New Era (Windhoek)

Namibia: Heroes of Rugby's Fight Against Apartheid

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Windhoek — The old adage that rugby was a sacred pastime for whites only was fiercely challenged by a bunch of stubborn coloured young men who risked their precious lives by defying the trigger-happy authorities to join the South African Council On Sport (SACOS), during the height of apartheid.

The SACOS slogan was "no normal sports in an abnormal society" - a stance that was not taken lightly by the country's hardcore rulers at the time. Incumbent President of Western Suburbs Rugby Club, Corrie Mensah, was among the driving force to liberate the game of rugby from emancipation, which ultimately led to the inevitable birth of multi racial rugby in Namibia in 1990.

One of the most talented forwards (eighth man) to have emerged from the shores of this country, Corrie was time and again denied an opportunity to represent his native land at provincial level because of his outspokenness. He was very vocal on the many injustices in sport - notably rugby where merit was made to play second fiddle to the colour of your hide when it came down to selection for the national team.

In today's edition, the Iron Duke of local rugby pulls no punches as he speaks about his passion for the oval ball and how authorities shattered his boyhood dream to study law.

Western Suburbs Rugby Club is arguably one of the best outfits around in richness and depth of talent and ability and their trophy cabinet has rarely been barren since the establishment of this community-based club in 1978.

Although that success can be largely attributed to the quartet of Advocate John Walters, Ellen Dowie, Ellen Pheifer and Cyril Moller, Corry Mensah certainly also played his part to build Western Suburbs to a much-sought-after brand. Born in Mariental in 1956, the young Corrie was only exposed to the game of rugby at a later stage as football enjoyed preference to rugby during his infant years in the dusty streets of Sonop, Mariental's residential enclave for coloureds and Basters.

He enrolled at the Roman Catholic Mission school - Suiderlig High School in Keetmanshoop and had to switch codes since rugby was the in-thing at his new school.

Former teacher Steve Hartung, introduced rugby at the school upon his arrival from South Africa and the game's popularity took off.

Corrie's old man Eddy, was a noted footballer in the era of Bobby Sissing and many other football greats in the late sixties. Corrie found himself in the company of boyhood buddies Alfred Goliath, Ellen Krohne, Robert Thompson and Tikkie Steyn in the school's first team where they formed a telepathic combination.

Upon completion of his studies - Corrie and his two great buddies Alfred (Goliath) and Ellen (Krohne), had ambitions to study law in South Africa, but the white Education Inspector would have none of that. He told the trio in no uncertain terms that the available bursaries were reserved for those who were keen to carve a career in teaching.

Corrie found himself kicking his heels in frustration at his hometown Mariental for three solid months before he moved to Windhoek to seek greener pastures in 1976.

He joined Flying Eagles under the tutorship of Bronny Willemse to be reunited with his former school buddies. "We assembled a great team because of the presence of few talented players from South Africa who came to work at the Otjihase Mine," reveals Corrie.

Flying Eagles competed in the local league that consisted of teams from Khomasdal, Katutura and Rehoboth. The league was very competitive and teams such as Villagers, Buffaloes, Jaguars, Torinos, Vicounts, Swans, Döbra and Augustineum all gave a good account of themselves.

Villagers dominated the league, but somehow always found the Eagles in uncompromising mood and always struggled against Bronny Willemse's outfit.

Eagles also toured Upington for exhibition matches against local teams. As fate would have it, a Central Invitational Rugby Fifteen of coloured players was assembled to feature in a curtain raiser against a white combined rugby fifteen for a Sport Pienaar Cup match at the old Suidwes Stadium in Windhoek in 1978.

Corrie was among some of the most outstanding players in that particular match in front of a sell out crowd.

The Combined Central team narrowly defeated the whites by 21 points to 10. "We even surprised ourselves. Our performance on the day was a real eye opener for many people, including the whites who had a misplaced perception about the quality of players of colour," adds Corrie.

It was resolved to establish one strong team that could challenge the dominance of white clubs in the domestic league, but the idea was met with mixed feelings by some players - fearing that they will have limited game time at the envisaged newly established club.

Nevertheless, the players and some rugby officials went ahead with the idea and formed Western Suburbs Rugby Club in 1979.

"We started out in the second and third leagues where we competed fiercely against the likes of Talpark, Police, United and Wanderers, but the politics of apartheid bedevilled everything as the white referees made life extremely difficult for us."

As if that was not enough, the white owned media would refer to Suburbs as the Jeffersons, a popular daily sitcom with black characters that was aired on the South West Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SWABC) Television.

Suburbs could no longer stomach the constant humiliation and psychological war that was openly being waged against them and decided to split away from the predominantly white league to form their own league, which they christened the Namibia National Rugby Union (NANRU) in 1987.

The newly formed league joined forces with their South African counterparts, the anti apartheid South African Rugby Union (SARU) under the auspices of the South African Council On Sport (SACOS).

Suburbs competed against teams from Namaqualand and Northern Cape under heavy surveillance by the South African Army in their intimidating and infamous Casspirs.

Corrie captained the NANRU team that was completely outplayed by their South African counterparts (SARU) in a once off test match at the Khomasdal Municipal field on August 15, 1987.

The hosts suffered a humiliating 76-0 defeat against the star-studded South Africans that had in their armoury current Stormers coach Allister Coetzee, Peter Jooste, Gary Boshoff, Makaya Jack and Dan Que-Que (team manager).

In essence, NANRU made a lot of sacrifices but never got the recognition they so dearly deserve for their immense contribution that led to the abolishment of apartheid, partly through the pressure aggressively applied by NANRU/SACOS.

"It was a very dangerous exercise because as players, we always lived on the edge."

Suburbs was among the trendsetters when Namibia got her Independence in 1990 - providing erstwhile rugby administrator John Walters the opportunity and honour to become the first democratically elected vice-president of the Namibia Rugby Union (NRU), deputizing Henning Snyman.

"The playing ground is still not level because the whites up to now still have everything going for them from administration to referees, but I can proudly say there has been a turnaround in the annals of domestic rugby over the last couple of years.

"Black clubs have dominated rugby on the field of play, but unfortunately the majority of clubs are still at a disadvantage since they do not have their own facilities as opposed to their white counterparts," concludes Corrie.

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