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Liz McGregor

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Jay McInerney: darkness falls over South Africa

For a hip New Yorker, Jay McInerney has a surprisingly red-neck view of our  beloved country.  McInerney comes to South Africa next week to promote his latest book, Bright, Precious Days, in which we get a bit part. One of its characters, Luke McGavock, acquires a wine farm and a game farm in South Africa as part of a private equity deal.   Says Luke: “I loved the idea of Africa. And I loved the reality too. Its primal, cradle-of-life, origin-of-the-species aliveness.  The smells, not just the fertile dung smell of the veldt; even the wood smoke, seared meat and raw sewage smell of the townships.”

But it soon all turns to shit.

“…late night farm invasions had become increasingly common to the north, armed gangs breaking in and murdering white families, with the tacit approval of the ANC, which advocated the redistribution of land and sent out periodic calls for ‘colonialists’ to abandon their farms. Rape, torture and mutilation were common features of these attacks, which usually began with the intruders cutting phone and power lines…”   Really?

Luke is portrayed as “a good man, a generous soul”, who builds clinics and schools in the townships. But the natives don’t deserve him.

He decides to pack it in in South Africa after being badly injured in a car accident. “I was in the car alone, coming home from Cape Town one night. I got hit by a van that crossed the line into my lane. The driver drunk, of course. He died, along with his passenger. Not my fault at all apparently….. that didn’t keep it from getting ugly. White survivor, two dead black men.” Really?

In McInerney’s version of it, South Africa has just two sides: primal idyll for jaded sophisticates or savage and lawless jungle.

His writing purports to authenticity with much real-life detail: the farm is in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Eskom is identified as being responsible for an erratic power supply.

The narrative this celebrated author conveys is influential.  It’s unfortunate that the one he presents is so ignorant.

To be fair, the South African strand is a very small part of a big and ambitious book and McInerney’s rendering of his main subject, New York’s literary and financial elite, is wonderfully subtle and acute. I’ve loved his earlier books. And Bright, Precious Days is a great read when McInerney sticks to what he knows. But brightness falls on Manhattan and South Africa remains dark.

I hope that when McInerney comes to Cape Town next week – he is speaking at the Book Lounge – he takes the time to discover that South Africa is every bit as richly complex and nuanced.

McGregor is author of Khabzela; and co-editor At Risk and Load-shedding: Writing on and over the Edge of South Africa (Jonathan Ball Publishers)





Sex workers lead the way

Grace Bura (not her real name) came to South Africa three months ago from her home town of Dar es Salaam to set up a new business: sex work.  She is based in one of Durban’s biggest brothels and earns R70 per transaction. R240 of her earnings each day go to the brothel owner for rent. It’s hard and dangerous work, she says, but much more lucrative than the small clothing business she had at home. What’s more, the exchange rate works in her favour and the rands she earns here buy a decent living for her child, who lives back home with his grandparents.

Sex work in South Africa is particularly risky because of the high prevalence of HIV. Around 60% of sex workers are infected.   Fortunately for Grace, though,  her move here has  coincided with the launch of the most promising new HIV prevention tool yet.  In May this year, the Health Minister, Dr Aaron Motsaoledi, announced that 10 sites across the country would start giving pre-exposure prophylaxis (known as PrEP) to sex workers.  It comes in the form of a once-a-day pill, Truvada, which works by blocking an enzyme called HIV reverse transcriptase. By blocking this enzyme, it prevents HIV from making more  copies of  itself in the body. If taken every day, Truvada gives 99% protection against HIV infection.

One of the sites chosen to dispense PrEP is the TB/HIV Care clinic in eThekwini, which already provides comprehensive health care services to sex workers.

Grace first heard about Truvada from a TB/HIV Care counselor. “I know about this clinic because I have seen the ladies come to the brothel,” she said. “She called me and told me to come here to get tested. I agreed because I want to look after my health. Thank god I was negative.”

Grace started on Truvada on June 22. She returned to the clinic yesterday to get two months’ advance supply because she is going to work in Johannesburg for a while. “Work is slow here now,” she explains. “If you go away and then come back, they think you are new and you get more clients.”

If Grace keeps on taking her pill every day – and there is every indication she will – she will be able to protect both herself and her clients, as well as their partners.

This is a giant step towards defeating a virus that accounts for more than 30% of deaths in South Africa.

*This article first appeared on

Give Allister and Stick a sporting chance

THE appointment of Allister Coetzee and Mzwandile Stick to the Springbok team represents an opportunity to align rugby with contemporary SA. Let’s not blow it.

Both bring considerable social and political capital. Each has proved himself to be a game-changer. At Western Province, Coetzee showed that you could field a team with eight or nine players of colour and still be the best in the country. In his eight years at the helm, he led the Stormers to the top of the South African conference three times, and won the Currie Cup twice.

Almost half the players in Stick’s Under-19 team, which went on to win the Under-19 Currie Cup, were black, most of them from the Eastern Cape.

Neither came from a culture that privileged whiteness, and they gave the lie to the prevailing wisdom in parts of South African rugby: that black players weaken a team and are the tax you pay to appease the politicians.

Stick grew up in a Port Elizabeth township with a mother who frequently struggled to put food on the table. He attended the local township school, and yet still managed to make it to the top, captaining the Sevens team that won the World Series title in 2008-09.

Coetzee grew up in Grahamstown. He has a vivid memory of watching white boys at nearby Kingswood College play rugby with the best equipment, while he had to walk to the much poorer coloured school down the road. His father died while he was very young and his mother struggled to provide for him and his three siblings.



ALTHOUGH a talented and ambitious scrumhalf, his race precluded him from playing for SA.

Stick and Coetzee reflect the tough life experiences common to the majority of South Africans, and their elevation to the upper echelons of the game must make it seem much more accessible than it has in the past.

Neither has a chip on the shoulder, or sees himself as a victim. Their victory against the odds they were born into shows character and emotional resilience.

These qualities came in handy when dealing with their respective managements.

Stick answered to the deeply dysfunctional Eastern Province Rugby Union, and Coetzee endured eight years of frequently erratic and interfering management under the Western Province Rugby Union.

But the pressures on the Springbok coach, in particular, are way more intense and, without proper support, Coetzee will struggle.

The South African Rugby Union (Saru) has done well to appoint Coetzee and Stick. But it now needs to prove that this is not window-dressing. It needs to give their new Bok coach all the resources he needs to succeed. Otherwise, his appointment will be seen to be a cynical one, setting him up to fail.

Similar privileges to those accorded to Heyneke Meyer would be a good start.

Saru forked out substantial sums at the start of Meyer’s tenure to enable him to bring his own management team from the Bulls. He was then allowed to add more coaches, such as breakdown specialist, Richie Gray.

As yet, Coetzee does not appear to be similarly indulged. There is no evidence that he has picked any members of the team announced on Tuesday.

Given that he has already been disadvantaged by being appointed three-and-a-half months late, Saru needs to do all it can to help him, otherwise it risks being accused of not giving the same opportunities to a black coach as it gave to a white, Afrikaans one.

The corporate world should come to the party: any new sponsorship deals should be predicated on better governance, which would include equal opportunity for all employees, regardless of colour.

There has been talk of the Super Rugby coaches forming a Bok “selection committee”. This must be rapidly scotched. Meyer fought for — and won — the right to have ultimate say over selection. Rightly, he argued that if he were to be held responsible for winning every game, he needed to be able to pick his team.

The Super Rugby franchises need to play their part and put petty provincial rivalry aside.

The initiative introduced in Meyer’s term of systematically resting key Springbok players during Super Rugby must be continued.

Super Rugby coaches should also give more players of colour some proper game time to increase the pool available to Coetzee.

Fans need to give the new coaching team the benefit of the doubt. A bit of generosity of spirit would go a long way. Fans, particularly those who flock to Ellis Park for the iconic All Black derbies, should learn the first verses of the national anthem so that we are no longer subjected to the dramatic amplification of sound when English and Afrikaans verses are sung. It’s not that difficult. Make an effort.



DESPITE the autumn chill in the air, there is a sense of spring-time, of new beginnings, about rugby. Unlike Meyer, who looked to seasoned troops right from the start of his campaign, Coetzee will have to start afresh. Most of last year’s team have either retired, are approaching retirement, or are playing abroad.

This should not be a problem for Coetzee, who has proved that he is happy to trust youngsters.

Stick is something of a specialist in turning rookies into stars, given his track record with the Eastern Province Under-19s.

Transformation, which is viewed as a burden by Meyer, will come naturally to Coetzee.

At the Stormers, Coetzee displayed the ability effortlessly to forge racially and culturally diverse teams. Boys of colour were given every opportunity, but so were white players. Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers, Eben Etzebeth flourished in his time, as did Siya Kolisi, Scarra Ntubeni, and Nizaam Carr.

There is a good chance that, with Coetzee and Stick at the helm, the sense of marginalisation that has plagued black Springboks will be a thing of the past. Under Meyer, Afrikaans was used for team talks, which was alienating for black players. The new Bok set-up hopefully will better reflect our diversity of languages.

Stick’s Under-19s also brought a vibrant culture from their Eastern Cape schools — with traditional isiXhosa war and struggle songs borrowed from their elders.

Some infusion of this into Bok culture could only enrich it.

• McGregor is author of Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be a Bok, and a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town.

*This column first appeared in Business Day


Fishing for a future

A shadow looms over the admirable initiative launched this week to finally grant fishing rights to small-scale fishers. Unless the disproportionately large share of marine resources currently allocated to the commercial fishing sector is cut, there will be nothing left to hand out. The process will be a farce.

Over 95% of all marine resources are reserved for commercial rights’ holders. Quotas for ten species – including linefish, abalone and West Coast rock lobster – are currently up for re-allocation to commercial rights holders in the 2015-2016 Fishing Rights Allocation Process (FRAP).  Unless this proportion is substantially reduced, the new policy will be a non-starter.

The Small Scale Fishing Policy has just been signed into law with an amendment to the flawed Marine Living Resources Act of 1998 which recognised only three categories of fishers: commercial, subsistence and leisure.  The division was stark: those with subsistence and leisure rights were entitled to consume but not sell what they caught.

Only commercial rights holders could sell. In a stroke, this outlawed the traditional livelihoods of most of the 30,000 odd fishers in villages along the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal provinces who for decades had fished to feed their families and sold the rest of their catch.  Amounts were negligible but enough to keep poverty at bay in areas where unemployment was high and fishing was the only source of income.

There is a convincing argument that criminalising the harvesting of a resource considered to be their god-given right has damaged these communities.  Fishing became “poaching”. Gangs took over the marketing of the more valuable species such as abalone. They brought in drugs and guns. But they also enabled parents to pay school fees and feed their children.

Some individuals were awarded commercial fishing rights and this sowed divisions and deepened inequalities in communities which had been relatively egalitarian.

The new policy introduces a fourth category: Small Scale fishers. Craig Smith, Director of Small Scale Fisheries, argues that a 50% share of linefish should be reserved for these small scale fishers as well as up to 100% of near-shore resources such as mussels, abalone and lobster.  Commercial fishers can afford the big, fast boats required to exploit the deep seas.

The person responsible for making this decision is the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Senzeni Zokwana. Since 1994, the colour of those awarded the right to mine the ocean’s resources has changed considerably but they still overwhelmingly represent the more powerful and politically connected. Giving small scale fishers a generous slice of the cake will indicate a new willingness to cater to the poor, rather than an elite.

The policy has taken over a decade to be implemented. It originated in a court case brought by an NGO, Masifundise, to the Equity Court, arguing that the Marine Living Resources Act created inequality.  It infringed the fishers’ constitutional rights to food security and the protection of  their traditional culture.

The outcome was a court order to the government to create a small scale fishing policy.  Masifundise has threatened to go back to the Equality Court if the Minister fails to give the small scale fishers an appropriate share.

Meanwhile, there is much excitement around the next stage of the process: the identification of suitable candidates. Representatives of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (DAFF) will visit 280 communities on the east and west coasts over the next few weeks. In school and community halls – and even in one case “an open space next to the [Fish] river” – fishers will queue up with their ID books and verifiable testimony from a fellow community member that they have fished for a living over at least the past ten years.

Dates and venues have been established for each community, advertised on radio, in newspapers and posters in each area. The fishers have only one chance to apply. If they miss their allocated day, they will not be considered. Once all the applications are in, DAFF officials and community representatives will adjudicate on each case.

The Small Scale fishing policy is ambitious: it allocates quotas not to individuals but to co-operatives. There will be only one co-op per community. Each must have at least 20 members. Fishers who currently hold commercial rights will be required to relinquish them if they become members of the co-op.

A host of services will be available to co-op members, including courses in marketing, financial management and spin-off activities such as tourism. The plan is to leverage the co-ops to promote development in rural areas.

What’s more, a sense of justice could be reinstated. If communities again feel a sense of ownership over marine resources, it is hoped that they will feel responsible for protecting them.

McGregor is a visiting researcher at The Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town.

 This article first appeared in GroundUp


When activists took on Big Pharma and won

THE government funds antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for 3.1-million HIV-positive people at a cost of R40,000 per person a year in the largest and most ambitious ARV programme in the world. HIV, once the harbinger of death, is now just another chronic disease.

The extraordinary tale of how this was achieved is told in the book No Valley Without Shadows: MSF and the Fight for Affordable ARVs in SA, to be launched next week. It is the inside story of how courage, cunning and determination overcame the combined might of global corporate greed, government denialism and the conservatism of the medical establishment.

THE current state of affairs could be said to hang off a single courtesy phone call. In 1999, Dr Eric Goemaere, a long-serving Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) volunteer, came to SA hoping to prove that ARVs could safely be given outside of a first world hospital setting to poor HIV-positive expectant mothers so they wouldn’t infect their babies.

It almost didn’t happen. Goemaere’s first stop was at the office of Dr Nono Simelela, the national director of the HIV programme, who reluctantly broke the news that the health minister had blocked the public sector use of AZT to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

About to fly home to Belgium, defeated, Goemaere put in a last-minute courtesy call to an e-mail acquaintance, the activist Zackie Achmat, who had started the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) the year before.

Achmat revealed that a limited mother-to-child transmission pilot study was under way in Khayelitsha, on the outskirts of Cape Town.

In partnership with the University of Cape Town, MSF set to work in Khayelitsha, systematising the pilot study to ensure it was sufficiently rigorous to convince an ambivalent medical community.

However, they soon became frustrated that, although they were able to save babies’ lives, they were unable to save their parents.

Dr Francoise Louis, a French doctor who hoped to share her skills, described it like this: “I witnessed the introduction of ARVs in France and what it meant to people. When I discovered the impossible levels of HIV in Southern Africa, I became obsessed.”

BUT without ARVs to prescribe, she felt useless. “How does a clinician feel if, whatever you do to care for your patient, he comes back sicker; the wretched headache does not go away; the excruciating diarrhoea does not stop? The situation was inhuman for them. It was inhuman for us, who knew that a treatment to keep them alive was available,” she said.

The struggle to save the lives of poor, powerless people at the tip of Africa might have gone unnoticed by the wider world if it had not played into a broader agenda then being implemented in the boardrooms of the first world.

In 1995, the World Trade Organisation started enforcing Trips, the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. This compelled all member countries — including SA — to introduce 20-year patents on medicines. This meant that ARV treatment cost between $10,000 and $12,000 per person per year.

In an attempt to circumvent this, the government introduced the Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act of 1997, which would allow the health minister to cancel patent rights or import generic medicines.

The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association, representing 39 companies, lodged a challenge. In a landmark case that became known as Big Pharma vs Nelson Mandela, the global drug industry made it quite clear that it would fight to the last to protect its profits, even it translated very tangibly and publicly into the loss of thousands of lives. The case dragged on for three years, with no end in sight.

Spotting the perfect opportunity to highlight the high cost of ARVs, TAC joined the case as amicus curiae (friends of the court), presenting a powerful dossier of evidence on the human impact of patent protection.

Together with MSF, they launched a highly successful international campaign called Drop The Case.

When it became clear how damaging this was to their image, the pharmaceutical companies withdrew their case.

MSF underwent seismic changes as a result of the struggle for affordable ARVs.

Its model had always been the provision of emergency medical intervention. Now, it was being asked to fund long-term treatment for possibly thousands of patients.

For the first time, an MSF board would be making a financial commitment that would extend beyond its own tenure and place an obligation on its successors.

INITIALLY, it agreed to fund 180 patients. This led to agonising decisions having to be made by doctors in Khayelitsha: who should be given life-saving treatment and who should be left to die? The pressure for universal, affordable ARV treatment intensified.

The drug companies were invited to the Khayelitsha clinic. Only one came. The chairman of Boehringer Ingelheim arrived while Goemaere was treating an emaciated nine-year-old orphan, who was slowly and painfully dying from AIDS. Deeply discomfited, he offered to pay for the boy’s treatment personally, but confessed that he did not have the power to change his company’s global policy on patent protection.

The response from another pharmaceutical company, Bristol-Myers Squibb, revealed a surprise. While it had the licence for the antiretroviral stavudine, the patent was owned by Yale University. A direct approach from MSF to Yale was stonewalled by the university, which was earning $40m a year from the stavudine licence in 1999.

The activists sprung into action. A couple of first-year Yale law students tracked down the inventor, Dr William Prusoff, who wrote a stirring letter to the New York Times reflecting on his position as a scientist contributing to the discovery of a life-saving medication and then witnessing how commercial interests were protected so stringently that those in need of it were denied help.

Yale caved in and Bristol-Myers Squibb announced “emergency patent relief” shortly afterwards.

A year after initiating the first patient on ARVs, the Khayelitsha team believed it had enough material to prove to the medical establishment that resource-poor clinics and nonspecialist staff could effectively deliver ARVs.

Several reputable journals turned them down, either for fear of offending the pharmaceutical companies or out of prejudice.

But when the findings were eventually published, they were explosive. After two years, 91% of patients were taking their medication as prescribed and had an undetectable viral load.

The struggle then entered a new phase — forcing the government to implement treatment for its citizens.

TAC played a critical part. The first really effective post-apartheid civil society organisation, it fought stigma, empowered the HIV-positive and shamed the government.

TAC set the bar for the vibrant civil society movement that exists in SA today.

• McGregor is co-author of No Valley without Shadows: MSF and the Fight for Affordable ARVs in South Africa. Published by MSF, it will be launched at the Book Lounge, Roeland Street, Cape Town, on November 30. All proceeds from the sale on the night will go to TAC

 *This article first appeared in Business Day


Let’s pick the right Bok coach this time

SHOULD Heyneke Meyer’s contract be extended? I think it should — but only for a year. This would be just long enough to enable the South African Rugby Union (Saru) to give proper consideration to the question of who should coach the national team next and what his job description should be.

They should take their time about it. A Springbok coach has more complex challenges than an England or All Blacks coach. It won’t be easy to find the right man. We should also completely rethink what we want from the next coach and how we want him to shape our national team.

The Saru general council will decide on December 4 whether to extend his contract. If they decide against, they will be without a national coach by the end of the month. What the union must not do is resort to the old short-term, knee-jerk approach to hiring coaches.

Peter de Villiers got the job because it was felt that a black coach was needed. De Villiers got the job ahead of perhaps a more appropriate black candidate because he was strongly pushed by certain Saru factions.

Meyer was appointed belatedly and in haste in 2012 because Saru were so keen to get rid of De Villiers. Meyer’s appointment was partly because it was felt he should have been appointed in place of De Villiers in 2008.

The Rugby World Cup has shown up Meyer’s limitations. I write this with some regret because I like him: he is an engaging, open man and the readiness with which he shares intense emotion is refreshing in a macho world. But the fact is that he was a brilliant club coach who has not been able to replicate that success on the national canvas.

At the Bulls, Meyer could exert control. He recruited players straight from school and moulded them in his image. They owed their careers to him. Nor did he have to venture out of his cultural comfort zone — white, Afrikaans and Christian. The main source of pressure, selection-wise, was the white right. The only imperative was to keep winning and his game plan did that very effectively.

This year, as national coach, he was relying on the same players and the same plan.

The master class in modern rugby provided by the All Blacks at the World Cup final showed up the creakiness of his game plan, and he wasn’t able to come up with anything else. He also showed himself to be woefully out of touch with the national psyche.

One would have thought the outpouring of anger at his squad selection before the Boks set off for the UK might have had some effect. But apparently not. His selections revealed no change in his reluctance to place trust in young players of colour.

He has given only one young black player, Trevor Nyakane, consistent game time. Nothing he has said in the past few days has indicated that he acknowledges how inadequate this is.

A continuation of this will damage the Springbok brand. There is a risk it will return rugby to the bitter, divisive role it occupied during apartheid.

There have been hints that some of Meyer’s assistant coaches might be axed: partly as sacrificial lambs to appease public anger and partly to make way for an assistant of colour. This won’t do. Meyer will still call the shots.

If, as it should be, our aim is to consistently be the best in the world, we need to be copying the All Blacks. Much has been written about the need to emulate their system of central contracting and collegial interaction between franchises — with the national team being given priority by all parties. Obviously, this is ideal but it is not likely to happen soon, given all the factional self-interest within Saru.

But, with the national coach, we can start at Year Zero. He should be tasked primarily with two things: inculcating a style of rugby that empowers players to beat the best at their own game by putting brains ahead of brawn. Players should be encouraged to assess the situation unfolding before them intelligently and then seizing whatever opportunity it presents skilfully and incisively.

Second, he needs to develop a team that properly represents our demographics. He should be given the time to do this. There should not be pressure to win the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019. The priority should be the building of a winning habit that would peak in 2023.

Planning and an emphasis on continuity are important. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was assistant to Graham Henry, who was himself head coach for eight years.

The next Springbok coach should be tasked with growing his successor.

A Kiwi coach might well be the way to go. An added advantage is that he would be unencumbered by the South African race filter. But merely having been born in New Zealand is not enough.

John Plumtree and John Mitchell have been mentioned. I’d suggest Saru chat to black players who have played under both — not current players because they wouldn’t talk openly for fear of jeopardising their careers — but former players who have nothing to lose. They may or may not endorse either or both of the Johns, but they will certainly have very interesting things to say about how black players fare under different coaches.

Coaches with more recent experience of New Zealand structures might also have more to offer. Hansen, for instance, is rumoured to be stepping down in 2017. He might be worth waiting for.

• This column first appeared in Business Day

Boks v All Blacks: won and lost in the margins

Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and young Master Kolisi at the team hotel ahead of the RWC semi-final

Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and young Master Kolisi at the team hotel ahead of the RWC semi-final

KEY to the Springboks’ chances of beating the All Blacks in the World Cup semifinal will be the message they are giving themselves. If they were to amass the evidence or listen to an objective third party, they wouldn’t be able to get out of bed on Saturday morning.

The most recent reminder came a few days ago, when the Boks looked in mortal danger for much of the game of repeating their ignominious 2011 quarterfinal exit. A couple of hours later, the All Blacks danced through their own quarterfinal test against France, in total control.

They put in a sublime performance, showing equal mastery of defence and attack. There was never a second’s doubt as to who would rule the night.

Even more dispiriting is a glance of the Boks’ recent record against the All Blacks. In the past five encounters, they have only beaten them once.

In an attempt to counter this, they have come up with a new narrative. The key word is “margin”. We heard it first from Heyneke Meyer in the euphoria last Saturday evening.

“The margins are so small because most of the players play in Europe. There is a lot of IP (intellectual property) going around. Most of the coaches are world-class. We all study each other. Any one of the top eight countries can make it.”

This explanation nullifies the All Blacks’ exceptionalism and makes the field appear relatively even.

On Monday, the new narrative was reinforced by assistant defence coach, John MacFarland: “The last three games we’ve had with them have all come down to one score and one moment, so it’s up to us to produce that on Saturday as well,” he said.

And again by Pat Lambie: “The margins are so small at this level, particularly when you play against the All Blacks.”

I suspect Lambie was trotted out for an interview precisely because he personified the one occasion when the Boks reversed the margin in their favour with his penalty kick from 55m when the Boks were 24-25 down with two minutes left on the clock.

In fact, that win against the All Blacks — last year — was the only one in which the margin really was slim: the final score was 27-25. The other encounters, in which the All Blacks triumphed, were wider: 27-20 at Ellis Park last year: 14-10 in Wellington last year; 27-38 at Ellis Park in 2013; 29-15 in Auckland in 2013.

Reinterpreting these losses as close contests that could have gone either way will boost Bok morale and make the All Blacks appear less daunting.

At Wednesday’s news conference, Meyer repeated the margin mantra. “The margins over the couple of years have been small.”

But he was frank about the reason for stressing this: “We have to believe we can beat them, otherwise we’ll be wasting our time on Saturday.”

There is another subtle emotional shift that is cheering Meyer up. Having Fourie du Preez as captain is taking him back to a happy space.

It was with Du Preez at his side that he built the Bulls from a bunch of losers, languishing at the bottom of what was then the Super 12, into the best team in SA and the first (and only) South African team to win the Super Rugby trophy.

With Fourie, Meyer has experienced winning against all expectations and that is the emotional memory he appears to be invoking now.

“I have worked with Fourie since he was 19,” said Meyer at the post-game news conference on Saturday. “We were in desperation mode.

“Fourie is so driven, probably even more than me! He really wants to win. And his desperation rubs off on the team.”

As with the Bulls of yesteryear, the Boks have experienced a series of humiliating defeats but, phoenix-like, they appear to be rising from the ashes. On Wednesday, Meyer articulated it thus: “We had a very bad start at the beginning of this season. These 23 guys (who will make up Saturday’s squad) have been together under a huge amount of pressure since the beginning of the year.

“We stick together, coming through that adversity.”

It appears that, just at the crucial time, Meyer has found the chemistry he has been hankering after for the past four years: the recreation of the Bulls’ dynamic during the past decade.

Most of his coaching staff are from that era and now his key lieutenant is as well. And the Japan game has given them the excuse to revert to the game that served the Bulls so well: bash, barge and kick.

It helps the Boks’ chances, though, that Fourie du Preez has had international experience since he left the Bulls at the end of 2011.

Since then he has taken charge of his own career, refusing to rejoin a South African club in between Springbok and Japanese commitments. He has the confidence now to experiment, as was evident in the wonderful last-minute try he and Duane Vermeulen engineered, which took the Boks into the semifinals.

Lost (or found) in translation: English commentators call Lood de Jager “Lewd de Jaeger”. Schalk Burger becomes “Shulk”. But the most amusing was probably a Fourie du Preez response to a laboured question by a French reporter after the Wales win. Had the team come up with a name for this brilliantly innovative move so that they would more easily be able to repeat it, asked the Frenchman. “No,” said Du Preez, “I just shouted: Duane, gaan links!”

• This column first appeared in Business Day


RWC 2015: and now for the play-offs

A NEW phase has begun for the Springboks. With their pool games having come to an end, preparation has begun in earnest for the playoffs. From now on, there are no second chances.

The players who were part of the 2011 squad will have painful memories of their last World Cup quarterfinal. A few hours after the final whistle marked their defeat to Australia, they were on the bus to the airport.

A marked difference between that squad and this one is the balance of power between senior players and the head coach. In 2011, the senior players were pretty much running the show.

There were elements of this in the first game this time around, but the shock defeat to Japan put an end to all that. Heyneke Meyer is now firmly back in charge. He is also in the position in which he seems most comfortable: wagons encircled in preparation for the fightback against a hostile world of doubters and critics.

As he said in Newcastle: “We’re at our best when we’ve been written off.”

For the past few days, the Bok team have been based in leafy Teddington in southwest London, a few kilometres from Twickenham. The Lensbury Hotel is on the Thames and has sprawling, park-like gardens — large enough to accommodate a dedicated training ground.

Monday’s media conference to announce the team was delayed for 30 seconds until SuperSport was ready to go live. We all sat frozen in position, until the metaphorical whistle was blown and proceedings could kick off. There is no doubt as to who is top dog in the media world.

Bryan Habana sat alongside Heyneke Meyer and team manager, Ian Schwartz, at the top table.

Habana is an entertaining interviewee in that his verbal technique seems to echo his performance on the field. Once he gets possession of the microphone, he does not stop to draw breath until he has reached some invisible tryline, far in the distance.

After the formal proceedings, there is a chance for reporters to chat to other players. Lwazi Mvovo, for instance, who is a happy man. He was getting another shot at a cap, courtesy of JP Pietersen’s injury.

Mvovo is something of an anomaly in high-performance rugby because he only started playing in Grade 11. Before that, he focused on soccer and athletics. He was persuaded to give rugby a go by the first team coach at his Queenstown school. “I got tricked,” joked Mvovo. “The coach said: ‘You can be on the wing. There is no contact. Just try it out’. And I did and never looked back.”

One team for which the tournament will shortly be just a bad memory is England.

It is a shame that they have been so poor. It is a mystery how this team, with huge resources, still can’t keep up with the big boys.

Shortly after the start of the Rugby World Cup, the BBC’s Panorama screened a programme on head injuries in rugby. The US’s National Football League (NFL) recently had to pay out millions of dollars to former players who are suffering long-term damage from head injuries sustained during their playing days.

Safety measures have recently been introduced to mitigate the risk and the number of concussions in NFL have been reduced as a result.

The programme argued that rugby has not adequately heeded this lesson. The number of head traumas suffered by players has gone up by more than 50%.

All of which makes the hero status of players more understandable. The extent to which they risk their health both now and in the future each time they run out onto the field for our entertainment is extraordinary.

Jean de Villiers’ playing with a broken jaw at the end of the Samoa game, for example. And Schalk Burger once again throwing himself into bone-crunching tackles, less than two years after almost dying, following complications from an earlier injury. Or Duane Vermeulen who only a few months ago had a major operation to his neck.

It takes an obsessive courage and commitment to win at this level.

And that, I suspect, helps to explain what separates the men from the boys.

*This column first appeared in Business Day


Fiddling while the jersey burns

IN A speech in Durban a few days ago, South African Rugby Union (Saru) president Oregan Hoskins fingered schools as one of the stumbling blocks to transformation in the Springboks. Saru runs an annual budget of close on a billion rand.

All they have to do is channel some of that into the cash-strapped schools in the Eastern Cape bursting with black rugby talent and passion. Add a few high-performance academies to hone the skills of the front runners and then persuade its coaches to give all players of colour equal opportunity with white players and you’d soon see a lot more black Springboks.

To his credit, Hoskins took responsibility for not adequately supporting previous Springbok coaches. This presumably included Peter de Villiers, last seen presiding over the public burning of the Springbok jersey.

The furore over the paucity of black players in the 2015 Bok squad has been dismissed in some quarters as par for the course in a World Cup year. But this is nonsense.

The Rugby World Cup is a big deal: it’s when we show the world who we are — in technicolour. If, 20 years into democracy, we are still saying that excellence is white, it’s a problem, not least for the black kids dreaming of donning the green-and-gold.

Obviously, ideally, this should not blow up at World Cup time and should be dealt with on an ongoing basis. But it doesn’t look as if it is.

The men in charge of rugby continue to fiddle while the jersey burns. They are at present fiddling, yet again, with the Currie Cup format. The proposal on the table now seems to be that the Vodacom Cup will be abolished from next year and replaced with an extended Currie Cup.

Saru is not giving out any information but according to an apparently reliable report in Die Burger, from next year there will be 15 teams in the Currie Cup, which will include one from Namibia. In the first half of the year, the 14 unions plus Namibia will play each other in a newly constituted Currie Cup. The top nine will go on to play each other, while the remaining six will battle it out for a lesser title. This means an awful lot of Currie Cup rugby will be played during a protracted Super Rugby tournament.

Our 40-odd rugby schools and the Currie Cup are the bedrock of development in South African rugby. Schools are where rugby talent is developed. The Currie Cup is where promising young players are blooded for Super Rugby. This production line is important for professional rugby as more senior players head off overseas.

In 2012, the Currie Cup was altered to accommodate an extended Super Rugby campaign. Since then, SA’s oldest competition has haemorrhaged viewers and Absa is ending its sponsorship. Won’t more Currie Cup games from second-tier teams competing for viewers with Super Rugby diminish interest further?

More to the point, is this an appropriate use of Saru funds?

In its constitution, adopted in 2009, Saru states as an objective:

•  5.1 applying its income, directly and indirectly, for the promotion, development, support, upliftment, administration and playing of rugby in SA;

•  5.2 pursuing policies and programmes, at national and all other levels, aimed at redressing imbalances of the past and creating a genuinely nonracial, nonpolitical and democratic dispensation for rugby in SA;

•  5.3 adopting and enacting such measures as will foster, promote, regulate and encourage the playing of rugby and provide facilities for rugby in SA, and in any other territory as may be decided upon, for all persons, irrespective of race, colour, creed or gender, and to eliminate any discrimination and inequality among players and officials alike;

If it is to honour its own constitution, should a large chunk of Saru’s millions go into supporting the small-town fiefdoms that run these second-tier teams? Or into paying player squads, most of whom will be white and whose development will have been paid for by the schools mentioned by Mr Hoskins?

What would make more sense is to confine the Currie Cup to the Super Rugby franchises. The small unions should be playing semiprofessional rugby, relying on local sponsorship for funds. Saru should be applying its income to funding a development campaign in areas where there is abundant black rugby talent.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to see how the Bok transformation issue is playing out in the political landscape.

The burning of the Springbok jersey accompanied the launch of a new organisation, Supporters Against Racist Rugby Associations, in Mossel Bay. The Western and Eastern Cape are the sites for some of the most closely fought battles between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA). These are also the provinces that host the most black talent and experience the most frustration among black fans.

One of the most thoughtful recent political interventions came from DA shadow spokesman on sport Solly Malatsi. In an oped article, he outlined the importance of a systematic overhaul of rugby development. If the ANC drops the ball, perhaps the DA will pick it up?

• This column first appeared in Business Day


If transformation is any slower, it will go backwards

I TAKE my hat off to the seven Springboks who went to Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) with their concerns about transformation. It takes a lot of courage to do that from within the ranks of rugby.

Usually players speak out only after they have finished with the game because they know that if they do so while within it, they can say goodbye to their careers. Already a witch-hunt for names has started.

I hope Cosatu can protect them. But I hope too that the South African Rugby Players’ Association gets on board. So far, at least in public, its response has been muted, apparently going along with the South African Rugby Union’s (Saru’s) assurances.

It should take note of the fact that black players did not feel able to go to it with their concerns.

Saru’s response to the players was to restate its position. “Saru recently signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the government and Sascoc (South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee) on a strategic transformation plan for rugby. Our focus now is on delivering on our understanding with them and we will continue to engage with sports leadership in the country on our progress.”

A closer look at this transformation plan reveals that it is already showing cracks. It says the principal objective in this World Cup year is to: “Engage (the) national coach to increase black player representation to 30% (seven players in a squad of 23). From the seven generic black players two must be black Africans.”

The four-year aim of the plan, which is timeline-based with interim targets, is to “increase black participation in the Springbok team to 50% by 2019″.

At Kings Park on Saturday, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Bryan Habana were yet again trotted out as the sole representatives of black South African rugby talent. On the bench were Trevor Nyakane, Siya Kolisi and Lwazi Mvovo, meaning exactly five black players in the match-day squad, as there have been in each of the Tests this year.

Even after the Cosatu intervention and for a relatively meaningless non-Test game against Argentina this Saturday, there are still only five black players in the match-day 23.

Scarra Ntubeni, who was the best hooker in South African Super Rugby this year, has not even made the bench this season and has clearly been usurped as third-choice hooker by Schalk Britz. Elton Jantjies, the in-form Super Rugby flyhalf, has also been sidelined.

If our promising young black players are not being given regular game time at this level now, the next target — 50% of black Springboks by 2019 — also looks like a chimera.

I have heard complaints about marginalisation from black players for years, at provincial and national level. If the strategic transformation plan were effective, marginalisation should be a thing of the past.

We have not heard any protest from Saru president Oregan Hoskins about the breach of the plan’s targets in the Springbok teams. Nor from Saru CEO Jurie Roux.

Is there an intention to monitor its implementation? Will failure to meet targets incur meaningful sanctions? And, if so, will there be transparency about the process?

When the plan was launched earlier this year there was much talk of a brave new world in rugby. Hoskins talked of “a watershed moment for our sport”. Roux said: “Transformation is a critical business imperative in SA and if we had not taken this new approach to what had been an organic process up until recently, we would have put our sport in peril of becoming marginalised.”

So far, there is little evidence of establishment push behind this “new approach”.

Saru has just announced it is cutting funding to three of the four academies set up to produce black high-performance talent. This will further narrow the pipeline for emerging stars.

The poor attendance at Kings Park last week — despite the fact that it was a Test in a Rugby World Cup year — speaks to the failure to spread the game beyond the white minority. The paucity of black rugby heroes on the field means fewer black people are drawn to attend games.

Accounts of racist abuse by some fans at Ellis Park the week before were inadequately dealt with by the authorities, which hardly makes black fans feel safe and welcome. And the cost of tickets puts the game beyond the reach of most South Africans.

In the coaching structures there appears to have been minimal transformation. There is not one black head coach in any of the significant teams: Springboks, Sevens, under-20 or Super Rugby.

Saru can get away with being opaque and high-handed because it is accountable to no one but itself.

But I was surprised by recent tweets from Sport Minister Fikile Mbalula: “Full transformation not gonna emerge over night bcos we are going to WC (World Cup).”

Perhaps the minister, who has previously been strongly proactive in his demands for transformation, knows something I don’t. I can only imagine this must be the case because he will be fully alive to the anger coursing through social media from fans who feel that if transformation goes any slower it will go backwards.

 *This column first appeared in Business Day