THE BIG READ: Young dreamers - Times LIVE
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THE BIG READ: Young dreamers

Carlos Amato | 2012-09-13 00:41:40.0
Ithembelihle's 'Alex Ferguson' is Theo Pieterse, who has taught and coached at the school since 1979

Bantu Mene, 17, leads the pre-game battle songs for Ithembelihle Comprehensive. Today, on a freezing field near Uitenhage, they double as mourning songs. The team's talented centre and skipper, Thabiso "Bull" Mendu, is dead.

His name is crossed out on the team sheet - a bleak stroke of a ballpoint pen. A syringe was found next to Mendu's body in Grahamstown the day before.

He had mentioned to friends that somebody had offered to sell him a "supplement" that would build his physique. Raised in a poor home, he craved a life in professional rugby.

Mene's tenor fights the roaring wind as he salutes his dead friend, then his new captain Sipho Ngwalangwala, his teammates and his coach Theo "Mlungu" Pieterse. After each salute, his comrades sing back a booming refrain.

"I don't know how we're going to play this game," whispers a distraught Monica Siwisa, team manager and mother figure.

The opponents are Molly Blackburn Senior Secondary - a typically hard Uitenhage outfit - and the game begins. Mene, a jet-heeled hooker, excels with his scything line breaks. But the headwind ruins his side's skip passes, and emotion causes errors.

Plan B is to drive the ball up, but Molly Blackburn have a bruising pack and a fine flyhalf. The hosts win 13-5 - a rare defeat for Ithembelihle of New Brighton, the strongest township rugby school in Port Elizabeth and notorious tormentors of the Model C giants.

Ithembelihle's "Alex Ferguson" is Pieterse, who has taught and coached at the school since 1979.

Throughout the turmoil of the 1980s, he stayed put.

"It was crazy, but I was never really threatened, except one day when Azasm [the Azanian Students' Movement] came for us with guns. The kids helped us out and we escaped out the back," he recalls.

"I had a different attitude to blacks when I came here. But my ideas changed - because hell, these guys have got talent. They've got everything."

Pieterse says he spent childhood holidays playing rugby with Xhosa friends in Addo, an experience that informed his adult conviction that the game was not, and never has been, white territory.

He is one of those ordinary South Africans who quietly pursue the substance of reconciliation without jargon or pomposity. He and his players rib each other constantly, but there's a strong undercurrent of respect.

A former pupil, Lincoln Mali, now an executive at Standard Bank and a benefactor of the team, knocked heads with Pieterse as a student activist.

"He wanted to instil discipline and structure," says Mali.

"He couldn't understand why we didn't just focus on the rugby.

"In 1986, during the Emergency, we weren't studying and Theo was really sad, because he just wanted us to play," says Mali.

"We lost touch for many years, until I saw the team play recently, and all the memories came back. I called him and didn't introduce myself, just asked: 'Who was your best flyhalf?' He said there were many, but there was one 'klipgooier', and I said, that's the one.

"The bonds of rugby were stronger than the differences. He's a genuine guy, and he showed foresight back then. He sees his pupils as human beings rather than just youngsters."

A few years ago, Pieterse's team toppled some giants of Port Elizabeth school rugby - Framesby, Brandwag, Daniel Pienaar - with their radical running game.

"After we beat them, Framesby said no ways, we're not going to play you any more," says Pieterse.

"We played a different brand of rugby, with hardly any kicking. We ran all the white schools to pieces. They didn't know what the hell was going on. They'd never seen forwards run that fast. They run like wings."

Ithembelihle's alumni include the late Solly Tyibilika, Bok Sevens star Mzwandile Stick, who coaches the sevens side, and EP Kings CEO Anele Pamba, who helps out with pitch maintenance. Spur and FNB provide sponsorship funds, and basic costs are covered. But Ithembelihle rarely play the rich schools, and Eastern Province's black talent pipeline is leaking. A case in point is Mene, who hasn't yet been scouted by a union or academy, and lacks the money to study further.

"Somebody should just grab him," says Pieterse.

"He's got hands, pace, a rugby brain. From the 10m line, he ran through the whole Griquas side."

One problem is Mene is not a hulking brute. The unions want their young recruits (forwards and backs alike) to be at least 180cm tall and weigh at least 80kg.

"They said I need to gain weight, but I don't have money to join a gym," says Mene.

"Professional rugby is about size. But all I need is a chance. I'm worried about losing my pace if I bulk up too much. I don't run like a prop."

Mene's predicament - and the death of Mendu - are symptoms of a stubborn gap between the physical requirements of the rugby economy and the typical physique of the black working class. If representivity is ever to happen, that gap must be closed.

Breyton Paulse and Gio Aplon have defied the prejudice against smaller players through unanswerable brilliance and indomitable tackling.

But local rugby's preoccupation with size has obscured the full potential of other significant black talents, along with smaller white players such as Brent Russell and (thus far) Patrick Lambie. The odds are stacked against creative mavericks of any hue. You do find hefty youngsters in Port Elizabeth townships - in Ithembelihle's ranks, the muscle-bound No 8 Ngwalangwala is big enough, as are lock Athenkosi "Jesus" Faku and prop Ntobeko "Magic Bull" Mazana.

And these kasie kids are tough as nails, says Pieterse: "One of our flankers, Vusumzi Faku, they call him 'Die Hard'. His cheekbone got dented, and a week later he was playing again."

But the average physique in deprived areas is too small, at least in part because players' nutrition is poor, with many meals missed. Pieterse brings a massive tube of polony and a sack of rolls to training sessions, and it disappears in seconds.

He's looking for sponsors to partner on a New Brighton pilot project to provide proper nutritional supplements to young players from age 10 onwards.

Rugby's development project is often framed as a strategic and political imperative, but it is also a simple moral duty. The sport, like South African society as a whole, can ill afford to ignore the lives of all the vulnerable young dreamers at its margins - boys like Thabiso "Bull" Mendu.


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