T.O., thank you for this.
I have a story about one such “unvarnished confrontation” that has stuck with me for the last 13 years.
While at Rhodes University I played for the rugby team. We played in the Border League, which meant that the teams we played against were mostly based in and around East London, but some were further away in the former Transkei.
One Saturday we played a game in Butterworth against Walter Sisulu University. It was a bad-tempered game from the beginning. Lots of small, off the ball incidents, many of them unpunished by the referee. By the second half the aggression was palpable.
With about 20 minutes to play, I saw one of their players trip one of ours. Miles away from the ball — a ridiculous foul. I immediately grabbed the guy by the front of his jersey and probably said something along the lines of “What the fuck are you doing?”
He punched me. Right between the eyes.
Or wait, no.
He screamed “I AM NOT YOUR K*****”, while punching me, right between the eyes.
Chaos. Loads of punches from both sides. Some of the small crowd that had gathered to watch on the grandstands were suddenly on the field. I remember seeing one of the women spectators — and I swear this is true — using her handbag as a weapon to bliksem our scrumhalf.
The game got called off early, and the Rhodes team beat a hasty retreat to the safety of our minibus.
The immediate aftermath was exactly what you would expect from a Rhodes rugby team. We stopped at a bottle store at the Kei River Bridge and bought two cases of beer, and by the time we had got back to Grahamstown, we had convinced ourselves of our status as some kind of war heroes.
Hangovers and false bravado fade quickly. But in all the time that has passed since then I am still haunted by what that young man screamed as he punched me.
Couldn’t he see that I was one of the good ones? I was studying politics at Rhodes, for crying out loud! I had read — had written essays! — about social constructions of race in South Africa. I had voted for the freakin’ ANC!
Well of course he didn’t know all that. But really it’s entirely beside the point.
What I saw that day was a rugby match that started off badly, where tempers escalated, and eventually violence was the result.
I have often wondered how that young man saw the events of that day. What if — for him — violence wasn’t the result of a few minutes of bad-tempered university sport. What if centuries of violence were the cause of the bad temper to begin with?
[Sidebar here to say that I imagine I might be ridiculed for inviting violence against my person. This is a deliberate misreading. I am not trying to invite — or even justify — anything. I am trying to understand.]
That day I played for a team that was probably two-thirds white. We represented a university that had not only excluded black people historically, but was founded using the proceeds of colonialism. And just for good measure, carried the name of He Who Must Fall. It was printed right there on our rugby jerseys.
In the context of a rugby match, the young man was clearly in the wrong. He had broken the rules.
But if his friends ever asked him why he threw that punch, did he say that it was something I had done wrong on the field? Or did he say
They came here in their fancy Kombi
They came from their fancy university
With their fancy English
Where their parents send them pocket money
They came here, to this place
Where our parents were banished
Denied education, work, a decent life
They came here, and then he wants to put his hands on me?
I am not his K*****