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“It restored my dignity”: UWC rugby alumni recount their proud connection to the university

Author: Morgan Morris

UWC’s rugby ‘legends’ shared their stories and demonstrated their strong loyalties to the university and their teammates at a recent dinner held in their honour.

(Published - 5 April 2019)

To stand within the newly upgraded and state-of-the-art UWC Sports Stadium, is to appreciate that the University has had a long love affair with sport.

The home of Jakes Gerwel, Adam Small, Richard van der Ross and countless others now synonymous with the country’s liberation struggles, UWC is also a university with a proud sporting legacy.

To celebrate part of this rich history of sport at the institution, UWC hosted a dinner at the end of March for its ‘rugby legends’ – alumni who have played rugby for the University since its founding in 1960 as the University College of the Western Cape - aka the “Bush College”, as students and detractors called it then. The rugby legends were invited to the dinner primarily to celebrate UWC becoming, in 2019, the first historically disadvantaged institution to play in the Varsity Cup – the premier university sporting event in the country. But they were also there to be honoured for laying the foundations for rugby at the University that have helped UWC Rugby take its place alongside its more elite counterparts.

At the dinner, rugby alumni shared stories that were at times funny, sometimes angry, but always tinged with pride, and reminded everyone present that the struggles and triumphs of the UWC rugby teams and players in many ways mirrored the struggles and triumphs of much of the country.

“There was one time he told us, ‘I don’t understand why you coloureds do accounting’,” Philip October shared of an encounter with a white professor in the mid-1980s; “’no right-minded white person will appoint you to run his finances.” Messages like these were all too common, and they were initially internalised. But later – especially on the rugby field – it motivated students to work even harder and to stand up for themselves, said October, who would go on to attend the UCT Graduate School of Business and do a Master’s in Law at Stellenbosch University, and who today serves as CEO of a long-running cement business.

Much of what he knows of business today, October added, he learned from serving the rugby club, from arranging the buses to games and making sure the team jerseys were laundered and picked up. “I was probably a better administrator than a rugby player,” he joked.

Julian Sonn had a similar story to tell. “We were literally told we weren’t good enough to go to UCT; we weren’t good enough to study in the choice areas where we had lived before,” said Sonn, today a professor at the Stellenbosch University Business School. Instead, it was in playing rugby for UWC in the 1960s that character, pride and identity were forged. Sonn noted. “Rugby played a great role in my life in restoring my dignity.”

Each speaker, no matter the decade, could list a catalogue of superstar teammates alongside whom they had battled, who never got to play at the highest levels and never got to live up to their potential. But the alumni also recalled with pride, fondness and humour, their many coaches, the inter-college games against the Hewat Teacher Training College that has become an annual fixture since the 1960s, winning the Tygerberg League in the late 1980s, and their many adventures and exploits on the road. They cast their minds back to the games against farm and community teams both near and far, and remembered how the university hostel league became a grooming ground for the league teams, as well as how the women’s game started and grew at the University. They recounted how, in the 1980s, rugby meetings were often a cover for political gatherings, and how the famed call for “Hek toe!” (“To the gate!”) would ring out around the sports fields during the state of emergency.

But mostly they remembered the camaraderie. “It’s because of brotherhood that we are together here tonight,” said JP Kellerman, who played for UWC in the late 2000s and early 2010s. “We can still go to braais together, families are together, not just because of rugby, but because of UWC sports.”

It’s that bond that has taken UWC to the Varsity Cup, where under coach and former Springbok, Chester Williams, expectations remain high despite a difficult first season. It’s a connection to the University that has also seen UWC Rugby Club players represent South Africa in provincial, franchise and national teams at various levels, added Kellerman. The challenge now shouldn’t be to close the gap between us and the likes of Stellenbosch and the University of Pretoria in the Varsity Cup, he urged, but to “set the standard”.

To capture some of this energy and pride, UWC has started a campaign to memorialise the University’s sports history. Among other things, a team photograph of the 1966 rugby squad will soon be converted into a mural that will grace the new stadium’s indoor corridors. This was the announcement from UWC Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tyrone Pretorius, while posing at the dinner for a shot with some of the members of that 1966 squad. Other photographs will be sought from alumni and will be mounted on the walls. There are also plans to capture the story of rugby at UWC in a book.

It is hoped that this process will also serve to rally support for UWC rugby going forward.

Just as the wider university is beginning to establish itself as a research institution to be reckoned with, so too the future is looking rosy for UWC Rugby. But living up to this promise will require support from alumni, as Kellerman; Mandla Gagayi, Director of UWC Sport; and Patricia Lawrence, Director for the Deparment of Institutional Advancement, all observed at the dinner.

“The event today is about drawing on the wonderful and rich history that is UWC,” said Lawrence. “It’s also about the future, and how we shape and grow our new talent.”

Issued by: Rothko on behalf of the University of the Western Cape

UWC Rugby Legends return to the field of play.

Patricia Lawrence UWC Director: IA posing with UWC Rugby coach Chester William, Adv. Philip October, Mandisi Tshonti and Donovan Schippers. Adv. October emphasized on building for the future, while Mr Schippers emphasized the value of legacy and called for UWC Rugby Old Boys support.​

“Our time is the now time” Juan-Paul Kellerman, former rugby captain and UWC development coach spoke about rugby in the 2000s’

Prof. Julian Sonn, brought his perscpectives of playing for UWC during the 1960s.

Dr. Llewellyn MacMaster, UWC rugby alumnus, council member and community activitst served as the MC on the evening

Ms Pulane Mokoena (middle), rugby player and RF executive member flanked by Ms Rossouw (left) and Ms Engelbrecht (right)

Mr Lukas Hanekom and partner braced themself for a magical night.

UWC Rector and VC Pretorius (centre) with Mr Tobias Titus (left) and Mr Hermanus (right). Former Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU) president Tobias “Tobie” Titus, who was the first non-white WPRFU president, played for UWC in the 1960s and '70s.

UWC Rector and Vice-Chancellor Professor Tyrone Pretorius was elated to have the room filled with rugby legends. He mentioned, in address that sport serves as a great unifier.

The 1966 UWC Rugby team gifted their official photo and team badges to the UWC, to be inturned into UWC Sports Hall of Fame.

The night ended with lots of dancing.

Mr and Mrs Bailey danced the night away.

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