49 signatures significant to a fight that was never in vain

Mark Keohane, writing in his weekly Cape Times column: Keo’s Corner


On the 15th July 2020, 49 black South African Rugby players, coaches and administrators signed a statement supporting the speaking out about prejudice and racism.

These 49 were seconding the stance of Proteas cricketer Lungi Ngidi and also keeping their focus to rugby.

They acknowledged the progress of the Springboks in representativity and the glory of Siya Kolisi leading a transformed Springboks squad to World Cup victory in Japan in 2019. But they made telling statements of their experience of rugby in South Africa since unity in 1991.

‘Often the question is asked, why didn’t you speak out when you were players and even now as coaches or former players? The answer is quite simple, those with the courage to speak out are marginalised and forced to seek employment outside rugby or sport. It is this fear of losing employment and being left without a plan B that is making the number of people on this list a little less than anticipated. We can no longer live in fear and our inner voices won’t be silenced anymore.’

 For me, it made for a joyful and inspiring read … for this reason.

Indulge me for a few minutes and allow me to take you back to 2nd September 2003 and my resignation as Springboks Media Liaison, just six weeks before the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia.

This was my statement at the time, as reported in the media:

“Given the events of the past week within the Springbok camp I have no alternative but to sever my ties with the Springboks and SA rugby.

My decision to resign is a conscience and moral one as I can no longer be part of a squad in which prejudice is tolerated, wished away and excused.

“I want to place on record my disgust at the media accusations directed at SA Rugby Pty Ltd managing director Rian Oberholzer and the ill-informed condemnation of his decision to remove Geo Cronjé from the Springbok training squad.

“Mr Oberholzer acted on information given to him by members of the Springbok management and he acted in the best interests of a rugby company and rugby organisation that promotes the rooting out of prejudice in any form as part of its current and future vision.

“I have, on request, presented Mr Oberholzer with a report detailing my concerns of prejudice within the Springbok set-up. I trust that it will give him and his board the necessary insight, and that it will assist SA rugby (as a company) in the ongoing fight against any form of prejudice.

“I wish Corne Krige and his squad all success at the World Cup.

“More importantly, however, is my hope that solutions be found for the ongoing prejudices that continue to undermine South African rugby’s growth as a truly representative national sport in this country of ours.”

This is an open letter to Rian (Oberholzer), written yesterday, nearly 17 years after my resignation letter.

‘It is a fight (Rian) that you and I have always believed in, from when we first met in the mid-1990s. The one thing we always agreed on was the strength of a diverse Springboks squad. We were told then that to pursue this ‘dream’ would destroy the Springboks as a rugby superpower.

‘We believed differently, and what both of us underestimated was our overestimation in 2003 that emotionally, mentally and in general mindset, the rest of the rugby community shared our sentiments.

‘I smiled in a big way when I saw the names of those who aligned and signed the #BlackLivesMatter acknowledgement of what they had suffered during their rugby careers, but equally some of them were those who didn’t or couldn’t support your vision or the reality of what had happened in 2003 because when we both required them to speak up, they said I had lied and misled you.

‘An old confidant at the time told me, you may never live to see the acknowledgement of what you did. So, if it is from the heart, don’t stick around for the acknowledgement. It may never come.

‘I smiled this week because that acknowledgement did come, even if indirectly and with no regard to us from those prejudiced 17 years ago.

‘I believe our rugby in 2020 is where the two of us were in mindset, action and application in 2003.

‘Today, I feel we both got to see, through 49 rugby-specific signatures, that our fight in 2003 for a transformed South African rugby was never in vain. And that the fight within us today will never be in vain.

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