Township youths tackle South Africa's 'white sport': rugby

In the black Johannesburg township of Diepsloot, one volunteer coach is teaching children the basics of rugby.

Scott Baldauf
new sport: Johannes Masetla was scared of getting tackled when he started playing rugby.
Scott Baldauf
Andile Sopisa says he doesn't have the right body type for soccer, but that his big frame is perfect for rugby.
Scott Baldauf
Pioneers? Bafana Thawuzeni, a fitness trainer, volunteers two hours each weekday teaching children in the Johannesburg township of Diepsloot how to play the 'white sport' of rugby.
Scott Baldauf
Drills: Township youths in Diepsloot, South Africa, learn the basics of rugby.

The coach's whistle bleats, and the two young players, both 8 years old, square off and run full speed toward each other. One boy carries the oblong ball, juking to the left to avoid the inevitable crunch of a rugby tackle. When the defender brings down his man, a field of young enthusiasts cheer.

It's a scene replicated in nearly every town in South Africa, where rugby – a sport akin to football but without pads, forward passes, or TV time-outs – holds the same revered space as cricket holds in India and football in Texas. In nearly every town, that is, except for the black townships such as Diepsloot, where rugby is seen as a "white sport."

"I'm doing this because I'm tired of hearing that rugby is a white sport," says Bafana Thawuzeni, a Johannesburg fitness trainer and volunteer coach in Diepsloot. "Our country became free 14 years ago, so we should be equal. I'm doing this so that these kids have some exposure to all the sports in their country, not just the ones that blacks are supposed to be good at, like soccer."

Fourteen years after the fall of apartheid, a continued culture of separateness lingers in the realm of sports. Whites watch and play rugby, blacks watch and play soccer, and never the twain do meet.

While numerous South African politicians have vowed to "transform" sports in the country (a euphemism for racial integration) the athletic divide remains stubbornly entrenched by previous decades of racist laws and stereotyping.

More recently, the rift has been reinforced by economics and TV contracts, because soccer games are shown on regular TV and rugby is shown on cable TV or pay-per-view. This makes the task of idealists like Mr. Thawuzeni all the more difficult.

"Sports are a metaphor for South Africa's transformation" into a multiracial equal society, says Ashwin Desai, a sociologist at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

As long as the majority of rugby players are white, the vast majority of South Africa's black population won't be too interested in the sport – even when South Africa's national team wins the World Cup championships, as it did last year. But cherry-picking the best black players from small-town rugby leagues and placing them into major national rugby teams, through affirmative action, isn't the answer, says Mr. Desai, because that simply weakens the black teams they leave behind and reinforces the common perception of white teams as being superior against black teams.

"There need to be sports academies [for blacks], and at the lower level there must be a culture of rugby developed," says Desai. "But because there is so much money in rugby, the money will take the talented black players." There simply aren't any easy answers, he sighs. "Once you open up the minefield of race, you can't close it."

It's not as if South Africa is lacking for black talent, or for black role models. One of the fastest wings – the equivalent of a running back in American football – and one of South Africa's most recognizable players because of his lucrative advertising and endorsement contracts, is Bryan Habana, a black player for the Johannesburg-based professional team, the Blue Bulls.

Yet if Mr. Habana were to walk through the uneven rugby field at Diepsloot, he probably would go unnoticed. Most kids who show up to learn the sport from Bafana Thawuzeni don't have a television, let alone cable TV, and few have ever seen a rugby game. Their reasons for choosing rugby are much purer: They simply like the ability to bring one of their fellow players to the dust – and not get into trouble for doing so.

On a recent afternoon, the Diepsloot players were busy getting to know the basics of rugby – sprints and passing and squats to strengthen their leg muscles. Most boys play barefoot so that they don't wear out their school shoes, often the only pair of shoes they have. Their field is a gently sloping washout zone below a large earthen dam, vacant of squatter shacks because of the possibility of the earthen dam giving way.

And their coaches are two young fitness trainers who know that the real value of sports is not necessarily in grooming future Brian Habanas, but in keeping young boys out of trouble.

Passing by a liquor store near the field, coach Thawuzeni sighs and says, "Alcohol, that's what brings these communities down. These kids need to have some other excitement in their lives, otherwise they will get into trouble."

Thawuzeni knows what he is talking about. As a young boy in the eastern state of Kwa-Zulu Natal, Thawuzeni admits that he was involved in all sorts of antisocial activity, including gambling and, occasionally, theft. But when he settled down and devoted himself to sports, he cleaned up his act. This year, he decided to teach himself how to play rugby by watching the best team in the business. In 2007, the South African Springboks won the World Cup rugby championship.

"I've never played the game before. I just learned it by watching TV," Thawuzeni says, as his assistant, Odirile "Fire" Pitsoane, urges the young players to do jumping jacks and a flock of sheep appears on the outskirts of the field to graze. But while he knows soccer players, like many a township boy, he thinks rugby is a better game for blacks to learn, if only because there is more money in that sport than in soccer.

The two young coaches, who volunteer their time two hours a day, never know how many kids will show up each day. Sometimes parents complain that their children need to stay home to do chores; others worry that rugby is a rough sport for a child.

"Speaking the truth," says Mr. Pitsoane, "they don't know rugby. So what we try to do is work with strength, endurance, flexibility, and we'll deal with the rules later."

One of the bigger boys, 13-year-old Andile Sopisa, says that he loved rugby the first time he saw it. He happened to be passing by this weed-strewn lot when he saw Thawuzeni's young charges running at each other and tackling each other to the ground. Andile's friends all ran away, but he came down to join the players and he's come ever since.

"Other sports are not good for me," says Andile, indicating his rather large frame, "but for rugby, I'm just right." He admits he's never watched a rugby match before, "but I like it when I play. I like to score."

Johannes Masetla, a scrawny 1l-year-old in a ragged, orange T-shirt, says his first time playing rugby was tough and a little terrifying. "I was afraid of being tackled," he says. But dusting himself off that first day, he stood up, smiling. "If people can do this to me," he says, "I can do it to them, too."

With the 2010 soccer World Cup being held in South Africa, Thawuzeni knows that he might lose some players to soccer. But he says, "at least they will know that they can play rugby – they will know it's not a white sport."

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