Rugby brothers carried message Playing with blacks nearly cost them all

July 10, 1991|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- All the Watson brothers did was play rugby with black players.

It nearly cost the four white men their lives and their livelihood, but watching South Africa's centuries-old racist policies fall and the country's restoration to international competition, they don't regret the sacrifice.

They only wonder, as Valence, the oldest of the four brothers says,"Why so long? There has been so much bad blood. So much loss of life. Why did we have to have all this violence?"

National champion rugby players, the four brothers committed themselves to the principle that the sanctions against their country were worthwhile if they would force South Africa to abandon apartheid.

"Change has come about because of pressure," says Valence, who became an ardent anti-apartheid campaigner in the 1970s. "The only way you can make people change sometimes is with a little bit of punishment. Pressure makes people think a lot clearer at times."

Valence Watson and his three brothers played a key role in apply

ing pressure on South Africa's sports institutions when they became the first whites to play rugby for a black team.

Valence and his brothers -- Ronald, Gavin and Daniel -- were well-known sports personalities, cheered by white rugby fans across South Africa until they tried to combine their love for the game with their belief in racial equality.

They played their first formal game with blacks in their hometown of Port Elizabeth in 1976, long before the walls of apartheid began to crack. Their action set off a storm of protests by angry whites and led to years of harassment of the Watson family and their friends.

"A non-racial rugby union was formed a little before our time, but it was non-racial in name only because no one would play," Valence Watson said. "We were the first whites to actually go and play. That was in '76. It was then very much against the law and the norm."

The minister of sports at the time was Piet Koornhof, who recently ended a stint as South Africa's ambassador to the United States.

"He [Koornhof] came on television in October of '76 when we played that first game, and he said that we had transgressed seven or eight laws," said Watson, now 39, reciting the story as though it happened yesterday.

"He said he won't even mention the names of those rebels, wouldn't give us the courtesy of mentioning our names on television because it might popularize us. He just called us 'those rebels.' "

The Watson brothers, who ran a chain of clothing stores, were labeled communists by South Africa's white authorities although they were known to be devout Christians. They were charged repeatedly with breaking the law against whites playing sports in black townships. They were physically attacked. Death threats were routine.

"We were being followed, we were watched, our phones were tapped," said Valence Watson. "They would send out letters to our suppliers and say the Watsons are not going to pay you your money. They would send out hate mail. It went on for years."

The Watson brothers became known around the world for their anti-apartheid stand.

"In 1976, it was a very big thing we had done," Valence said. "We were featured in most of the major newspapers, on television in ** the United States, on ABC, NBC, CBS, the whole lot. So they had to try and discredit us worldwide."

In 1985, the government charged three of the Watson brothers with blowing up their own home to get the insurance money to pay off business debts. They were eventually acquitted after a highly publicized trial. In 1987, Ronald Watson survived an assassination attempt.

Valence Watson said he believes the attention received by the non-racial rugby movement helped to strengthen the international sports boycott, which is now being lifted, and that the spotlight on the Watsons helped to keep them alive.

"We were too well known," he said. "The press kept us alive, I would say, in that the more they published our story the less chance there was of us getting lost like many black people. A lot of the people we played with have since died, or skipped the country.

"This one rugby player I knew. Lovely chap. His son mysteriously jumped out of a security branch window. You know that used to happen in those days. It doesn't happen any more.

"Rugby players would be taken and tortured. You wouldn't believe how they were tortured. For playing rugby," he said, but he added that their movement quickly moved from rugby to politics.

Those were the days when the African National Congress, South Africa's main anti-apartheid group, was illegal inside the country and its leaders were either underground, in exile or in jail.

"They had gone so far underground you didn't mention the name ANC," Watson said. "In '76, you didn't say ANC. Ever. I remember that a person could get seven years in jail for furthering the aims of a banned organization. In '76, you would say 'the movement.' "

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