On a blustery day in September 2012 my wife and I were relaxing in our seats in the rear of a plane on the tarmac at Cape Town’s international airport on our way back to Australia, when a babble of excited voices filled the aircraft and a group of young boys, accompanied by some adults, made their way to where we were sitting. We quietly braced ourselves for a long and noisy flight.
The boys were all dark-skinned and clearly belonged to some sort of sporting club.
Whilst growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid era, I had never once played sport against, nor even sat next to anyone who was not white. Under the laws of the time everything relating to racial matters was separate or ‘apart’ – sport, public transport, park benches, churches, schools, toilets and even public parks.
Having been active in the Anti-Apartheid movement for many years, it was a novel and heart-warming experience for me to share the plane with these excited, dark-skinned youngsters.
Their coach’s seat was not far from mine, on the other side of the aisle. I could tell that he had an excellent rapport with the kids. One of the boys came past and ruffled his hair. When they became too excited and noisy, he called them to order and they quietened down immediately.`
“What is the name of your club?” I asked the coach.
“The Primrose Rugby Club. Our boys are going to compete in a rugby competition for Under 13s in New Zealand.”
I had never heard of the Primrose Rugby Club, so I asked him how long the club had been in existence. “It started in 1896,” he said. “It’s a community club. I used to play for them myself when I was young. We have at least one boy here who is going to play for South Africa one day,” he added confidently.
The separation or ‘apartheid’ between races when I grew up was so comprehensive that this rugby club, which had existed not far from where I had lived as a schoolboy, was unfamiliar to me.
“Do your teams sometimes fly to other parts of South Africa to compete?” I asked him.
“Oh no, very few of our players would ever have been in an aeroplane before.”
The excitement amongst the boys was palpable. One of them had taken more than a hundred photos on his digital camera in the plane even before take-off. Another exclaimed: “Look! They even have little televisions in here.” He turned to me. “Could you please show me how to switch this on?”
The plane started moving towards the runway. I asked the young fellow across the aisle from me if he had ever travelled in a plane before. “No, never,” he replied. “I’m very scared!”
As the plane gathered speed on the runway the boys’ voices grew louder and some of them cried out aloud in fright when it lifted off the ground. Suddenly, one of them started singing the post-Apartheid South African national anthem, “Nkosi Sikilel iAfrika” (“Lord Bless Africa”, in the Xhosa language) and all the others immediately joined in to sing their fear of flying away. It was an enthusiastic and beautiful impromptu performance.
Later, back in Melbourne, I googled the Primrose Rugby Club and found an amateur video of the boys on a New Zealand rugby field, standing in line and facing a long line of their young New Zealand opponents, who were performing the haka. I could imagine just how immensely the boys of the Primrose Rugby Club would have enjoyed that moment, and I was grateful that something like this had become possible in my lifetime.
Some months later I googled the Primrose Rugby Club again, curious to know how their tour of New Zealand had gone. One website informed me that they had made history as the first ever international team to have been invited to compete in the prestigious Annual New Zealand Junior Rugby Festival. Then I found a photo on another website that caused me to be overwhelmed with great emotion, as well as with a strange feeling of immense pride. There was the trophy for the Under 13 Champions of the New Zealand Junior Rugby Festival, perched on the shore of Table Bay, with Cape Town in the background.