He is a barely remembered figure in the background of the montage of glory that fills our television screens and smartphones in the heady and truly, deservedly, happy moment that we South Africans are celebrating in the wake of our Rugby World Cup victory.
Amid shots of our first win in 1995, there is a figure in the background of Madiba and Francois Pienaar holding up the Webb Ellis Cup. He is barely noticeable, but he is deliriously happy, tears running down his face as a newly democratic South Africa celebrates its first shared win.
The brilliance of that first win was all due to him and the hard work he did behind the scenes as the first democratic minister of sport to bring our racially separated sporting codes together in the wake of the cruelty of apartheid.
His name was Steve Tshwete. He died of complications after an operation in 2002 but his work, largely forgotten today, lives on in the growing role that the Springboks and other sports, too, play in helping to unite our fractured nation.
As we celebrate our win, we should not forget that this achievement does not emerge from a vacuum, that it is the direct result of both the vision and sacrifices of people like Steve Tshwete whom I met many years ago in very different circumstances from today.
I couldn’t have imagined the moment of joy and unity that erupted at the final whistle of the New Zealand game. But I think he did.
It was just days before Christmas 1984. The bright sun beat down out of a blue sky. A warm breeze stirred the long grass. Somewhere between East London and what was then King William’s Town we changed cars to throw the Ciskei Security Police off our trail.
A few kilometres later we pulled off the N2. We drove through a rusty wire gate. Our contact met us among a few anonymous huts just off the highway. It was the most dangerous moment. The huts were easily visible from the road. All it would have taken to blow our cover was a sharp-eyed policeman to notice three white men stopping off at a Ciskei village.
We set off down a rutted dirt road through the low hills and came to a simple white-walled hut. It was the ANC safe house. Inside was a man dressed in an open-necked shirt and slacks. He had glasses with thick lenses, and a strained, raspy voice.
Steve Tshwete was in hiding, on the run from the Ciskei Security Police. No one knew where he was in South Africa, but through clandestine contacts made in London and New York, we got a message through to him. It was the last interview he did before fleeing across the hills into Lesotho, and years of exile.
We filmed the interview with him inside the hut, not daring to expose both ourselves, as a crew working for the international media, and him, to the curious gaze of onlookers who would certainly have been surprised to see TV cameras in the village and who may well have said something that the security police might have heard.
I don’t remember now what the interview was about, but he was the first member of the banned ANC I had met. We were all scared of being arrested. The security police had been following us earlier in an unmarked car and, while we were pretty sure we had shaken them for the moment, we had to work quickly before we compromised both Steve and ourselves.
In the hot, cramped, poorly lit interior of that hut, I was deeply struck by the man Steve Tshwete, the person beyond the ANC activist. I was aware of his openness and gentleness. His eyes were thoughtful behind his thick glasses. I remember thinking that his poor eyesight must have contributed to his vulnerability.
The interview was short. We left the hut and moved on, as quickly as possible. For good reason. The security police were onto us shortly after that. I remember the next morning, looking in my rear-view mirror as a car pulled over to the side of the road as I crossed the apartheid-created, so-called border between the Ciskei and South Africa. For some reason, they had decided not to follow us any further.
I never met Steve Tshwete again, but I have never forgotten his powerful yet vulnerable presence.
After that interview, in exile, he resumed military training and rose in the ranks of uMkhonto weSizwe where he was actively engaged in the armed struggle. But in 1990, after the ANC was unbanned, he moved beyond the bitterness of the low-intensity war that was being fought. He became a senior member of the negotiations to end apartheid and lay the foundations for a democratic country.
As we celebrate our truly fabulous World Cup victory it is worth remembering the context in which it was made possible. It’s worth remembering the journey of Steve Tshwete and so many others like him.
How many people could find the “Ciskei” on the map today? Who has even heard of Lennox Sebe, grandly titled then “Life President” of the Ciskei? Who really remembers just how powerful the irascible, frightening PW Botha was?
Everyone agrees that our World Cup victory offers us a powerful glimpse of what could be. We cannot forget the past, but, in the future we should never forget people like Steve Tshwete.
It is hard to explain today the real fear we felt driving down that rutted dirt road in the Eastern Cape in 1984. How can you describe the power of the Security Police? How do you explain the laws that allowed detention without trial? What about the people like Steve Biko and Neil Aggett who were tortured and died in the cells of our prisons?
It is hard now to convey the bleakness that lay under the summer sun of those years – the daily terror of the shotguns and automatic rifles firing out of the police Casspirs in the townships for blacks, and a hollow fear of a limpet mine exploding in a shopping centre for whites.
How brutally far apart we were in those days. We lived in a country of absences where thousands of people lived in the shadow zone of exile, or the cruel horror of prison.
We were trapped in an abyss of fear. It was almost impossible then to imagine a way out. It remains an enduring miracle that we did find a way.
And so we did, even though our country today has so many real problems. The ANC, by many of its own senior members’ own admission, has become mired in corruption. The ruling party has lost its way, while the opposition is disunited and often lacking in vision beyond their own narrow interests.
Everyone agrees that our World Cup victory offers us a powerful glimpse of what could be. We cannot forget the past, but, in the future we should never forget people like Steve Tshwete. A complicated, now often even tangled line runs directly from the man hiding from the police in that tiny safe house to Siya Kolisi holding the Webb Ellis Cup victoriously above his head.
It is a line of memory and vision; of uncertainty and yet connectedness; of national identity and of seeking to find ways to come together.
Back in that hut in 1984 I was frightened and filled with doubt in ways that are hard to describe today. And I’m grateful that I can’t do so easily anymore. It is a real marker of the progress we have made as a society and as a country.
I’m glad I met Steve Tshwete then. I couldn’t have imagined the moment of joy and unity that erupted at the final whistle of the New Zealand game.
But I think he did. And his belief then in a better future lives on today in the hope that refuses to die among the people of our country. DM