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.

Visit CNN.com/sport for more news, features and videos

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."

READ: How rugby players prepare for retirement

READ: All Blacks coach to step down after World Cup

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."

READ: How to build a ruby player -- Inside England's Under-20s camp

READ: Cape Town Sevens: Bitzboks to wear jersey to honor Nelson Mandela

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."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 314710

Reported Deaths: 7254
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto21646260
Hinds20369416
Harrison17949309
Rankin13643278
Jackson13450246
Madison10113217
Lee9986174
Jones8384163
Forrest7689152
Lauderdale7198240
Lowndes6403148
Lamar623686
Lafayette6203119
Washington5341134
Bolivar4802132
Oktibbeha462998
Panola4596107
Pearl River4519146
Marshall4450103
Warren4393121
Pontotoc420872
Monroe4115133
Union411176
Neshoba4031176
Lincoln3969110
Hancock379586
Leflore3498125
Sunflower336290
Tate334784
Pike3327105
Scott316274
Alcorn313368
Yazoo311770
Itawamba300577
Copiah297465
Coahoma295579
Simpson295388
Tippah288768
Adams286982
Prentiss280060
Marion269380
Leake268473
Wayne262841
Grenada261587
Covington259881
George248148
Newton246862
Winston227581
Tishomingo227067
Jasper221148
Attala214473
Chickasaw208057
Holmes189174
Clay185554
Stone182833
Tallahatchie178941
Clarke178080
Calhoun170932
Yalobusha164638
Smith162534
Walthall134245
Greene130633
Lawrence128724
Montgomery127142
Noxubee126734
Perry126338
Amite123142
Carroll121829
Webster114532
Jefferson Davis107133
Tunica105726
Claiborne102430
Benton100025
Humphreys96733
Kemper95828
Franklin83923
Quitman81116
Choctaw76418
Wilkinson67531
Jefferson65728
Sharkey50217
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 537813

Reported Deaths: 11024
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson791691529
Mobile41177808
Madison35002507
Tuscaloosa25871454
Shelby25076249
Montgomery24549591
Baldwin21290309
Lee15946171
Calhoun14556319
Morgan14364280
Etowah13890353
Marshall12262223
Houston10602282
Elmore10115206
Limestone10031151
St. Clair9890245
Cullman9730194
Lauderdale9449243
DeKalb8853188
Talladega8325176
Walker7259277
Autauga6971108
Jackson6830112
Blount6750139
Colbert6317134
Coffee5546119
Dale4869113
Russell444338
Chilton4343113
Franklin426282
Covington4138118
Tallapoosa4040152
Escambia394577
Chambers3581123
Dallas3564153
Clarke351361
Marion3137101
Pike311977
Lawrence302298
Winston275673
Bibb263064
Geneva252577
Marengo249664
Pickens234862
Barbour231956
Hale223677
Butler217869
Fayette212462
Henry189644
Cherokee184345
Randolph182042
Monroe178140
Washington167639
Macon160750
Clay156957
Crenshaw153357
Cleburne149241
Lamar143035
Lowndes139653
Wilcox127430
Bullock123041
Conecuh110629
Coosa108928
Perry107826
Sumter104932
Greene92634
Choctaw61024
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
68° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 49°
Feels Like: 68°
Columbus
Clear
66° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 66°
Oxford
Clear
68° wxIcon
Hi: 78° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 68°
Starkville
Clear
68° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 48°
Feels Like: 68°
High pressure will continue to dominate our weather forecast for this weekend. This will keep our area filled with plenty of sunshine. However, there will be some changes next week in our weahter forecast as low pressure brings back some chances for showers and thunderstorms.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather