Special Report: For Black South African rugby player, a COVID victory, and loss


CAPE TOWN, South Africa (Reuters) – On Broadhurst Cona’s fifth night in the COVID-19 ward of Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital, the patient in the bed next to him was giving up.

Former rugby player Broadhurst Cona goes through his training moves as he visits the stadium where he began his career in Gugulethu township in Cape Town, South Africa, September 3, 2020. Picture taken September 3, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

The man gripped his own throat in panic as he choked, and he kept pulling off his oxygen mask. Cona pleaded with him to put it back on, but the man was beyond listening.

Early the next morning, Cona awoke to a commotion. The man’s bed was empty, and nurses in protective clothing were spraying it down with disinfectant. He was sealed in a beige-coloured body bag, and it took four people to lift him away to a passage leading to the lift.

Cona didn’t know it yet, because his companion had been too sick to speak and his face unrecognisable with pain, but he had seen this man many times before, as an opponent on the rugby field.

The two had played in rival Black neighbourhood teams under apartheid’s racial segregation laws in the late 1960s. Cona had gone on to compete in international games with South Africa’s Blacks-only team over the following decade. He played against England, France and New Zealand’s vaunted national team, and also toured Italy.

He was competing in a sport that, to many, had become a symbol of Afrikaner domination of the country’s majority Blacks, but it was a game that his broad body and determination were made for.

The dead man, Phakamile Maqhasho, had never made it beyond provincial rugby, but the two had kept in touch. Cona had last seen him at the funeral of a mutual rugby friend four years back. Cona only realised it was him in the bed next to him when a friend sent him a copy of his obituary in a local Xhosa-language community paper some days later.

Now Maqhasho’s funeral would be next, and Cona felt like he had witnessed what his own death from COVID-19 might be like. Would he ever again see his daughter and especially his son, who lived on the other side of the country?

“I could be next,” he thought to himself, and sure enough, within 24 hours, the 72-year-old’s own condition had dramatically worsened, and he was gasping for breath.

For decades, he had survived all the indignities that South Africa’s apartheid system could throw at a Black man: the bulldozing of his childhood home; his move to a Black township; a racist law that forbade him from playing rugby on South Africa’s all-white national team, the Springboks, despite his talent.

Wheezing in his hospital bed, Cona made a vow. “I can’t have come this far to be killed by a virus. There’s no glory if I die in my sleep,” he would later recount. “Let me die fighting, on my feet, rather than in my bed.”

That night, after barely four hours of sleep, Cona got up and started doing vigorous exercise: push-ups, chin-ups, jogging around the ward, even shadow boxing – with the novel coronavirus as his invisible opponent. His body was heavy as lead and his chest felt like it was about to explode with pain, but he just kept on training.

The nurses urged him to rest, lest he injure himself falling, and he politely declined.

He was going to fight this one out.

UPROOTED

Cona had discovered rugby by accident, after the South African government bulldozed his family home.

He was 6 months old when, in May 1948, the Afrikaner Nationalist Party representing the descendants of Dutch settlers came to power – and set about implementing its vision of an apartheid state, solidifying decades of racially discriminatory policies introduced by South Africa’s British former colonial masters.

Two years later, the government passed what would be one of the most hated laws of the era: the Group Areas Act, which sought to keep the races apart by demarcating neighbourhoods where each was allowed to live.

They grabbed all the best neighbourhoods for the white minority, forcibly relocating Black and coloured – as mixed-race citizens are called here – people into less desirable areas. Cona was a teenager when his family, who lived in picturesque seaside Simon’s Town, were uprooted to the township of Gugulethu.

“I still say that was the most heinous legislation of the apartheid era. Because it destroyed the fibre of the community,” Cona told Reuters at his daughter Kholiswa’s house in the Black township of Langa, whose neat rows of bungalows built by the apartheid regime are now painted in riotous colours that previously were forbidden.

Ironically, the forced relocation set him on a path that would become his life’s passion. There was no rugby team in Simon’s Town, and Cona had only ever played soccer, which has always been the more popular sport with the country’s Black majority.

When he was 22, he joined a soccer team in Gugulethu. In one match, he played against a team whose players included Norman Mbiko, who also happened to be a coach of a rugby team, the Flying Eagles, in the nearby township of Nyanga. Mbiko would later recall noticing the stocky player who combined a blistering pace with a Herculean upper-body strength.

“I could see he’d be good at rugby,” Mbiko told Reuters in an interview at his spotless red-brick home, whose wood-panelled interior was adorned with team photos and newspaper cuttings featuring him from his rugby days. “He was so fast for his big size.”

So in 1969, Mbiko and another sports friend persuaded Cona to start playing rugby. Within a year, Cona had established himself as a powerful tighthead prop – one of the two positions in the front row of the scrum that are usually reserved for the team’s heaviest players – and rose up to play for the racially segregated Black Western Province team.

Resources were scant. The pitch was mostly dirt, and they had none of the facilities the white clubs enjoyed, such as gyms or scrummaging machines. There was no changing room at Nyanga; they suited up in the open.

Despite the challenges, in 1972 Cona and Mbiko were selected for the national Black rugby squad, the Leopards, with Mbiko as captain. Cona became known in rugby circles as “Broadness,” part wordplay on his size, part the result of a misprint on his “dompas” – the passes Blacks were required to carry every time they entered a white area.

But it wasn’t until 28 years later, long after they’d both retired and six years after South Africa had transitioned to democracy with a historic election that brought Nelson Mandela to power, that their contribution to the sport would finally be recognised.

In 2000, the two men received the thing they long had been denied during the apartheid era: the coveted green and gold blazers of the team that had for decades been the realm of white players alone, the Springboks. Balfour Ngconde, the sports minister under Mandela who had fought for the belated honor, bestowed the blazers on the men.

“We were so excited. We had always been yearning to be on one platform, not separate ones,” Cona said. But it was tinged with bitterness.

“While we were mingling afterwards, some of the guys said, ‘It’s only a blazer, it’s meaningless.’ And we all agreed. Because the whites who played are well-off now, but we had nothing.”

“I WAS DENIED AN OPPORTUNITY”

On a bright day in September, Cona surveyed the grounds of his old club in Nyanga, just down the road from Mbiko’s house. He picked up a rugby ball and jogged around the muddy, balding pitch practising some dummy passes, his cropped white hair flashing in the sun. He somehow managed not to sully his immaculate black leather shoes and dark suit trousers.

His big frame had put on weight around the middle, but he was clearly still fighting fit.

Mphakamisi Zali, 24, who plays for the club, joined his longtime hero, and they passed the ball between them.

“It’s nice to have a legend like him back on our [rugby] pitch,” Zali said. “I don’t think he ever got the recognition he deserves.”

Black South Africans’ relationship with rugby has long been fraught. Such was the resentment of the country’s white rugby establishment, township crowds would cheer the Springboks’ opponents – “we wanted anyone but them to win,” Cona said. A spokesman for SA Rugby, the sport’s current governing body, declined to comment on its apartheid-era predecessor.

When Cona was playing back in the 1970s and early 1980s, tour cancellations and international boycotts of the racially segregated South African teams were mounting. Back home, anti-apartheid protests were erupting across the country.

Morne du Plessis, a Springbok star from that era who would later play with Cona in a veterans team after apartheid ended, gives an idea of the conflicted feelings of some players at that time.

“That was the pinnacle of your rugby achievement, to be a Springbok, albeit in a divided country,” Du Plessis, who was captain of the national team, told Reuters by telephone.

As international protests gathered steam, he said many players were forced to reflect on the system in which they had been indoctrinated. “For many of us, it was a realisation that this couldn’t go on.”

In an effort to placate public opinion, the rugby board that governed the players started making small concessions to non-racial sport.

In 1976, it created a mixed team – not the official one – to play the visiting New Zealand team in Cape Town. Cona participated.

He shared a hotel room with two of his white teammates, Springbok stars Moaner van Heerden and Richard Prentis. Cona remembers that they joked and laughed like equals, and talked endlessly of their passion: rugby.

Though they set aside racial tensions, Cona had started to develop a budding resentment of how apartheid had consistently denied him the opportunities his white colleagues had had.

“It was the same story every time. I was denied an opportunity,” he said of being unable to play for the Springboks. “I’m not saying I’m a superstar, but when I watch the rugby now, I can see I’m better than some of the guys who are being selected in my position.”

Such was the case with all sports, but in rugby the discrimination was worsened by the absurd perception of rugby as a “white” sport, said Hendrik Snyders, a sports historian at the National Museum in Bloemfontein.

“In reality, the game in Black communities – both African and coloured – dates back to the late 1890s,” he said. “There’s a whole line of very able players like Broadness.”

“I CRIED THE WHOLE NIGHT”

South Africa has suffered, so far, the worst COVID-19 pandemic in Africa – with more than 685,000 cases and over 17,000 deaths.

The virus brought the country’s lingering problems into sharp relief: The extreme inequalities in economic opportunity established under apartheid have actually worsened in the quarter-century since it ended, according to International Monetary Fund data. Healthcare is a stark lottery in South Africa, with a world-class private system for those who can afford it, and an overburdened public one for the mostly Black citizens who cannot.

Cona’s friends and family persuaded him to go to hospital to get a COVID-19 test on May 15, 2020, when Cape Town was at the heart of South Africa’s epidemic.

He was ill, he couldn’t eat, and he struggled to walk. His daughter, Kholiswa, and a friend of his took him to a health centre in the friend’s car, where he tested negative, but his breathing was bad and he had pre-existing high blood pressure. They referred him to another clinic for a second test the following day.

The night he tested positive, Cona was transferred to Groote Schuur Hospital, one of South Africa’s best public hospitals, which in 1967 had completed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant. Though the hospital was under strain with COVID-19 cases at the time, it was coping better than many public hospitals at the epidemic’s peak.

When Kholiswa got the news of her father’s result, she called her older brother, Morgan, who had moved to Queenstown in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, and they ruminated on the worst.

“I cried the whole night. He’s 73, it was the time when everybody was going to hospital, it was the peak,” Kholiswa said. “He’s got an underlying condition. The elderly were dying. I thought, ‘No, he’s gone.’”

But Cona wasn’t giving up.

“I told the nurse: ‘All these years I’ve been playing rugby and people were tackling me, and often I didn’t fall. No one is tackling me now: I am NOT going to fall.’”

Finally, after days of forcing himself out of his hospital bed on his training regime, Cona started to feel better around the start of June. He could feel the oxygen returning to his lungs, and he felt fitter and more vital. Three weeks after being admitted, a fully recovered Cona went for a last medical exam before being transferred to a quarantine facility.

“You’re a fighter,” the doctor examining him said.

The day after he arrived at his quarantine hotel, he got a pleasant surprise: Morgan had travelled from Queenstown with his wife, Joyce, and Kholiswa to welcome him out. They weren’t allowed in, but Cona’s balcony had a view of the parking lot next to the hotel beach, and he could see Morgan and wave while talking to him on his phone.

“You are very lucky to see me, because there are no visitors,” he told Morgan. “I’m very happy about that,” came the reply down the phone line.

INVICTUS

On a recent day, Cona went for a visit at Mbiko’s house. Age has taken its toll on the 75-year-old. He has Parkinson’s and needs a walker to move around, but he’s still proudly wearing a Springbok jersey. They remain close friends.

Mbiko had made quite a career for himself as a coach after retiring, including on the coaching team for the legendary 1995 Rugby World Cup. South Africa won the cup at home, in front of a huge crowd of Black and white South Africans, all screaming for the Springboks. Du Plessis, by then retired from playing, was the manager.

In the game, celebrated in the 2009 movie “Invictus,” starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, the Springboks overcame seemingly impossible odds in beating the world-leading New Zealand team.

In what was widely seen as one of Mandela’s most unifying gestures after being elected president a year earlier, at the game he donned the Springbok jersey, which until then had been associated among Blacks with apartheid oppressors who’d imprisoned him for 27 years.

The team had only one non-white player, Chester Williams.

Cona and his rugby friends watched the game live on TV at Mbiko’s house, a part of which doubles up as a tavern. Cona remembers most people initially cheering for the New Zealand team, but at some point the camera cut to Mandela in his green jersey. Someone said, “Hey, let’s do it for the old man,” he recalled, and within minutes the whole tavern was unanimously behind the Springboks.

For then-Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, it wasn’t until the game was over that he realised the significance of the victory.

“It was insane,” he told Reuters in a phone interview. “We didn’t realise the impact it would have. Twenty-five years later, I still think to myself how lucky we were … to unify our country like that.”

After a brief honeymoon period following the World Cup final, disillusionment swiftly set in among Cape Town’s Black rugby players. Decades of apartheid-era neglect was going to take a lot of money to fix, and the government had other priorities besides rugby.

In an effort to reverse segregation, teams from Black townships were required to play teams in richer, mostly white areas, and vice versa. But they had no resources to compete – they were still practicing on poor fields with no equipment.

Pienaar said the euphoria in the wake of the World Cup win “put too much pressure” on South Africa to quickly fix its entrenched problems.

Most of the players couldn’t even afford the bus fares to travel to these faraway stadiums, Cona said. Although rugby, like life, in South Africa was no longer legally segregated, most urban Blacks remained too poor to live anywhere else but in their townships. All the best Black talent swiftly abandoned the township teams to join the better-resourced clubs. Within a few years, most of the clubs that had first stoked Cona’s passion for the sport had either collapsed or been merged into one megaclub.

“We expected in our townships we would have the same facilities like those in the white areas, but that never happened,” Cona said. “Our fields are still the same fields like before the unity. We knew it wouldn’t be overnight, but it’s been years now.”

Andy Colquhoun, spokesman for SA Rugby, said, “We have learnt that the idea of any South African sporting federation being able to create a mass-participation project that reaches every community is impossible.”

He added, “It’s a sad fact that only a minority of South Africa’s 25,000 schools provide any kind of sport to their learners, and we know that Springboks are made in schools.”

He pointed with pride to the grass-roots program called Get Into Rugby, but added: “With 170,000 children participating in a normal year, we know it is just scratching the surface. But we’d need hundreds of millions of rands to reach everyone,” compared with a current outlay of more than 50 million rand ($3 million) a year.

Last year, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup final for a third time, with its first Black captain, Siya Kolisi – who grew up in a township near Port Elizabeth and often went to bed hungry as a child – receiving the trophy.

“These are things you never thought you would see in South Africa,” Cona said. “We were so excited; it tells us we are heading in the right direction.”

Still, full integration in rugby, as in society as a whole, remains mostly an aspiration. The country is three-quarters Black and nearly 10% coloured, but just 11 non-white players were part of the 31-man squad in the World Cup tournament.

A BATTLE LOST

On June 13, a Saturday, Cona arrived home to Gugulethu to a hero’s welcome, organised by his local walkers’ club. He was overjoyed. After the celebrations, at 9 p.m. that evening, his son, Morgan called: He’d just tested positive for the coronavirus.

Like his father, Morgan had high blood pressure, but Cona wasn’t worried: If an old man like him could survive, his son should be fine. The clinic had even sent him home to self-isolate, concluding that his case was mild.

On Sunday, Cona phoned him back. Morgan’s wife, Joyce, picked up the phone and said he was too ill to come to the phone.

On Monday, Morgan phoned Cona to say he was getting worse. He sounded awful: He was struggling to breathe and suffering headaches. Later, Joyce called to say Morgan had been admitted to a private hospital in Queenstown, as a precaution, although his temperature was back to normal and he seemed on the path to recovery.

On Tuesday morning at 4:45 a.m., Cona was at Kholiswa’s house when Joyce called Kholiswa’s mobile. Cona approached, anxious for news on Morgan. “I knew something was wrong. Joyce was crying.”

Seconds passed before Joyce delivered the news: Morgan had died overnight.

“That was the sad part,” he said. He moved his gaze to the window and didn’t speak for a long moment.

Then, finally, he said: “Morgan was so worried about me when I was in the hospital. But in the end, I was fine. I won the battle.” Another pause. “He didn’t.”

Reporting by Tim Cocks; editing by Kari Howard. Additional reporting by Mark Gleeson.



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