Busy Bee continues to sting despite challenges

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Alfred Msutu Kewana came to Cape Town in search of work. It was 1988 and South Africa was, to put it mildly, in turmoil. The townships were alight as the state of emergency, used to crush political resistance, intensified in sheer brutality. 

The apartheid government at the time was openly hostile to young, Black men like Kewana, and the rural Eastern Cape (which then included the homelands Transkei and Ciskei) offered few opportunities for work. Kewana followed the path made familiar by many migrant labourers in the province and headed west.

Far away from home, a 20-year-old Kewana was a stranger in an even stranger place. The only job he could find at the time was at the Cape Town Market. It was where many men from the Eastern Cape ended up working to support their families back home.

Kewana found a second home in rugby, at Busy Bee rugby club in Langa, where he lived. Rugby was a distraction from the turbulence of the time and, as it turned out, the game gave him a purpose. Today, Kewana is the director of rugby at Busy Bee RFC, a council representative for the club under the Western Province Rugby Union and a former player with more than 30 years of game time.

“At Busy Bee, we fight as one. Although there are many bees, we have one sting. It’s not Busy Bees, it’s Busy Bee,” Kewana insists. 

The club’s name is meant to symbolise hard work, unity as strength, critical virtues that have served the club well given its painful past. Founded in 1923 in District Six, today it is the oldest Black rugby club in Cape Town. Busy Bee’s fractured history is a chapter within the larger tragedy of forced removals in District Six under the Group Areas Act. It’s a story of survival and passion for the game of rugby under impossible circumstances.

Clubs like Busy Bee are dotted all over South Africa. At a hyperlocal level, rugby has always been loved and appreciated for generations, though the game hasn’t always loved Black communities in return. Under apartheid, when rugby facilities and coaching were accessible to mainly white communities, it was left to clubs like Busy Bee and others to carry the torch for the sport in Black communities, when the authorities stopped trying. Inequality has always been a feature of rugby, just like it is in South African society at large, and Busy Bee has survived through it all.

“The club was established by our grandparents who were in Cape Town looking for jobs to support our families in the Eastern Cape. Most of them were working for the Cape Town Market, Tastic Rice or the railways. Some were working for Royal Dairy, which became Dairy Belle. And some of them were working for different construction companies,” Kewana says. “Then in 1937 the club had to move to Langa, because of the Group Areas Act. Since then the club has been in Langa.” 

Over time, players were forced to leave the club for practical reasons, the distance being too far to travel to get to practice and matches. They found other clubs, or left the sport entirely. The move also took promising players out of the spotlight, until eventually Busy Bee dropped so far down the pecking order it was forgotten in the doldrums, as were most Black clubs and those labelled coloured at the time.

“When I joined in 1988, after moving here, the club was still playing in the Sunday League. People used to say we’re playing in the bush. No one saw you play there. Nobody looks after you, nobody knows about you,” Kewana says.

Fighting for the club’s memory 

The situation irked Kewana more than most and it bred some resentment, which eventually turned into activism for Black rugby. He almost single-handedly saved the club from being lost in the passage of time and so-called unity.

“In 1992, when unification came, we played under Lagunya (Langa, Gugulethu and Nyanga). The executives were elderly people. They were not so clued up about the structure of Western Province in those days. I tried to assist them to investigate why Busy Bee is playing Sunday League, while other clubs of the same age were playing under their own name in the Saturday League,” Kewana says. 

“We had only a few players in the Lagunya team. It was like a board team that represented Black communities under the Western Province structures. They played Saturday League.”

With the amalgamation of clubs from the three mainly Black areas in Cape Town called Lagunya, Kewana was seeing Busy Bee’s history being eroded for no good reason. He pushed back, until it became a human rights issue, because to him the club has a proud struggle history that needs to be memorialised.

“I even went to the Human Rights Commission to fight for the club’s history, to be brought back to where it was all those years ago. When I listen to the older people, they remind us of the club. In those days they couldn’t walk as groups of five in District Six,” he says.

Kewana relays the stories told by his elders of how banned liberation movements like the ANC used rugby practice sessions as a cover for political meetings in Langa. The apartheid laws at the time didn’t allow Black people to congregate in numbers.

“When police came around, they’d say, ‘No, we’re playing rugby.’ Meanwhile, they were planning strategies to win freedom,” Kewana recalls.

Langa in the 1960s was the scene of a number of clashes between the police and anti-apartheid protesters. The most infamous was on 21 March 1960, the day the police killed 69 marchers in Sharpeville, south of Soweto. When word reached Langa in Cape Town that same day, it sent the community into a spin, sparking riots that resulted in the deaths of two protesters and a Cape Times newspaper driver. 

What followed were mass funerals and stay-aways. The events over the next few days in Langa and across the country were followed by the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress. The fight against apartheid continued underground and in exile.

A similar fighting spirit inspired Kewana to ensure Busy Bee continued to thrive, and that its history lives on.

“The Human Rights Commission considered my matter and referred me to SA Rugby. We applied again in 2005 and the doors were opened for us to go back and play as Busy Bee in the Western Province structure,” Kewana says.

The rainbow nation myth 

He has mixed feelings about the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was meant to showcase rugby’s rainbow dream. “South Africa played Australia in that first match in Cape Town. There were only two Black players on the field. One was Chester Williams, and the other was Australia’s scrumhalf George Gregan,” Kewana recalls. “That was an eye-opener. We were sad that there were no Black rugby players that could represent the country at that time. But seeing those two Black players also made us feel like we could make it one day.”

That day never came for Kewana and many like him from Langa. The pipeline to a successful playing career didn’t exist for them then. They were shut out of the system. Some things have changed, but is it enough? 

“The Western Province board does what it can. They do try their best. Financially, resources are still a struggle for them as well. In the olden days, this was the richest union. They do help with coaching and training administrators. Honestly, they do assist where they can,” Kewana admits.

Former Springbok winger Jongi Nokwe is counted as a former player and coach who made it all the way to the national stage, but he wasn’t necessarily a product of Busy Bee as such, only joining them later in his career. Nokwe’s Bok career was short-lived, though he remains the most recent Springbok to score four tries in a match, when South Africa pummelled Australia 53-8 at Ellis Park in 2008.

“He’s our Black Springbok,” says Kewana. “We have players who have made the Western Province Sevens team and the President’s XV. On the women’s side, we have a Springbok, Banele Makwezela. She played at the last World Cup in France and she was the best performing player in that squad. She was playing No. 13. We have three Springboks in our club from the women’s side and 12 women’s provincial players, who have won the Saru [SA Rugby Union] Championship twice,” he adds, his voice energised again.

But perhaps the best example of a Busy Bee legend was Temba Mdlalo, who died last year. He played for Langa High School in the 1950s and then Healdtown High School later on. Affectionately known as “Zungulichele” (The Opportunist), Mdlalo was a talented eighth man who went on to captain Western Province in 1964 and ultimately captained the “Black Springboks” in 1965. He left South Africa and went into exile shortly after that, another rugby career cut short and forgotten.

Kewana’s first employer at the market when he arrived in Cape Town still supports Busy Bee financially, even though he left to become a law enforcement officer for the City of Cape Town.

‘Why aren’t we being paid?’

“We need to have a proper feeder system in our club with proper juniors. I fund the juniors myself, which is Under-7 up to Under-13. I founded the Under-14, Under-16, Under-19 teams. Those boys are coming up in the numbers to feed the A, B and C teams,” he boasts. “Last year we were promoted to Super B league, and we are the first Black club to play in this elite level for Western Province.”

Finance and facilities are critical pillars of success for any rugby club and without either, the fate of Busy Bee is still somewhat uncertain. Money doesn’t only ensure the club’s longevity, it also allows it to build a pipeline and stave off opposition clubs poaching their players.

“We Black Africans are blessed. We’re born talented. All it needs is a bit of shining with resources like gyms. We don’t have gyms in our communities. It’s difficult because most of the opposition clubs’ players get paid. Most of the players in Super A and B are being paid. We don’t pay players. We play for the love of it. It’s sad for us because the players still wonder, ‘Why aren’t we being paid?’ I have to convince them to stay, day in and day out,” Kewana says.

“And when other teams see our best player, they will always ask them, ‘What is your club paying you?’ Some players are leaving because of that. I was born here and I’ll die here in this club. I don’t even know how many potholes in life I survived because of my club and my sport. My dream is to see my club in Super A when we turn 100 years old in 2023.”

It’s a dream that may prove tricky as Kewana struggles to hold on to talented players. Rich schools and ambitious universities come knocking on Kewana’s door looking for young, Black talent. It’s a practice that is criticised heavily by experts such as Wilbur Kraak, a sport science lecturer at Stellenbosch University and consultant to the Nigeria rugby team. 

“What happens to that community if we keep taking out of that community? Those kids still have to grow up and be role models in that community. If your focus is on the development of that kid, why don’t you invest that money in that community? Invest in coaches from that community if your focus is development, because you’re just taking,” Kraak laments. 

“You took a talented boy and put him in good structures. He’s going to evolve, he’s going to grow and be a better player, and I think that’s where people are missing the point. If you are serious about development, why are you not developing in your own province? Why are you taking from another province? Because winning is more important for you. Are you doing it for the kid, or are you doing it for the school?”

For Kewana, it’s almost impossible for players to resist the advances of universities and schools. It could be life-changing for them and he’s not about to stand in their way. After all, he knows what it was like to leave home as a youngster and seek a living far from home.

“Our neighbouring schools like SACS [Rugby High School] and Bishops do benefit. We’ve got a few boys from primary rugby who went to SACS. They give them bursaries, which I’m happy about,” Kewana says. “We are the top feeders of universities. We’ve got players feeding CPUT [Cape Peninsula University of Technology] and Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape. They poach our junior players and we release them because we know education comes first. They can become better people, and look after their families and change their parents’ lives.”

This is one of a series of articles looking at racism in SA rugby.

This article was first published on New Frame

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