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Rugby, Rassie, the Springboks, my father and me – a South African parable

Rugby, Rassie, the Springboks, my father and me – a South African parable
South Africa captain Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis trophy after the team won the Rugby World Cup 2023 final against New Zealand in Paris on 28 October 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Yoan Valat)

I have always had a complicated relationship with rugby and the Springboks, a relationship almost as complicated as (and inextricably linked to) the relationship between me and my late father. As a boy, I loved rugby and the Springboks above all else. One could say I loved the Springboks as fiercely as I yearned for my father to love and like me.

When I saw the Springbok prop Trevor Nyakane celebrate the Springbok rugby team’s victory on Saturday with his killer dance moves, I immediately thought of Uncle Norman, Trevor’s dad, and Trevor’s sisters, Abigail and Rhulani.

Back in 2015, Afrikaans writer Dana Snyman wrote about watching a Springbok game with them at the sisters’ home in Gravelotte in Mpumalanga, and how, when Trevor came on to the field in the second half, Uncle Norman placed his hand on Dana’s shoulder as if he wanted to make sure Dana saw this, and how Abigail and Rhulani jumped up and shouted, “Buti! Buti!”, and how Uncle Norman told him as he was leaving that Trevor’s second name was Ntando, and that this meant “blessings”.

I also thought about Abel Erasmus, Rassie’s late dad, who, like my own father, was an alcoholic; and about Rassie who writes of his shame and his fear that others would see his father roaming through the house in his underpants, drunk on cane spirits (which they called his father’s bloukop-soldaatjies, because of the blue cap on the Mainstay bottles), and how he tried to protect his father from the humiliation by keeping others away from their house.

Inevitably, I also thought about my own dad, also named Pierre, who died in 2003, and about the fact that the handful of perfect childhood memories I have of my father and me – of being together, happy, close; moments when I felt safe and cherished – are memories involving rugby.

There are so many things I want to say about the meaning of this Springbok rugby team and about what happened in the country and to its people over the past few weeks. But I am not sure I am able to do so just yet. All I can offer is the memories that follow – about rugby and the Springboks and me and my dad – in the hope that it may say something about the moment we are living through – even though I am not at all sure that it does, or if it does, what exactly it might say.

You see, I have always had a complicated relationship with rugby and the Springboks, a relationship almost as complicated as (and inextricably linked to) the relationship between me and my late father. As a boy, I loved rugby and the Springboks above all else. One could say I loved the Springboks as fiercely as I yearned for my father to love and like me.

Until I was in my late teens, I knew the final score of every Currie Cup final and every Springbok rugby match played since my birth; I knew who had scored the points in each of these games, and I knew how many caps each Springbok had earned for the team.

In 1974, I spent hundreds of hours making a scrapbook of the Lions’ tour to South Africa, and when the Soweto uprising started in 1976, my greatest worry was that it would lead to the cancellation of the All Blacks tour to South Africa scheduled to start two weeks later.

I tacked posters of Springbok rugby players like Jan Ellis, Morné du Plessis and Gerrie Germishuys (which I had carefully removed from the centre pages of Die Huisgenoot) on my bedroom walls, alongside posters of South Africa’s two most famous beauty queens, Miss World Anneline Kriel and Miss Universe Margaret Gardener.

Playing with my sister’s blonde-haired doll, I invented an elaborate game in which Miss South Africa (dressed in her official “African-themed” gown designed and made by myself), would hand over awards to various Springbok rugby players in different categories: “most points scored”, “most tries”, “best sportsmanship”. Then I delivered the speeches made by each winner. 

Dis slegs met die genade van Bo wat ek voor u staan.” (“It is only by the grace of God that I stand in front of you.”)

No wonder the first thing my father told me after I came out of the closet in 1993 was that the news came as no surprise to him.

I loved rugby and I loved the Springboks, but I was terrible at playing the game and feared – even hated – playing it. I was a typical sissy (hopefully, I still am). I hated my rugby kit getting dirty. I hated being tackled. And I hated the spanpraaitjies before each game where our coach would tell us to fuck up our opponents without being caught, before bowing our heads and praying to ask God for a victory.

I could not catch a ball, I could not pass a ball, and I could not throw a ball – the latter being a slight problem since I played hooker and had to do the lineout throws. I still can’t do any of these things, although the World Cup win fleetingly gave me a mad belief that Rassie would be able to teach me to do so.

In my Grade 11 year, after watching me play for the sixth team of Pietersburg Hoërskool against our arch-rivals Tom Naudé Hoërskool (I think we lost), my mother drily remarked, after taking a deep drag on her cigarette, that I had impeccable rugby instincts as I always anticipated where the ball would be and always made sure that I was nowhere near it.

It might sound bizarre now, but I nevertheless loved rugby: the Springboks above all else. I had my reasons.

It had something to do with rugby then being a sport run by Afrikaners and largely played by Afrikaners for other Afrikaners. (In this context, by Afrikaners I mean white people whose mother tongue was Afrikaans.)

While our family saw ourselves as verligte Afrikaners, our identity remained that of Afrikaner Nationalists (my mother helped to staff the Nasionale Party booth outside the local polling station in the 1977 whites-only election), and if you were an Afrikaner Nationalist, you loved rugby and the Springboks. Kant en klaar.

My love for the Springboks also had something to do with the Afrikaans radio commentator Gerhard Viviers (who we all called by his nickname, Spiekeries) who I hero-worshipped almost as much as I hero-worshipped my father.

Before the advent of television in 1976, the only way you could follow a rugby game or any other sporting event was by listening to the commentary on the radio. Spiekeries was notoriously biased in favour of the Springboks, but he had a beautiful voice and a marvellous ability to paint a picture of what was happening on the field.

By the time I was five years old, I could do a passable imitation of Spiekeries commentating on a match.

I would always pretend that I was commentating on a rugby game between the Springboks and the All Blacks, while I re-enacted the game on the open field in front of our army barracks house in Oribi, Pietermaritzburg, using a tennis ball as my prop.

The Springboks always trailed with only a few minutes to go, before they would score the winning try and clinch the series. Spiekeries would go wild.

Jan Ellis vat die gaping en hy is regdeur! En hy druk hom! Hy druk hom net links van die linkerregoppaal! In die doodsnikke van die wedstryd! Dis ’n mooi drie. Dis ’n pragtige drie!”

I was a lonely child, scared of the other boys, scared of being mocked and bullied, scared above all else that those boys would discover I was a moffie – something I instinctively knew I was, even though I had no idea what it might mean.

Recently, I chanced upon a book review by Matthew Halse in the Foucault Studies Journal containing the following sentence which seemed to explain everything: “To be queer is always already to be in some way unknowable, and thus the basis of queer relationality must be predicated upon a certain unease, a certain distance.”

But the most important reason why, as a boy, I loved rugby and the Springboks so much was because my father did.

I know my father loved me in his own complicated and broken way, but I am not sure he always liked me. But I know he did like that I loved rugby and that I could tell him that in 1976, the Springboks beat the All Blacks in the fourth test at Ellis Park by one point and that the final score was 15-14.

Two memories, both lightly fictionalised in a novel I published in 1993, stand out. (When, during the Covid lockdown, I re-read that novel for the first time since it was published, I was surprised to discover that after the narrator – also the main character – betrays his father who had been a Vlakplaas hit squad member, by handing over evidence of his father’s crimes to a human rights organisation investigating police brutality, he writes that he had expected this to change everything, but that it had changed nothing. My father was a lawyer, not a policeman – the Vlakplaas bit was very much invented.)

The first memory is about what happens on 27 July 1974, the day my father takes me to Ellis Park Rugby to watch my first Springboks match. We watch the Springboks draw 13-13 with the touring Lions team, but because they had badly lost the first three tests, we are both giddy, even ecstatic.

On the way home, my father stops at a roadhouse (I might be mixing up this memory with another, as I can’t find any evidence on the internet that there is a roadhouse along the way between Ellis Park and our home in Brackenhurst, Alberton), where he buys us both an ice cream cone with a flake in the middle, and – braver than usual – I make him laugh by imitating Gerhard Viviers describing the Springboks’ equalising try scored by Peter Cronjé right in front of where we were sitting. 

When his favourite song comes on the radio just as we turn into Brackenhurst, we both sing along: “Vat hom Dawie, vat hom laag, gooi die bal Tiny, laat die Bokke slaag.”

The second memory must have happened a few months earlier on the night in 1974 (when I was in Grade 5) before my first-ever rugby practice. (Years later I was astonished when my therapist asked me why I had not refused to play rugby – as if choosing not to play rugby was something that a white Afrikaans boy could ever do.)

My parents are in the front room of our house, my mother sipping on a pink Campari, my father gulping down his usual brandy on the rocks. The room is thick with smoke from my mother’s Ransom Select and my father’s Gold Dollar Plain cigarettes.

Pa is already a bit drunk, but not yet angry drunk, which is why I take a chance and ask him what position I should volunteer to play the next day. I am in my tattered short-sleeve pyjamas, because this will allow me to excuse myself and go to my room to sleep if things turn ugly. (When you are a child and your father is an angry and capricious drunk, you always plan ahead to make sure you have an escape route.)

But things don’t turn ugly.

Instead, when I stammer out my question, Pa laughs and tells me I should volunteer to play hooker, the same position he used to play.

“You’re not very sporty,” he says, “so you will have to be cleverer and know more about what a hooker does than the other boys.” He will teach me “some tricks”.

Pa is not a sporty man either. He does not swear, and he does not get into fights. When he is sober, he can be almost prissy. But he hates pretentious people and mocks them mercilessly, sometimes to their faces. He watches other people and points out small quirky things about them and makes us laugh with witty comments about them. He is also thin-skinned and insecure, and when he is drunk, he is more paranoid, bitchy and deceitful than even the worst English rugby writer alive today.

But for now, he plays the jolly rugby expert.

Ma is commandeered from the couch to help, because “a hooker needs two props”. Ma is loosehead prop, Pa tighthead. He shows me how to bind to my props, and how to shuffle the imaginary ball to the back of our imaginary scrum with my right foot when the scrumhalf enters the ball into the scrum after shouting: “Hakers, die bal kom, yaa!” In between practice rounds he takes large gulps of his brandy on the rocks (he only drinks Richelieu, never Klipdrift). But when the glass is empty he does not go to the kitchen to refill it as he normally would. Instead, we do another “Hakers, die bal kom, yaa!

Ma and Pa are both laughing now.

“Tell him about the time you broke your collarbone in the match Messina played against Phalaborwa,” my mother laughs, reaching for her cigarettes and then fumbling with the matches. “You know, Pappa tried to play with that broken collarbone for another five minutes before he left the field. Men can be such show-offs.”

I know the story well, but I also know that drunk people like repeating themselves and I don’t want this to end, so I remain perfectly still. Waiting. Watching for any sign of trouble. Pa’s eyes are shining bright, and for a moment I worry that he is going to cry. Always a bad sign. Instead, he unbuttons his shirt to reveal the scar on his left shoulder where the bone had stuck through the skin.

“You can touch it,” he says, presenting his shoulder to me, like a priest in the Kinderbybel making an offering to one or other heathen God. The skin over his scar is smooth and hard.

“It was blerrie painful,” my father says while buttoning up his shirt. (“Blerrie” being the closest he came to swearing.) “You don’t want this to happen to you. Rugby is not that important.” He ruffles my hair, which gives me a funny feeling in my stomach, then scoops me up and holds me in his arms, hugging me harder and longer than I think is necessary.

He smells of cigarettes and brandy and Old Spice. What I remember thinking then is that he smells like a man. I also remember that I hugged him back. But maybe I made up that part later.

I am 38 years old before my father and I hug like this again. (But that is a story for another day.)

You probably know what is coming next. I fell out of love with rugby and the Springboks during my student days. Too white. Too brutal. All the rest.

But there is something else. 

While I feared my father and his drunken rants for many more years to come, by the time I had completed my studies I had “quiet quitted” my father.

When I read the narrator describing his father in Die Storie van my Pa” (The Story of my Father – a short story in Wiefeling by the award-winning gay short story writer Koos Prinsloo who died of an Aids-related illness in 1994), as his “poor, poor, oh so spurned, oh so obstreperous, oh so lethally sorrowful and disgruntled, poor ancient fucking old father”, I thought it captured my own feelings.

Don’t get me wrong. I could never get myself to hate the Springboks or even to support the All Blacks – as so many black fans of rugby in the Western Cape did for so long, although I saw this at the time as a character flaw, a bit like I now see my failure to learn to speak isiXhosa as a character flaw. 

On “good” days (or “bad” days, depending on your view), such as the day in 1995 when the Springboks won the World Cup and every other World Cup winning day after that, I felt a complicated but embarrassing affection for the team.

By 2019 my attitude towards the Springboks had changed significantly. But trust does not come easily to me, so while I was fully committed to the team, and especially to Rassie and Siya, and wept when the Springboks won the World Cup in Japan four years ago, I hesitated. William Faulkner was not wrong when he wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

This year has been different. I am all in for the Springboks. For reasons I am unable to express in words, the Springboks – Rassie, Siya, Trevor, the entire team – have made it possible for me to love rugby and the Springboks wholeheartedly again.

But there is one more thing.

I recently re-read the short stories of Koos Prinsloo after they became available in an English translation, as well as an earlier book of commentary about Prinsloo’s work, written by Prof Gerrit Olivier, and discovered that I had missed something in Die Storie van My Pa from which I quoted above. 

While the story at first appears to be a story of the rage of a son towards his homophobic and self-obsessed father, the tone changes midway when, after speaking to his father on the phone, the narrator tells us: “My father’s voice settles into my belly. Slowly but surely my heart breaks.”  

Rage softens into acceptance, Olivier writes, and the story becomes one “of liberation in the face of death”. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • WSM WSM says:

    Maybe the best thing I’ve read about the complications of being both an Afrikaner and a South African.

  • Christo Snyman says:

    Great article. Thank you! Could you provide details of the novel that you wrote? As well as details of the Gerrit Olivier book on Koos Prinsloo’s writing. Many thanks!

    • Pierre de Vos says:

      Christo, the novel is called “Slegs Blanket/Whites Only”. No longer in print. Gerrit’s book is called “Aantekeninge by Koos Prinsloo” (published in 2008). The book with English translations of Prinsloo’s work (also translated by Olivier) is called “Place of Slaugther and Other Stories” and was published in 2022.

  • David van der Want says:

    Lovely writing. I’ve always felt that who won and who lost is the least interesting thing about sport and that it’s personal meaning and the process of it is undervalued in how we speak and write about it. Thanks.

  • Karl Nepgen says:

    Bravo, well written. Remembering growing up in the 60-70’s, I can imagine your experience. Glad to see the positive outcome.

  • Cindykassier says:

    Pierre, this is an extraordinary piece of writing. You made me cry.

  • mikestreak says:

    Pierre you are not mistaken there was indeed a roadhouse in Alberton on Voortrekker Road, it was called the Casbah. It was on the left hand side of the road as you went towards Brackenhurst.

    • Pierre de Vos says:

      🙏🏼 🙏🏼 🙏🏼

    • Ian Ashmole says:

      Mike you got there before me – was just going to post the same. Legendary place, and was surprised that it was still there last I drove down Voortrekker street probably 10 years ago. Sadly google seems to indicate that it is now permanently closed 🙁

  • Mike C says:

    Thank you Pierre for a most interesting snapshot of your lived experience over the past few decades in this imperfect, but marvellous country of ours …….what you’ve written about will resonate with many, at all levels.

    I recall in the early ’90s a reserved young student arriving at the central Drakensberg hotel where I was working to spend a few weeks on a holiday job ……told me he was studying Constitutional Law – a field of study I thought commendable with 1994 on the horizon – and you’ve had ample opportunity to apply that knowledge subsequently ……. nice one!

  • Thanks for a great article. I am fortunate in that I liked rugby even though I was never very good. My father did not hate rugby and took me to rugby games, but he did not like the fact that he was forced to play rugby at school. My father finished school in 1957 and I finished school in 1993. The scary part is even in 1993 some schools required a medical certificate if a boy did not want to play rugby and that was just plain wrong.

  • Jo Van says:

    Pierre, this was well written and very enjoyable to read!

    I say: “Pierre for Head Judge, Rassie for President and Siya for Minister of International Affairs”.

    Dan sal SA gat skop!

  • Trevor Tutu says:

    I remember supporting the Lions in the ’74 tour, and hating the Boks with a passion at that time. It was, as Pierre says, the default position for Black people at that time. I must admit that I had not overcome my inability to support the Boks at the time of the 1995 World Cup. This year I was also able to join in fully supporting our “Kant”.

  • markbrunner88 says:

    Well written Pierre – so close to home! Eisch!

  • Fiona Ronquest-Ross Ronquest-Ross says:

    Beautiful Nd poignant. Thank you

  • Ben Smit says:

    My father, white Afrikaner, a big rugby fan and a SA Police detective, absolutely forbade me to play rugby. Reason offered: you are a very clever boy; I want to protect your brain. Played half a match (on the sly) for my school….got carried off by first aid …. concussed after a latish tackle. Guess who was waiting for me at the hospital? That is another story.

    • Michael Thomlinson says:

      What a great piece of Writing Pierre! Both my parents were white english speaking SA’s and they thought rugby was a thugs game and forbade me to play it at school. My father being an old footballer was especially against any rugby. However all my mates played rugby it was not long before they loaned me a pair of boots and I was at the next practice and I loved it. My parents finally relented although I can imagine, now, how they must have worried. I played flank and never got badly injured although I saw my fair share of broken arms, ribs etc. I tried playing it at varsity but that seemed to be much tougher that I had remembered at school. I stopped but I have been a rugby fan and especially a Springbok fan ever since!

  • Dear Pierre, thank you for your deeply human, heart-opening own story embedded in Springbok rugby. I could write pages impossibly trying to tell you how deeply it touches me. The power of an authentic human story is beyond words. It helps us to understand who we are. I am overwhelmed with gratitude to you for this gift to all of us. Carol

  • Tony Fletcher says:

    Great article, particularly from an English speaking South African rugby loving family and looking at it from another perspective over a similar time period , thank you.

  • Merle Favis says:

    Huge respect for sharing raw and precious memories

  • David Peddle says:

    A dishevelled story. What are you actually trying to tell the great unwashed straight people?

  • bryceperrett4082 says:

    A touching read, thank you!

  • Glenda Caine says:

    Tender and touching. My relationship with my parents also clouded by alcohol and cigarette smoke. Thank you Pierre de Vos.

  • Michaela Clayton says:

    What beautiful writing. Thank you Pierre.

  • Roger Sheppard says:

    Thank you Prof de Vos! Thank you!
    Mike and The Mechanics sing one of our generation’s greatest songs:
    ‘In The Living Years’. Type that into your Google Window.

  • Natasha Browne says:

    So, so, so beautifully written! Thank you Pierre.

  • Your comments reflect your complicated exsperiences of growing up gay in the 1970’s rather than the mostly uncomplicated and easy going Afrikaans household’s of the time…

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    Pierre, that was a very moving, beautifully written story! Thank you 😁

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