HE walked with the majesty of a Warrior and the indomitable force of a Beast — his boy in his left hand and his girl in his right hand, to be greeted by a thunderous sound of thousands of delirious fans packed inside Bloemfontein’s Toyota Stadium.
A proud family dressed in the green-and-gold colours of their adopted country, an iconic kit which — in the dark days of the brutality of apartheid — was not allowed to be touched, let alone worn, by black people like them.
The happy faces of a team which, for about a century, represented the myth that white was superior and black was inferior and did not welcome any players of colour within its ranks until the barriers of apartheid were swept away by the winds of change at the turn of the ‘90s.
A team which, even in the era of the seismic political changes which followed Nelson Mandela’s release from 27 years in prison, struggled to embrace the reality that a black player could be good enough to play for them, let alone be accepted to be a part of its heritage.
And a team which, only three years ago, in September 2015, was the subject of a High Court bid by some South Africans to bar it from flying out for the Rugby World Cup in England because, they argued, it wasn’t a true reflection of the people of the Rainbow Nation.
For beyond the public relations farce which saw Chester Williams, a black man from the Western Cape, having his face being plastered on the body of a South African Airways plane as a representative of the new Springboks, and the new Rainbow Nation, during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, divisions within the Boks — based on race — still ran very deep.
Williams opened the lid to the challenges he faced, being the odd black member of that triumphant Boks team, singling out James Small in his autobiography as someone who used to shun him and even call him a “f*****g kaffir.’’
But last Saturday, Tendai “Beast’’ Mtawarira, walked to a deafening roar, fit for a King, as they saluted him for an extra-ordinary journey which has seen him rise from a humble background in Harare to become only the second black Springbok to clock 100 Test caps.
In 127 years of the Boks turbulent history in the trenches of Test rugby, no prop had ever played 100 Test caps for the two-time World Champions.
And, when it finally happened on Saturday afternoon, it was done by a boy from Zimbabwe who arrived in South Africa, a dozen years ago, with just a talent to showcase, driven by a relentless pursuit for greatness and turbo-charged by this rare character, which make the people from this country such a very special lot, to succeed against all the odds.
In the end, not even a heart condition diagonised six years ago, which some claimed would end his career, or some xenophobic politicians who tried, and failed, eight years ago to bar him from wearing the Springboks colours claiming he didn’t qualify to represent the country, could stop the Beast from his trailblazing adventure and journey to greatness.
The same people who seemingly had seen nothing wrong in a number of our white boys — Adrian Garvey, Andy MacDonald, Ben-Piet van Zyl, Bobby Skinstad, Chris Rogers, David Smith, Des van Jaarsveldt, Ian Robertson and Ray Mordt — in starring for the Springboks, after emigrating from our productive rugby nurseries, suddenly appeared to find issues with the Beast and his qualification to wear the team’s colours.
Remarkably, of the 28 Tests Bulawayo-born Garvey — one of the few players to feature at the Rugby World Cup for two countries having played for Zimbabwe and South Africa — played for the Springboks, they won 24 and that remains a benchmark for the highest winning percentage (86 percent) by a Springbok among players with 20 or more Tests.
That Mordt, just like the Beast, was a former Churchill schoolboy, and had played Currie Cup for this country, didn’t appear to ring a bell to these people who probably only choose to embrace his white skin colour, and brilliance on the wing where he scored 12 tries in 18 Tests for the Boks, including three against the All Blacks at Eden Park in Auckland on September 12, 1981.
The same people who seemingly had seen nothing wrong in Gary Teichmann, probably one of our greatest rugby exports, emerging from his hometown of Gweru to captain the Springboks between 1995 and 1999, now appeared to see hurdles in the Beast’s transformation into an iconic Bok simply because he had a different skin colour to the others.
That it needed a boy from Zimbabwe, Tonderai Chavhanga, to become the first Springbok to score six tries in a Test match when he destroyed Uruguay in East London in 2005, didn’t appear to matter, at all, among those who wanted to derail the Beast’s career.
But, where there is the Lord’s Hand, there is always hope and Mtawarira, who is a devoted Christian, prayed long and hard and, in the end his prayers were heard and answered as those who had tried to put some spikes in his path were defeated and, on Saturday, he reached the milestone of 100 Test caps for the Boks.
THE SYMBOLISM OF IT ALL HAPPENING IN BLOEMFONTEIN WAS VERY POWERFUL
Somehow, either by design or by default, the Beast’s milestone of reaching a century of Test caps had to happen in Bloemfontein, the judicial capital of South Africa, and a city which, long before the National Party institutionalised apartheid in 1948, had passed racial segregation laws in the 19th century with the passing of the Ordinance 1 in 1869.
That law in Bloemfontein prescribed that no non-whites, without written permission from the white landlords, had the right to occupy land in the town and residential segregation, where some neighbourhoods were no-go areas for blacks, had already been put into place.
That was about 20 years before the Springboks played their first Test match in 1891, in what was the start of an adventure for this team that would see it remain an enclave for white players only, the sporting branch of the country’s racial segregation policies, for 100 years.
Apartheid was finally abolished on June 17, 1991, when South Africa’s parliament scrapped the legal framework for racial segregation, which had provided the foundation for this evil system.
As fate would have it, apartheid had to officially fall in the very year the Springboks — viewed by many as the sporting face of this evil system — were celebrating 100 years of Test rugby in a journey which had begun with a 0-4 defeat in Port Elizabeth to the British Isles in 1891.
The Beast’s special occasion of 100 Tests for the Boks had to come in the 480th Test played by South Africa.
Those who gave so much in fighting for the fall of apartheid, including many South Africans who paid for this with their lives, will also remember that it was in Bloemfontein where the African National Congress, a key political player in the fight against this brutal system, was formed in 1912.
And it was there, in Bloemfontein last Saturday, where our Beast became only the seventh Springbok, in 127 years of the team’s battles on the Test arena, to clock, at least, 100 caps for the team, taking his place among some legendary Centurions like Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana, John Smit, Jean de Villiers and Percy Montgomery.
Such was the significance of the Beast’s achievement that he even received a surprise phone call from South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, who congratulated him for serving the Springboks with distinction in the 100 Tests he has featured for the team.
“I got a phone call from President Cyril Ramaphosa” said the Beast. “He said ‘it’s the president.’ I said ‘Oh’. When I realised who it was I got very formal‚ very quickly.
“He thanked me for what I had done and for inspiring South Africans. I was just really surprised that he knew who I was.
“He told me he’s calling to congratulate me. He said it is an inspiration for the whole South Africa. He kept it short. I just kept saying‚ ‘Yes Sir’‚ ‘thank you Sir.’ It has been a really great night.’’
Of course, the Beast didn’t get anything from our Sports Commission, not even a call to say “well done warrior,’’ because I will bet my last dollar that those we have entrusted in leading the Commission probably don’t even have his number or follow him on Twitter.
Probably, they don’t know he is one of us, even though he plays for South Africa, and don’t care about what he does on the rugby fields in which he has transformed himself into one of the finest players of his generation in the world.
Maybe, they don’t even know he exists at all, because they are only interested in negativity, their relentless boardroom battles against ZIFA, where their shameless decision to take sides, and lower themselves into a cabal fighting in the trenches, is as pathetic as it is unfortunate.
Or, maybe, they think simply because he doesn’t play for the Sables, but the Springboks, when it comes to rugby, means he isn’t one of us even when, now and again, he comes back home, to the place that will always be his first love, to help our schoolboys in their quest for greatness one day.
No one, probably, has ever told them that Patrick Vieira, who was a member of the France team that won the World Cup in 1998, was born in Dakar, Senegal, and only moved — with his family — to live in the European country when he was only eight.
The Arsenal legend went on to win 107 caps, becoming the fifth most capped Frenchman behind Lilian Thuram, Thierry Henry, Marcel Desailly and Zinedine Zidane.
That hasn’t taken away the fact he remains Senegalese and, proud of that, telling CNN, “This is where I was born, this is where my grandparents were born, so that’s why every time when I come back to Senegal, to Dakar, it’s very emotional.’’
Now, he has built a number of football academies in Senegal to help the next generation of footballers from the West African country realise their dreams of becoming professional footballers.
Desailly (Ghana), Zidane (Algeria) and Henry (Guadeloupe, French West Indies) and Thuram (Guadeloupe, French West Indies) have never hidden their pride of their backgrounds and home countries even though they went on to win the World Cup in French colours.
I have always complained, long and hard, about the way that we don’t value our sports heroes, the way we treat them as if they are not our ambassadors, and it’s sad that we are led by some sports leaders who have no clue, whatsoever, of what their role should be in terms of uniting the country being these sports heroes.
We fought for our Mazoe, because this drink has always been a part of our DNA, and we should fight for people like Beast to be duly rewarded.
IMAGINE IF PETER DRURY WAS COMMENTATING FOR THE BEAST?
Peter Drury, the British football commentator whose brilliance has been captivating audiences around the globe, has been providing some of the best soundtracks for the 2018 World Cup with his outstanding commentary.
He was probably at his very best when Argentina and Iceland lined up for their battle when he thundered:
“And here are those who continue to pinch themselves and wonder if this is true, they will share a pitch with Messi, they will share a pitch with Aguero, the smallest nation at the World Cup, face-to-face with the man many consider to be the greatest player of all time.
“He is, they believe, that close to the heavens. Down together, from so far apart, figuratively, geographically and historically, the South American finalists of four years ago and the North European novices of never before, out into Moscow’s simmering sunshine, the two-time champions and the first-time challengers, history shoulder-to-shoulder with fresh-faced fantasy.
“Two years ago lceland charmed all of Europe and now it becomes the smallest nation to ever take on the world and it starts with the very best in the world. Argentina are infused with sharpened competition experience and even in the absence of first choice ‘keeper Sergio Romero there are five in this starting XI who played in the final at the Maracana four years ago.
“Not surprisingly lceland seek, as far as possible, to copy and paste their enchanting team from Euro 2016. For Argentina an obligation, their history is waiting and demanding, for Iceland a fairytale, theirs a project, a once-in-a-life-time project based on an alignment of a people and purpose and passion and let us see how far it takes them. ICE COLD, ICE COOL, ICELAND.’’
Listening to him dazzling us with his words, I just wondered how, given a chance, he would narrate our Beast’s story last Saturday as Mtawarira emerged onto the field in Bloemfontein, side-by-side with England players, to a thunderous welcome and I have come up with my possible composition of that commentary:
“And here are those who continue to pinch themselves and wonder if this is true, they will share a pitch with the Beast, they will share a pitch with Mtawarira, the man from the smallest nation in the world with a remarkable production nursery that continues to give us these incredible sportsmen — from Nick Price to Mark McNulty in golf, from Sarah-Jane Murphy to Kirsty Coventry in swimming, from Anthea Stewart and her Golden Girls in hockey to Evan Stewart in diving.
“From the Schoolboy Langton Tinago, a three-time Commonwealth champion, to Kilimanjaro in boxing, from Bruce Grobbelaar’s European Cup success in Rome with Liverpool, and many domestic league titles too numerous to count, to Peter Ndlovu becoming the first African to play and star in the English Premiership.
“From Andy Flower to Heath Streak, super cricketers who at one time or another were considered the best in the world.
“Here they are today, face-to-face with the man many consider to be the greatest prop in rugby union of all-time. He is, they believe, that close to the heavens.
“Down together, from so far apart, figuratively, geographically and historically, the South African two-time World Champions and the European powerhouse who have only been kings once and who in recent games have seen their train skid off the rails and both fated to meet today to celebrate a grand occasion when a Beast attains the royalty that comes with a century of Test caps in this game.
“South Africa are infused with sharpened competition experience and even in the absence of some injured regulars there are many in this line-up who will merit a place in a Rugby World Cup final come next year. Not surprisingly the English seek as far as possible to copy and paste their enchanting team from last year that went 18 games without defeat.
“For the Springboks an obligation, their history is waiting and demanding, for England a steely determination to spoil this Beast fairytale, theirs a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be remembered as the team that beat the Boks when the Beast celebrated his century of Test caps.
“Mtawarira’s great adventure based on an alignment of the will of his real people from across Limpopo River, their fiery purpose and passion which has fuelled his hunger to succeed against all the odds, blended with the professionalism of his adopted country when it comes to this game, qualities which have helped him travel this far. BRILLIANT, BEAUTIFUL, BEAST.’’