Having thoroughly enjoyed watching England lift the Cricket World Cup just a few months ago, I was equally ecstatic to witness the Springboks take rugby’s equivalent last Saturday. Though I have made my home in England over the past 50 years, there is a part of me still in South Africa, which is why I have refused to renounce citizenship of my native land.
Admittedly, I was somewhat surprised to see my team cantering to a thumping 32-12 victory over the favourites. Nelson Mandela, father of the rainbow nation that, despite its present troubles, has seen much reconciliation between black and white aspirations since the days of apartheid, would have been immensely proud of Siya Kolisi, South African rugby’s first-ever black captain.
It was a triumphant story for many in his team, including final try-scorer Cheslin Kolbe, who testified days before that God had healed him of an ankle injury that had kept him out of the knockout stages.
But it was Kolisi’s testimony that he had to walk 11km to school where he grew up in the rural Eastern Cape, that reminded me why I have chosen to keep my South African passport.
I also went to school in the Eastern Cape1, but I didn’t have to walk there. In fact, it involved a 1000km train journey taking 36 hours, and cost my hard-working parents a lot of money. And I’m grateful for the education I received there.
But our family might not have survived at all if it wasn’t for the kindness of Dutch-Afrikaner Christians who rescued my orphaned great-grandfather and his siblings from certain death. It was around 1850, in the heart of the Eastern Cape, that they were found wandering the veldt in a distressed state following the murder of their widowed father2.
Having lost two wives to the harsh conditions, he had piled his children onto an ox-wagon and set out for Algoa Bay (now Port Elizabeth) to catch the boat back to Scotland, from whence he had come as a soldier to defend settlers from marauding tribes in the so-called Frontier Wars. Passing families duly showed compassion for the lost little souls – my great-grandad, also Charles, would only have been a toddler – and took them back to Graaff-Reinet, deep into the interior, from where they had set out on their tragic journey.
The children were shared out between three families, including the Maasdorps and the Murrays. Charles was placed with the Rev Andrew Murray and his wife Maria who, although they had 16 children of their own, also made a point of looking after orphans, as the Bible instructs us to do (James 1.27). He was thus brought up in the beautiful and expansive Dutch-gabled parsonage, which today is a museum to the Murray’s incalculable contribution to the nation’s spiritual legacy.
Rev Murray came out to South Africa from Scotland in 1822, after learning the language in Holland, in response to an appeal for pastors to tend the wandering flock of Dutch Reformed Christians who had fled the restrictive rule of the British in Cape Town (colonised in 1806), only to be left without shepherds.
He was much loved, led weekly prayers for revival and his sons followed in his footsteps – the most famous of whom, Andrew Jnr, gaining world renown as a preacher and devotional writer. Books both by him and about him keep coming off the presses more than a century after his death.
Charles naturally grew up among Afrikaners and married Anna Coetzee. Among their progeny was my grandfather, also Charles, who is said to have recounted the story (though not to me) of how he would at times have to walk barefoot in front of the ox-wagon on his 200-mile journey to boarding school, negotiating his way round sharp dubbeltjies (thorns). Sounds like a tall story to share in the dormitory at bed-time, but there you go.
As it happens, Oupa (as I knew him) won a scholarship to Oxford where he excelled at rugby, even playing against the Springboks and the All Blacks. So it was that my brothers and I were part of a third generation at this elite school.
World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi, on the other hand, grew up in poverty (also in the Eastern Cape), turning up to his first rugby trial in his underwear because he couldn’t afford shorts3. But he too is a Christian, and proud of it, with Jesus clearly written on his wrist-band as he held aloft the Webb Ellis Cup.
“…I’ve been able to discover the truth and saving power of Christ in a whole new way,” he says. “This new life has given me a peace in my heart I’d never experienced before.”
The pride his players felt for their nation was noted by one of the TV commentators, contrasting somewhat with the petulance displayed by some members of the losing team in refusing to wear their runners-up medals.
Putting things into perspective
In the midst of much talk about the pressure of a final, Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus put it in perspective: “In South Africa, pressure is not having a job; having a close relative who is murdered. Rugby should not create pressure; it should create hope. We have a privilege, not a burden…There was a stage when Siya didn’t have food to eat…”4
South Africans live and breathe rugby, but thankfully many of them have discovered there’s more to life. And I’m eternally indebted to the Afrikaner people who saved my family from extinction and whose Christian faith continues to be my inspiration. That’s why I’m still proud to be a South African!
2Evidently an armed robbery that went wrong
3Mail on Sunday, 3rd November 2019