, once wrote of the metaphorical chess game being played by Premier BJ Vorster:
“He has drawn the white pieces and therefore has the opening initiative, but as every chess buff knows, it is black’s response that really shapes the end game. And in this particular chess game, there are five times more black pieces than white ones.”
It is an uncomfortably apt metaphor for the challenge facing South African rugby.