Ashwin Willemse and the critics of South African rugby in the 1980’s

A lot has already been said and written about the Ashwin Willemse incident and what might have led him to walk off the Super Sport set on 14 May 2018. Before leaving, Ashwin Willemse said that he was “not going to be patronised by two individuals who played in apartheid”, referring to Nick Mallett and Naas Botha, who were Springboks in the 1980’s.


Nick Mallet, Ashwin Willemse and Naas Botha

I’m not going to write about this aspect, but rather about what certain commentators wrote in opinion pieces, following the incident, about rugby in South Africa in the 1980’s. I will point out specific instances where they have not been accurate with the truth and I will question why the need to support their points of view with falsehoods.

One such opinion piece is by Gareth Stead On Ashwin Willemse, AfriForum and the ‘whites only’ signs that are still there . His article was published on News24 on 21 May 2015.  He inter alia writes the following:

“The physical “whites only” signs were in your face during apartheid at beaches, public toilets, sports clubs, provincial sports teams (including WP and Northern Transvaal in the 1980’s when Mallett and Botha represented those two teams) (my emphasis). Watch a YouTube clip of a Currie Cup final between WP and Northern Transvaal in the 1980’s and ask yourself what is wrong with that picture? If you can’t see the “whites only” sign then my prayer is that you stop, look and listen a whole lot more. Perhaps you are in denial about how dehumanising and abnormal society was that so many of us grew up in.”

and …

“Effectively Nick and Naas are the quota players in that studio. The target for WP and Northern Transvaal was 100% white by law in those days. If Aswhin had played in the 1980’s he would never have played for either of those two teams or the Springboks, no matter how good he was (my emphasis).

If we had entered our democracy in 1980, would Nick and Naas have played for the Springboks? (my emphasis) Probably, but we will never know, will we? What if there had been a better black player in the No.8 jersey who had competed fairly for that position in WP at the time of Nick Mallett? Would we then know who Nick Mallett is today?”

In another article, Reaksie op Ashwin wys Wit Ontkenning, Onkunde Christi van der Westhuizen wrote inter alia as follows on Network24 on 24 May 2018 (freely translated to English):

“The public controversy about SuperSport presenter and former Springbok rugby player Ashwin Willemse, shows that he broke through a haze of white denial and touched a sore point about rugby in the apartheid era. (my emphasis)”

and ….

“The unhappiness of some white people is related to the fact that Willemse, as a black man, dared to uncover a toxic racial interaction. Part of this was his memory of the historical fact that Mallett and Botha played segregated rugby in the apartheid era (my emphasis).”

and ….

“The most unpleasant of Ashwin’s confrontation for those that were unhappy, was most probably him reminding everyone that white rugby players had to confront less competition during apartheid because other, possibly better, players were ruled out by their skin color (my emphasis).”

Let’s look at some of the facts. Yes, rugby in South Africa was played on a segregated basis from 1886 until 1977. Separated rugby unions existed for the different racial groups during this period, the names of which changed a number of times over the years. This changed in November 1977, when the then coloured South African Rugby Football Federation (SARFF), black South African Rugby Association (SARA) and white South African Rugby Board (SARB) amalgamated to form the non-racial South African Rugby Board.

The South African Rugby Union (SARU), under the leadership of Dullah Abass, decided not to be part of the unification process and continued under the leadership of the South African Council on Sport (SACOS) to make a case for “no normal sport in an abnormal society”. Who of the unified non-racial SARB or SARU had the most or best of the rugby players under their umbrellas at the time, remains a matter of much debate even today, but the SARU decision not to participate in the unification process in 1977 robbed the general rugby public from seeing a number of great SARU players in action (this article Rugby’s freedom fighters lists the 10 greatest players from SARU who may not have disgraced the Springboks).

The November 1977 unification meant that players of colour of the former SARFF and SARA unions could play in the mainstream competitions of the new non-racial SARB, which was affiliated to the International Rugby Board (IRB). As such they qualified to play provincial rugby or for any of the SARB affiliated national representative teams, including the Springboks.

Gareth Steads assertion therefore, that the target for WP and Northern Transvaal was 100% white by law in the 1980’s, is not correct. They and the other provincial unions playing under the SARB could select any rugby player on merit in the late 1970’s/1980’s and no law existed that prohibited this. In 1980 Errol Tobias for example played for Boland in the Currie Cup and Avril Williams and Wilfred Cupido played for Western Province from 1982 onward. Granted, especially in the beginning after unification, only a few players of colour made it into the provincial rugby teams.


Wilfred Cupido (far right) playing for Western Province in the 1980’s

He is also wrong to assert that If Aswhin Willemse played in the 1980’s, he would never have played for either Northern Transvaal or Western Province or the Springboks, no matter how good he was. If Ashwin played his rugby under the banner of the non-racial SARB in the 1980’s, he could have (given his demonstrated rugby talent that took him to the top in the 2000’s), played for any of the two provincial teams or the Springboks, just like Errol Tobias, Avril Williams and Dolly Ntaka did in the 1980’s (more about them in a future blog post).


Avril Williams and Errol Tobias playing for the Springboks against England in 1984

As to his question if Naas Botha and Nick Mallet would have played for the Springboks in the 1980’s if we entered democracy in that period, any rugby follower worth his salt would answer a definite yes. Naas is one of the few SA rugby players inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame as he was in his own right a player of exceptional talent and recognised internationally as one of the game’s best flyhalves ever. He also did not just play rugby in the Apartheid era as alleged by Ashwin Willemse, but also after 1990 when he captained the Springboks in tests against the All Blacks, Wallabies and France.

Nick Mallet played in only two tests in the 1980’s due to South Africa’s sporting isolation, but his real claim to fame is when he capably and with distinction, coached the Springboks in the post Apartheid era, and from 1998 to 2000, equaling the All Blacks long standing world record of 17 undefeated international tests. His reputation is therefore not mainly as an Apartheid era Springbok player which Ashwin referred to, but that of a post-Apartheid coach who led the Springboks in this capacity to many victories.


Nick Mallet coaching the Springboks

Christi van der Westhuizen is also wrong in asserting that Mallett and Botha played segregated rugby in the Apartheid era (even calling it a historical fact!) as they both played under the umbrella of the non-racial SARB and with and against people of colour in the 1980’s. Her other point that white rugby players had to confront less competition during apartheid because other, possibly better, players were ruled out by their skin color, is only true as far as those rugby players that played under the banner of SARU are concerned as they, SARU, did not participate in any of the non-racial SARB competitions or rugby matches. As far as the SARB is concerned players of colour played on merit in national tournaments and some achieved national honours under their banner. I find it troubling that she nevertheless used the latter tenuous assumption as the concluding paragraph to her article, so as to impute that it was that aspect which many white people found the most upsetting.


Naas Botha and Errol Tobias standing next to another in the Springbok team photo (they played in white in this test) for the test match against Ireland in 1981 (sorry for the bad quality, its from my personal rugby scrapbook from many years ago)

In a later article dated 28 May 2018, Pieter du Toit, the Editor in Chief of the Huffington Post wrote an article Springbok Rugby And The Meaning Of Siya Kolisi on the election of Siya Kolisi as the new Springbok captain, a selection which was widely welcomed by the rugby public. Rather than focussing on the significance of his election rugby wise as the writer of this article did Siya: A splendid moment for SA rugby, Pieter wades into political territory and inter alia had the following to say:

“But the nadir of Springbok rugby came in 1974, when Willie John McBride’s famous British Lions visited John Vorster’s South Africa and thumped the pride of Afrikanerdom (and white South Africa) four-zip. As in 4-0. It was a national crisis (my emphasis). McBride’s team was one of the first to play mixed-race teams, and Greyvenstein’s book also carries a famous picture of legendary Welsh fullback J.P.R. Williams (note – the British Lion’s player and fullback in the picture is in fact Andy Irvine and not JPR Williams) with black players from an invitational team called the Leopards (my emphasis).

It was during this time that Danie Craven, the heart and soul of South African rugby over many decades, realised that white rugby was unsustainable, and that the rugby community would have to reach out to the black and coloured rugby controlling bodies. His efforts, however, were thwarted and stalled by the petty-apartheid policy-peddling prime-ministership of BJ Vorster, and initially PW Botha as well (my emphasis).”

and ….

But our history is almost silent on black rugby (my emphasis). There have been numerous efforts to right this wrong, with academics and journalists attempting to shine a light on the black legends that surely would have made it into “Springbok Saga” if this country hadn’t been cursed with apartheid and segregation.”

Pieter describes the 1974 loss of the Springboks to the British Lions above in emotive terms such as that it was a nadir (the lowest or most unsuccessful point in a situation), that the Lions thumped the pride of Afrikanerdom (and white South Africa) four-zip, as in 4-0 and that it was a national crisis. I’m not so sure that given the language used, he means that it was a national crisis in a rugby sense (it was a rugby series after all) or for the psyche of white South Africa (as in a low point in Afrikaner superiority)? My suspicion is the latter much more than in a rugby sense. In this he is as guilty as the overseas and local liberal English press at the time who used every opportunity to have a go at those pesky bad racists Afrikaners.

He is also wrong if he feels that for the Afrikaner the loss to the Lions was seen as a low point other than in a rugby sense. I was eleven years old at the time and saw my first international rugby match when the British Lions narrowly defeated a SA Quagga Barbarian XV 20 – 16 at Ellispark on 27 June 1974. Sitting in a rigidity temporary stand erected on top of the Ellispark grandstand roof, I saw Polla Fourie (of my home town Middelburg and who played provincial rugby with my dad for South Eastern Transvaal) playing alongside players like Peter Kirsten and Gavin Cowley; and performing so well that he was selected for the Springbok team for the third test. If it was not for the referee Ian Gourley awarding a controversial try to Lions lock Gordan Brown after a clear knock on (as somebody else wrote in a comment on the article of that match “…that day Ian Gourley cost the Quagga Barbarians the match, I would have punched him myself if I was close enough”), the Quaggas would have become the first team to beat the British Lions on the tour and with two tests still remaining such a loss might have changed the outcome of the test series.


SA Quagga Barbarian XV that played against the 1974 British Lions (Polla Fourie seated in second row far left)

I’m not aware of anybody in the rugby fraternity that saw more into the loss against the British Lions, other than that the Springboks were beaten by a brilliant rugby team that included legends of the game like JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards, Willie John McBride and Fergus Slattery. As the son of a provincial rugby player I attended many rugby matches, post rugby match functions and training exercises after the 1974 tour and never heard anything said like that the loss was a blow to Afrikanerdom, but only admiration for how good the 1974 British Lions were rugby wise and how they gave the Springboks a rugby lesson.

Pieter calls the Leopards team that played against the 1974 British Lions on 9 July 1974 an invitational team! What an insult for a team that was selected on merit as the best from all the black rugby players that played under the banner of the South African Rugby Association (SARA). The team was captained by hooker Thompson Magxala and included lock Liston Ntshongwana and Morgan Cushe at 8th Man. In their 10-56 loss to the Lions at Sisa Dukashe Stadium in Mdtantsane, wing,  Charles Mgweba scored a try and Norman Mbiko succeeded with two penalties. Willie John McBride’s side answered with 8 tries, one by legendary scrum-half Gareth Edwards and a hat-trick by wing Tom Grace. The significance of Mgweba’s try can be measured by the fact that the Springboks had not scored any tries in the two Tests that had been played against the Lions by that time.

The British Lions face the Leopards in 1974

The 1974 British Lions in action against the Leopards

Pieter is also wrong about his assertion that BJ Vorster and PW Botha thwarted the efforts of Danie Craven. In the last year of Vorster’s rule namely 1977, the non-racial SARB was established and by the time PW Botha became Prime Minister  in 1978, it was already in existence and promoting non-racial rugby.

To say that our history is almost silent on black rugby as alleged by Pieter, may have rung true in 1994, but since then many articles and books that are freely available, have been published about the contribution of black people to rugby in South Africa since the 1886. As an avid rugby follower I have a number of these books in my study and one which I can recommend is “150 Jaar van Suid-Afrikaanse Rugby” deur Wim van der Berg.


Fullback Andy Irvine and Leopard’s captain Thomas Magxala shaking hands – 1974

It’s however not just commentators that are not accurate with the truth when writing about rugby in South Africa in the 1980’s. On the website SA History Online which is seen as an authoritative history of South Africa with a decolonized flavor, I found the following article Timeline of the History of Rugby in South Africa in researching this blog post.

The said article contains the following two entries for the period 1981 to 1992, both of which are factually incorrect –

  1. 1981: Springboks tour New Zealand. The second match between the Springboks and All-Blacks is cancelled because hundreds of protesters occupy the pitch. None of the tests during this controversial tour were cancelled and the All Blacks beat the Springboks in two of the three tests to win a hard fought international series 2-1. Perhaps the author was thinking of the Springboks tour match against the provincial Waikato team which was cancelled after a pitch invasion by a small group of protesters.
  2. 1984-1992: South Africa banned from the International Rugby Board as a result of the nation’s continuation of apartheid policies. Not true as the SARB remained a full member of the IRB throughout it’s existence from 1889 to 1992.

All of the above points for me to an attempt to underplay the strides made in the 1980’s already to advance non-racialism in South African rugby. It minimizes what the non-racial SARB achieved from 1977 onward in this regard. The question is why this denialism on the side of some commentators and the attempts to rewrite the history of rugby in the 1980’s? For me it’s down to the desire to be politically correct and toe the line to the current dominant political ideology in South Africa.

The question should also be asked why News24 and Netwerk24 do not check articles or opinion pieces placed under their name for factual inaccuracies. I appreciate that it might be difficult to do so for opinion pieces by non-journalists, but given the proliferation of fake news articles, I feel that the media should be extra careful in this regard.

To conclude, maybe those that are so critical of South African rugby in the 1980’s like Gareth, Pieter and Christi, are not fully aware of the strides made during that period already in starting to transform the sport, which yes far from the ideal, in part laid the foundation for the post-Apartheid era of rugby in South Africa and the full unification of the sport in 1992. I will therefore in my next two blog post highlight some of the milestones achieved in this regard (whilst fully acknowledging that it will not be a complete picture as SARU did not participate in any SARB sanctioned tournaments in the 1970’s/1980’s).


Errol Tobias playing for the Springboks in 1984 against England

5 responses to “Ashwin Willemse and the critics of South African rugby in the 1980’s

  1. Pingback: Non-Racial Rugby in South Africa: 1971 to 1990 – Part 1 (1971 to 1976) | 2 Sides 2 Everything

  2. Great. I think Naas was one of those who insisted on trials after the 1992 unification. He is most unfairly implicated in the Ashwin story. Naas went out of his way to go & play nonracial American Football in 80’s, how do they get it right to imply he’s a racist.

  3. Pingback: Non-Racial Rugby in South Africa: 1971 to 1990 – Part 2 (1977 to 1990) | 2 Sides 2 Everything

  4. Pingback: Ashwin Willemse – did he infringe the dignity, respect, and standing of Nick Mallet and Naas Botha? | 2 Sides 2 Everything

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