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The thing about being on the bottom edge of Africa is you know you are not in the centre of the world.
There is a world out there and it does not revolve around Oudtshoorn or Knysna.
The world sometimes visits. A shipwreck or a war or mass riots can shift the global attention to the southern tip of Africa, for a while.
A few times a century someone local makes a worldwide mark, for better or worse: Jan Smuts, Wilbur Smith, Christiaan Barnard, J.R. Tolkien, Gary Player, Nelson Mandela, J.M. Coetzee, or Oscar Pistorius. The inventor of bunny chow. A Zulu taco food truck gets reviewed in the New York Times.
History in a South African school focuses on other places, where the big ideas came from. World wars weren’t fought over issues that arose in Bloemfontein. As a Bishop Tutu or Mandela stated their cases for shared power and revolution, they borrowed verbatim from the French or American Revolutions, the Civil Rights speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr or Mahatma Ghandi, or the dialectics of European Communism.
What is the ‘Big Idea’ in South Africa? Same as the old retreaded ideas of Europe or Asia.
We sense the key is to be approved by the outside world. Yes, you are big here, in Somerset-West or Paarl, but can you compete ‘over there?’ in North American markets, in European fields, in the top class events, the grand places, the Home Nations, or against a richer and more posh post-colonial cousin like Australia?
Sport offered South Africa those opportunities. Can any serious list of the top 20 cricketers, golfers, or rugby players in history be made without a Saffa or three?
The theories are many as to why a country down at the tip of the end of the continent least consequential to most in the world, with a tiny portion of the populace able to travel and train at the level required to beat the world, so far from the important cities of London, Paris, New York, Beijing, and Tokyo, over-performs in the traditional British sports of rugby, tennis, golf, and swimming.
Climate, surplus protein, unusually large and powerful genetic stocks, an underdog’s fiery focus, the hunger of deprivation, and a macho culture: at one point or another this list of causation or correlation have been argued. Read the war correspondents’ amazement at the size of the Afrikaner warriors in the Anglo-Boer wars, the World Wars; and then look at the overuse of the word Roarer RobC loves to hate: ‘physicality’ in every newspaper article about Springbok rugby.
Too infrequently, credit has been given to the diversity of the athletes who made South Africa known as a sporting nation. An easy fixation on race – which devolves into ‘black’ or ‘white’ now, or ‘European’ versus ‘non-European’ in earlier times – obscures a more complicated history.
When I speak of diversity, I am not reducing it to ‘race,’ a descriptor mostly rejected by science; I mean culture and migration and the richer tapestry of South Africa.
Humans may have begun in southern Africa, and the San people may have the best claim to being the oldest Homo Sapiens on the planet, but even as late as the 15th century, when Portuguese mariners like Bartholomew Diaz began to make landfall around the Cape of Good Hope, most of what is now the Republic of South Africa was not populated.
When we speak of ‘transformation,’ we should remember that not every place on the globe had a well-spread indigenous populace. There were empty places and people moved to and fro. The Bantu tribes fleeing a vortex of violence in central Africa only arrived to the northern escarpments in the late 15th century, corresponding with waves of European arrivals over a thousand kilometres south in the Cape.
This is also why it is risky to assume that a player like Beast Mtawarira is the “local” and Jean de Villiers is the recent arrival. In that particular case, Jean’s family beat Beast’s to South Africa by over three centuries. This is not a rare phenomenon.
For the next two centuries, from the 17th century through the 19th century, the Zulu, Sotho, Venda, and Xhosa peoples steadily migrated southward, to varying degrees, in search of new pasture, while Dutch, Huguenot, English, Scottish, Irish, and Jewish peoples expanded up the coast northeasterly, some in search of wealth or land, and many in search of an almost nihilist freedom from government.
In a prior essay about the loss of the SS Waratah, I’ve written about even Michael Cheika’s Maronite brethren making their way to the messy forerunner of today’s Big Smoke in Johannesburg.
These disparate groups all collided in a bloody rainbow of portentous conflicts over land and culture and the destiny of the control of the great mineral deposits on and under the Vaal and Orange Rivers.
After the Anglo-Boer wars led to an extremely disunified Union of South Africa in 1910, friction between ‘English’ (including anglicised Afrikaners, as well as sizeable contingents of Jews, Greeks, Arabs, and Portuguese) and the ‘Boers’ or Afrikaners dominated politics and public life for the next 50 years, while the plight of those who did not fit neatly in either box (black, Coloured, Indian, ‘Bushmen,’ and Asians) was underestimated and delayed for another time and ultimately rendered violently unmanageable by time and progress and greater connections to the wider world.
So here we are. Still not at the middle of the world’s history, but struggling not to lose pockets of excellence.
Today’s South Africa is of course racked by spasms of change, rampant and insufficiently policed crime, deteriorating services, heartwarming triumphs followed by heartbreaking losses, and one of those words (‘transformation’) that means a hundred different things to people, depending on perspective.
Yes, South Africa retains the continent’s best-developed economy, but retaining people is the real challenge of this century. When people have the ability to leave a too-violent society (a murder rate about five times higher than the world average), with rising corruption, decay in social services and utilities, and when a sub-group (young whites with a path out because of skills or resources) leaves en masse for less corrupt and more safe destinations, the beloved country does suffer. How could it not?
Is not the history of the modern world the story of ‘who can attract and keep the talent?’ Not only to keep those people themselves; but to build a marketplace of competition of the best. Super Rugby in New Zealand is the model of that: the region flocks to the hardest club crucible on the planet.
Meanwhile, South Africa does not even make a pretense of valuing talent.
South Africa collects no reliable statistics on emigration. Everyone knows the figures would be embarrassing. We can gather numbers from the host countries to which South Africans – disproportionately white, ‘English,’ and longer-educated – migrated. Britain estimates it has 237,000 Saffas, Australia 155,000, the U.S. 78,000, New Zealand 41,000, and Canada 38,000. These numbers do not include the children born to those expatriates in their new lands.
The totals are almost certainly low; an English-speaking South African who moves to the countries listed tend to intermarry seamlessly, assimilate very quickly, adopt their new place as home, and cease to self-identify as Saffa.
The 343 professional Saffa rugby players plying their physically rigorous trade abroad are just a microcosm of this larger trend. In 1996, about 20,000 South Africans left the country; a decade later, the average was closer to 45,000 emigres per year, and a very low number ever return.
In the beginning, when the tide began, ‘Packing for Perth’ became a descriptive term and an inside joke: the PFP (Progressive Federal Party) was the anti-apartheid party of the big city English elites, but it was those same liberal English-speaking whites who left in droves as Nelson Mandela was finally in power. That’s fair knock. But mostly it was about people who could leave, in search of a better life for their kids, leaving.
Perth has more than its fair share of Saffas; but the largest four Australian cities all have between 20,000 and 30,000 Saffas. Nobel Prize winner Coetzee is one of the more famous Aussie-Saffas, but the Wallabies have welcomed Clyde Rathbone and Dan Vickerman to their ranks, and in a wide range of business, arts, and sports (Australia’s first billionaire, Robert Holmes a Court, being just one), Saffas have done rather well in a less corrupt place. Holmes attended Michaelhouse, the same Natal boarding school where Patrick Lambie was head boy, and Wilbur Smith learned to write bestsellers.
By this point the reader may have detected a theme: the non-Afrikaans names have loomed large. And this may surprise you. Rugby fans and pundits post-readmission may have been struck by how few names of Springboks have been ‘English’ or Celtic in origin. Kiwi and Aussie and Argie commentators have to spit and gargle and clear their throat several times a sentence to get through names like “Gerrie Germishuys” and it must seem to them that each “Hougaard” is trumped by a “de Jager.”
It was not always thus. A cursory look at the team sheets of Springbok squads from the late 1800s to the 1960s reveals almost even distribution between the Dutch names and Anglo-Celtic surnames.
But in recent times, non-Afrikaner white Boks are rare. In the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Lambie and Damian de Allende (who was conveniently classified as non-white for quota purposes, to the surprise of his Spanish parents) were the only examples.
Victor Matfield is as Afrikaans as it gets (Biltongbek may disagree because Vicki does keep his hair a bit long); his name is a relic of just one Kiwi ancestor.
As the 2016 Boks tour Europe, only Warren Whiteley, Lambie, and Malcolm Marx are white players who are not Afrikaans. It is impossible to prove this, of course, but the push to emigrate might pull hardest and quickest on ‘English’ Saffas, with an easier pathway into host countries, and the trend should thus continue and increase.
The stereotype of the ‘soutie’ or ‘English’ white rugby player, belied by rugged players like Butch James, James Small, Marx, or Vickerman, is that they are ‘soft.’ Show ponies like Bobby Skinstad are mentioned; or the hard-to-stomach Luke Watson.
When I made the jump from best-in-English-school to representative rugby at provincial level and then try for higher honours, I ran into this myth. The solution was to take the mongrel up a few notches; you worried that you had to prove you were harder than any other forward to get noticed by the (mostly Afrikaner) coaches. At the first sign of ‘softness’ (which might mean finding space or passing), all the stereotypes resurfaced.
Rory Kockott, Scott Spedding, Shawn Sowerby, Michael Rhodes, Brad Barritt, Matt Stevens, and semi-Saffa David Pocock all found it easier to prove their quality to foreign coaches than to domestic Southern African rugby management; the perception that a Whiteley or Ryan Kankowski or Keegan Daniel were not tough enough held them back from longer Bok careers. Skilled, yes; but the feeling in South African circles was that they lacked mongrel.
Maybe they did. Maybe they were just skilled. Whiteley seems to beat defenders and score at will, but it’s true he does not run through people like Thor Vermeulen.
Jewish South Africans faced that same perception, but doubled. Yet, at least ten Boks have been Jewish. In fact, the dean of Bok rugby, Dr Danie Craven, maintained there should always be a Jewish Bok in every squad he led, because no Bok team with a Jewish player ever lost a Test series.
Everyone knows Joel Stransky for his World Cup-winning drop goals, but before him were Morris Zimmerman, Louis Babrow, Fred Smollen, the incomparable Cecil Moss (who never lost to the All Blacks), Alan Menter, Joe Kaminer, Syd Nomes (25 caps), Wilf Rosenberg (who hopped to league and scored 48 tries in one season for Leeds), and the great Okey Geffin.
Okey was named Okey because when his father registered his birth, the clerk asked for his son’s ‘Christian’ name, the answer was ‘none,’ so the clerk named him “okie,” the diminutive for ‘oke’ (or ‘guy’ or ‘mate’ in Saffa speak) and it stuck.
At its peak, the Jewish population in South Africa was 127,000, predominantly in Johannesburg and Cape Town, but is now only about 60,000, as migration peaks.
But it is true that if you look at the top players now, and even the 56 active Saffas in the Top 14 that I can identify, most are Afrikaners.
Many make the false assumption that South African elite white athletes have always tended to be disproportionately Afrikaners.
A look at the Olympic medalists shows this to be false.
The vast majority of Saffa medalists were ‘English.’ The roll from 1896 to 1960 (when South Africa began a 32-year isolation) shows surnames like Lewis, Kitson, Winslow, Wilson, Smith, Walker, Buchanan, Buckley, Stevens, Catteral, Pierce, Shepherd, Hunter, Arthur, Robinson, Fowler, Swift; very few surnames begin with ‘van’ or ‘de’ or ‘le’ or any other Huguenot or Dutch prefix.
Many of these medals were won in boxing and track, requiring power and pace, lest the skeptic suspect the wins were in technical pursuits like shooting. Thus, English South Africans could compete on the world stage in pace and power, and tended to be the football players of note, too; footy skills, pace, and power are the building blocks of rugby.
For instance, in 1908, Saffa speedster Reginald Walker won the gold medal in the 100 metres, at age 19.
As an aside, the winning time fell 2.16 seconds from 1896 to 1996, or 18 per cent. This should keep us all from top many romantic good old days arguments about the superiority of yesteryear’s athletes. As another aside, if I could’ve been 19 in 1896, I might’ve medaled!
In the 1920 final of the 400 metres, the grandson of a co-founder of the de Beers mining company won gold with a time of 49.60 seconds. Bevil Gordon D’Urban Rudd was his name (how English can you get?) and he had fought in World War I, earning a Military Cross. He also won Olympic bronze in the 200 metres, and set a world record for the 440 yards in 1921.
Another aside: all gold medals in the 100 and 400-metre Olympic finals have been won by citizens of former British colonies or of Great Britain. For what that’s worth.
There’s no ifs or buts to it, if I’d been born in 1875, but with my 1985 speed in the 800 metres, I’d have won gold in the little 1896 Olympics. The winner crawled across in a sluggish 2.11, so I’m not really bragging. But time travel has still not been made affordable.
By the 1960s, Kiwi Peter Snell was cruising to 1.45 in his gold medal runs. Snell’s 1964 time for the 1,500 was a staggering 35 seconds faster than the winner in 1896.
But I digress. I am digressing from my own digression.
South Africans have been leaders in the marathon: in 1912 winning both gold and silver (the over-confident silver medalist Christian Gitsham stopped for a drink and allowed fellow Saffa Kenneth McArthur to slip by) and a gold again in 1996. The reader may note that these names have nothing Teutonic or Germanic or even French to them.
By the way, a Greek named Spiro(n) won in 1896, just beating 3 hours. At no time in history could I ever have beaten that; I’m too heavy to locomote for 26 miles at that speed.
The decidedly Anglo-named Stanley Atkinson of South Africa won gold in the 110 metre hurdles in 1928, and compatriot Llewellyn Herbert won bronze in Sydney in 2000.
These were the elite athletes of South Africa. And where are their sons or grandsons? Where are the new stars that might have helped the Boks win in Japan in 2019?
They are in Wellington (New Zealand) and Dublin and Toronto and Cardiff and San Diego and Brisbane. Raising kids, fitting in, becoming Hurricanes or being with the Force, learning the nuances of Belfast, settling into Perth, teaching lineout science in Denver, heroes in Montpelier, clearing a path for new Boks, new heroes, and a new story for this century. We migrate; because we are human.
This is not a polemic, nor a rant, and not even a solution. This is just a ramble.