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17 July 2019
UWC rugby “legend” always bucked the trend
Being hailed as a “legend” doesn’t always sit easily with University of the Western Cape (UWC) graduate and rugby star Julian Smith. Yet the University – which recently hosted a gala dinner to honour its “Rugby Legends” – is not the first to refer to him as one.

Rugby Mag headlined their 2018 story about him, “Black Legend”. In 2011 he was name-checked twice by Sports Illustrated as one of the iconic “rugby freedom fighters” who chose to play under the banner of the non-racial South African Rugby Union (SARU) and the South African Council on Sport (SACOS), rather than in the better-funded but racially-segregated board leagues. Smith missed out on the opportunity to become a Springbok, despite being capable of doing so.
Julian Smith (left]) and Hennie Botha toasting
the 1974 UWC Rugby Team which made a clean
sweep in the Tygerberg RFU

When finally offered a Springbok blazer in recognition of that injustice, Smith declined. He did not feel that he deserved it as he had never played for the team, he told administrators. The origin of that principled position can be traced to the rural town of McGregor and his father, Julie Smith, who encouraged his son’s rugby talents and educated him about the injustices in the country. It was at UWC that Smith’s true political awakening occurred.

Smith had registered at UWC for a BA in History and Afrikaans in 1972. It was a harsh learning environment. By 1973 – triggered by the suspension of some student leaders and the emergence of scholars like Adam Small – students boycotted classes for several weeks and then took a decision to walk off campus.

Sports clubs were also taking resolute political positions. The UWC Rugby Football Club (RFC), for example, chose to leave the “co-opted” Bellville Union Board and join the Tygerberg Rugby Union, which was affiliated with SARU. “It sort of dovetailed with more black academics like Jakes Gerwel and strong student leaders like Henry Isaacs coming to the University,” Smith says.

Smith excelled in his position as scrumhalf. In his first year as a student, he played for the UWC and Tygerberg Union first teams. He played for a few other teams in the mid to late 1970s while teaching, but wore the UWC shirt again when he returned in 1982 as a lecturer.

That same year, aged 29, Smith hung up his boots. He chose to commit his energies to his academic career and completed his doctorate in 1987. In 1991, Smith was appointed as registrar at UWC, and in 2000 was elected as vice-rector at the University of Stellenbosch, where he stayed until his retirement in 2015.

He never abandoned rugby. He served on SARFU’s rugby transformation committee from 1998 to 2000 and was a member of the panel that appointed Peter de Villiers as Springbok coach.

Smith is working on an autobiography - featuring UWC - that he hopes to finish this year. The bonds between the University and his former teammates such as Walter Herman and Hennie Botha, run deep.

“The activism of the 1970s connected us, made us a collective, made us comrades. It led to lifelong friendships, and often supporters became wives. It was a close-knit community.”​