Apartheid didn't defeat me, nor did Covid-19, says rugby legend

21 June 2020 - 00:00
Broadhurst Cona with his granddaughter Thimna, 6.
Image: Esa Alexander Broadhurst Cona with his granddaughter Thimna, 6.

Apartheid's cruelty failed to break rugby legend Broadhurst Cona, and almost half a century later the 73-year-old's fighting spirit has seen off the coronavirus, too.

Cona, who was part of the black SA rugby squad in the 1970s, tested positive for Covid-19 at the end of April. He spent three weeks at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.

"I told myself that I should rather die exercising," said Cona. "One of the doctors approached me and asked me what I was doing in the middle of the night and I told him that I was exercising and he said I must keep it up. My condition improved drastically afterwards."

Cona's family was removed from Simon's Town to Gugulethu under the Group Areas Act in 1965. When he applied for his identity document, known as the dompas, the clerk refused to write his proper name on the document and wrote "Broadness" instead.

"This year hasn't treated me well at all," he said. "I was hospitalised for Covid-19, and after 21 days I was moved to a hotel, where I spent a further six days, to recuperate. Apartheid taught me to be resilient and I told myself in that hospital bed that I will not let this disease defeat me."

He does not know how he got infected. "I was adhering to the rules, I stayed inside the house most of the time. I even stopped attending funerals. I went to the doctor because I didn't have appetite and my worry was that I couldn't take medication on an empty stomach because I have chronic hypertension."

Cona said he had two tests before doctors confirmed that he had been infected.

"That turned my world around," he said. "Reality hit me on my second day at Groote Schuur. I was very weak and all I wanted to do was sleep. My chest was painful, I coughed a lot and had short breath. It was very painful."

He said he became anxious when people died around him. "A number of people I was admitted with died and that stressed me a lot. Another former rugby player died next to me," said Cona.

"I woke up one day at 3.35am and there was commotion in the ward and I realised that the guy didn't make it. It was so sad. I started doing push-ups and stretched myself. The first two days were not easy but I remembered that resuming exercise after a long time was always painful, so I carried on. On the third day things changed, my breathing improved immensely."

The former prop cherishes his memories on and off the field. Having been barred from playing in the white national side during apartheid, after 1994 "we were called to Nasrec when [Nelson] Mandela was still president and we were given the new Springbok blazers, all of us; black, white and coloured", he said.

"We were the first black rugby team from SA to tour Italy, in 1974. In 1975, the French toured SA and we also got a match with them. The white team played their own Test with the visiting team, and we played ours."