SA rugby pioneer: 'Sacrifices weren't in vain'

South African rugby pioneer Fagmie Solomons tells CNN's Christina Macfarlane that the sacrifices of his generation to be able to play were not in vain.

Posted: Jan 3, 2019 6:44 PM
Updated: Jan 3, 2019 6:44 PM

For Fagmie Solomons, sport was always more than a yearly cycle of training and matches.

A standout rugby and cricket player during the height of the apartheid era, Solomons could be viewed as South Africa's answer to baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, or power-saluting sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Born in the predominantly Muslim Bo-Kaap section of Cape Town, Solomons captained the multi-ethnic -- or "non-racial" as it's locally known -- South African Rugby Union (SARU) team as a flyhalf during the late 1980s.

When he took to the field, he played for freedom, equality, and social change.

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In 1987, Solomons led the SARU team in its first ever overseas test match -- a ground-breaking moment of recognition -- winning 72-3 against Namibia.

Previously, he had been approached by the South African Rugby Board, the governing body of the whites-only national team, to join the Springboks under a special dispensation offer.

Despite the temptations of publicity, along with proper pay and professional working conditions, Solomons declined, citing the SARU mantra: "No normal sport in an abnormal society."

"Our sacrifices weren't in vain," Solomons, 61, tells CNN World Rugby from his home in Bo-Kaap, the same one where he was raised as a child. "Today it's a free country."

"That was actually my contribution, fighting for the liberation of this country," he reflects, "and today there (are) no regrets about the past because I can truly, and honestly say that I contributed that small (amount) for the liberation of this country."

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Playing on rubbish dumps

To compete during the era, explains University of Johannesburg sociologist Ashwin Desai, Solomons and his peers endured hardships like round-trip bus rides of up to 22 hours for matches that paid almost nothing.

"For somebody like him to say no (to joining the Springboks) meant multiple forms of sacrifice," says Desai, author of "The Race to Transform, Sport in post-apartheid South Africa."

"The distance between the non-racial South African Rugby Union and the main apartheid body was incredibly wide.

"To play for SARU was to play on rubbish dumps, and you trained often in darkness, because very few of the fields that these people trained on had floodlights, or club houses and resources."

Financially, "no one came anywhere near being a professional rugby player with a contract in South African Rugby Union," adds Desai. "Basically, you were just spending your own resources to play."

Contemplating an offer to play for the Springboks during apartheid was a complicated matter.

Although the few who crossed the line, like Springboks player Errol Tobias, proved they could compete as equals, they were accused of "selling out" by their own communities and lived markedly different lives from their white teammates.

"After he played he would go to a separate township, he wouldn't be allowed to go into the bar, he wouldn't be able to join the social gathering, his children would go to separate schools and so on," says Desai of Tobias.

"The idea is that (Solomons) didn't want to be an honorary white for 80 minutes of play on the field when the rest of his life would be circumscribed by the existing racial laws."

Instead, Solomons remained loyal to his SARU team, and suggests that the lack of funding in the sport kept him grounded.

"We played from the heart because we played for the love of the game. There wasn't money like there is now," he says. "I think that was my advantage while playing, during my years of non-racial sport."

Last year Solomons was honored by South African Rugby president Mark Alexander, who labeled him "a true living legend," words that reportedly left the Bo-Kaap native in tears.

At the same event, Western Province Cricket Association president Beresford Williams credited Solomons as being "a great ambassador for the game" and recalled his part in the Howa Bowl, a segregated Cricket tournament played during the era.

Grounds used in the competition were reportedly of poor quality, and cricketers operating under apartheid were even less fortunate than rugby players, says Desai.

"Cricket, by the very nature of the game and facilities that you need and the kind of wickets that you need to play on, was much harder hit by apartheid legislations," he explains. "Rudimentary forms of rugby could still be played."

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Changing the mindset

Shortly after the fall of apartheid in 1992, the Springboks unified with the SARU team, culminating in a World Cup win in 1995.

Although full integration would come much later -- the 1995 Springboks featured only one non-white player, Chester Williams -- the symbol of Nelson Mandela presenting the winning trophy in a shirt that previously symbolized white Afrikaner nationalism was significant.

"When he came on television wearing the Springbok jersey, that really united our country," recalls Solomons, who became close with Mandela during his career. "The generation after needed to implement the standards and values that he left."

Along with looking towards the long-imprisoned Mandela for inspiration, Solomons leaned on his Muslim faith to counter discrimination during his playing days.

"That was the first priority where my parents were concerned. Before you played sports, first you were a Muslim," he explains. "Never ever forget your way of life. If you go according to the holy Quran then you can't go astray."

Solomons applauds the efforts of 21-year-old South African rugby sevens star Zain Davids, who he calls a "super role model."

Davids, who is also from Bo-Kaap, does not wear the name of beer maker Castle on his sponsored Springboks jersey on religious grounds, fasts during Ramadan and leaves practice early to attend Friday prayers at his local mosque.

"It's not every day that one of his caliber guys comes through the ranks," says Solomons. "You must remember we grew up with a culture where our community always supported the (New Zealand) All Blacks, England, and France -- not supporting South Africa rugby.

"The more guys (like Davids) come though now, that will change that mindset."

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