Stopping the violence

South African club rugby continues to be plagued by violent incidents involving players, coaches and spectators. One man, though, believes his relaunched initiative will effectively tackle the problem.

ClubDave van der Walt has a lot on his plate. At his age, most colleagues would be sitting back, feet up, waiting for the proverbial end-of-school bell to signal the start of their retirement. But in Van der Walt’s busy office at Oudtshoorn High School, there’s no sign of any career clock-watching going on.

‘My wife just phoned and I told her I don’t know whether I’m coming or going,’ says the 58-year-old head of department with a laugh. ‘I’ve been teaching since ’74, so just two more years and then I go down [retire].’

In 1985, Van der Walt arrived in the Karoo town as a young teacher who dreamt of coaching his own rugby team one day. Twenty-four years later, he’s still there, the once wide-eyed onnie having since become part of the furniture.

‘I still teach business studies full-time and I’m also superintendent of the school hostel,’ he says. ‘I’m also in charge of the old scholars’ relations and we’ve just hosted a touch rugby tournament which I hope will become a national event next year.’

What Van der Walt fails to mention is that, in between teaching for eight hours a day, as well as organising reunions and making sure his school boarders are happy, he has also decided there’s time to solve the slightly bigger problem of club rugby violence in South Africa.

As secretary of the South Western Districts Sport Council, Van der Walt has seen his fair share of problems on sports fields across the southern Cape. But none compare to the after-match scenes at Mossel Bay Rugby Club on 1 August when players and supporters from the visiting Heidelberg team lost their heads after their team lost an SWD Premier League match to a disputed penalty in the dying seconds.

The incident was caught on camera and has been viewed thousands of times on YouTube. Armed with the seven minutes of video evidence, the SWDRFU handed Heidelberg an unprecedented 15-year ban, which effectively ended the playing careers of every one of its members.

The Heidelberg affair was just the latest in a long list of incidents of countrywide rugby violence which, in some areas, has been endemic for decades. Crucially, however, the ban signalled a turning point in the attitude of rugby administrators after years of paying lip service to the problem.

SWD’s decision was designed to send out a strong message and yet it wasn’t universally welcomed. Politicians and community leaders urged the rugby authorities to reconsider, saying the entire Heidelberg community shouldn’t have been punished for the actions of a few.

SWD responded by saying it would reconsider the ban if Heidelberg named the guilty parties – a sacrifice which, at the time of writing, the club was unwilling to make. ‘Heidelberg has a history of misconduct and there is a reluctance on their side to name the culprits,’ says SWD CEO Willie Small.

Enter Dave van der Walt.

On the evening of 28 August – just days before a judicial appeal committee was due to hear a presentation from Heidelberg’s lawyer – Van der Walt, dressed in his favourite suit, arrived at a beachfront hotel in Wilderness to help relaunch the Riaan Loots Campaign Against Violence In Sport – an initiative he hopes will tackle the problem once and for all.

The Riaan Loots Campaign is a joint venture between the Western Cape Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport, which is financing the project, and the SWD Sport Council. It was first mooted two years ago by the previous MEC for sport, Whitey Jacobs, but has only recently been revived by the incoming provincial administration. And as if he didn’t have enough to worry about, Van der Walt has  volunteered to become its project leader. ‘I do it for the love of it,’ he says.

The campaign has the full backing of Saru and the Western Cape Government, whose MEC for Cultural Affairs and Sport, Sakkie Jenner, attended the launch and again pledged his department’s financial support.

In a country where sporting violence is commonplace – be it club rugby brawls or soccer fans ripping out stadium seats at Newlands – Riaan Loots is undoubtedly its most famous rugby victim. Loots was a promising 24-year-old flyhalf for Boland Premier League team Rawsonville when he was kicked in the head three years ago in a match in Ceres against local team Delicious. Loots’s death made headlines around the world and, in May this year, former player Ben Zimri was jailed for five years for culpable homicide.

Zimri has appealed the sentence, and there’s talk that an original charge of murder may be relooked when the matter returns to court – all of which does nothing to close the painful chapter for Loots’s father, Willie, who accepted an invitation from his old friend Van der Walt to attend the launch of the campaign named after his son.

‘I want to be involved so that something good comes from what happened to Riaan,’ says Loots. ‘If it helps to make the game safer for other young players and everyone who takes part in sport, that will be my biggest consolation.

‘I said in my speech at the launch that you can’t go forward if you are looking over your shoulder all the time, because the smallest obstacle can delay your progress. I got the impression that all the people there know what the problem is and they don’t try to hide behind racism. They are very willing to face the facts.’

Van der Walt’s involvement is deeply personal: he taught and coached Riaan at Oudtshoorn before his family relocated to the Strand, where they still live.

‘When Riaan was in U14 and U15 we didn’t lose a game and even beat Paarl Gym and Paul Roos,’ says Van der Walt. ‘He was very close to me because he was one of my players. That extra emotion is what got me involved.’

Van der Walt has already begun drawing up practical plans to be implemented at problem clubs. These include crowd-control courses and off-beat ideas such as asking clubs to play music at matches to calm aggressive crowds.

‘There will always be aggression, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing,’ he says. ‘It must just be channelled in the right way. Most of the aggression stems from factors like problems at home and poverty, and on Saturdays there’s nothing to do in small towns except go to the rugby. The game is a platform to get rid of frustration and aggression, and suddenly these people find themselves next to a field with no fences.’

The Loots campaign was also recently launched in the Western Cape and Van der Walt plans a national roll-out in the coming months.

‘Rugby is our main focus, but we want people to say no to violence in all sports. We are going to ask WP Cricket and WP Rugby to do a seminar about crowd control,’ he says. ‘It’s no use going to the clubs with manuals. They’re not interested! They want the practical stuff. They want to know, “If this happens, what do we do?” This has to be proactive.’

As a teacher, Van der Walt believes breaking down barriers through education is a better long-term solution to rugby violence than suggestions from some quarters to erect fences at problem clubs.

‘You can’t put up fencing when there’s not even enough money for facilities,’ he says. ‘For what it costs to fence off most of these fields, you could have developed three or more sporting facilities and playing fields for the people who really need it. If you play music at a rugby game in Heidelberg, it will certainly help to alleviate the pressure because the people start to sing. It’s all a question of attitude. The main problems are facilities and alcohol. Attitude you can change, but if you can’t get rid of the alcohol, and if you don’t try to improve facilities and safety at clubs, you’re going to have problems.’

After the campaign’s launch in Wilderness, the second phase took place the following day in nearby George, to coincide with the province’s end-of-season club finals day at SWD’s Outeniqua Park headquarters.

‘It was even better than the Friday night,’ says Van der Walt. ‘The rugby started at 8am and only finished at 8pm. We had 8 000 fans who came from all over and a local radio station even broadcasted live from the stadium. We put up posters in the change rooms and there was not a single violent incident in all the games on the day, which says a helluva lot.’

An official ceremony was held where the chairpersons and presidents of all the clubs involved in the finals were each given a symbolic T-shirt and poster by Thabo Tutu, the Western Cape’s director of sport.

‘Even the ball boys had T-shirts with the poster on. I think we made a great impact,’ says Van der Walt. ‘The MEC [Jenner] was so impressed that he said they’re going to set this as a benchmark for the other regions. I think we’ve done something right here.’

Jenner agrees, saying the campaign could ‘not have come at a better time’ in SWD, given the Heidelberg incident.

‘What makes the Riaan Loots Campaign even more significant is the fact that Riaan attended a local primary and high school before his parents relocated,’ he says. ‘My department, together with the SWD Sport Council, hopes that this small step will make a difference in the fight against violence in sport.’

Small says his SWD union is also fully behind the campaign.

‘We want to uphold and protect the values that are supposed to be attached to the beautiful game of rugby,’ he says. ‘The IRB, Saru and SWDRFU are the custodians of rugby, we own the right to regulate rugby, and that’s why we must make sure we get rid of those elements that don’t belong within the parameters of the sport. With Dave’s help, we will make sure there is more awareness and information about the campaign, so that people know about the seriousness of violence at sports events. Hopefully this will prevent them from making themselves guilty.’

Van der Walt is aware of the mountain he must climb, but he believes the best way to change mindsets is to begin at the place he knows best.

‘If you take into account that there are about 45 000 rugby players who play every Saturday in SWD, you must realise there is a certain percentage of people who you are going to have to cater for,’ he says. ‘But one such incident is too many, and this is why we are going to start with our schools.

‘There’s no quick solution to it because we’ve gone too far already. But if we concentrate on schools, I think the results will spill over to the senior clubs. Our next step after the crowd-control courses is to identify hot spots where violence occurs and have regular talks with the communities there. We’ve made a good start, and it’s just a case of getting this programme running, not only in SWD and the Western Cape, but in the whole of the country.’

Willie Loots has written a book about his son and says he wants to use the proceeds to spread the campaign’s message.

‘The book is not so I can make money,’ he says. ‘My wife and I have a dream that fits in with this campaign. We want to identify a kid who reminds us of Riaan, and send him to a rugby institute to get the best training, so that if one day he achieves something in rugby we can have the pleasure of knowing we helped.

SARU1009cv001‘But the condition is that when he is finished he must become a role model in his community, like Riaan was. He doesn’t have to reach the top, as long as he reaches his goals. That’s what we have prayed for.’

By Duane Heath

– This article first appeared in the October issue of SA Rugby magazine