Errol Tobias: ‘I wanted to show what was possible when you looked beyond colour’

It’s nearly 50 years since first black man played for Springboks and Ireland were the opposition

 Former Springboks player Errol Tobias during an interview about his new book in  September, 2015. Photograph:  Nasief Manie/Foto24/ Gallo Images/Getty Images

Former Springboks player Errol Tobias during an interview about his new book in September, 2015. Photograph: Nasief Manie/Foto24/ Gallo Images/Getty Images

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On the May 30th, 1981, Errol Tobias became the first black man to play for the Springboks, debuting at the age of 31 against Ireland. Before kick-off, Tobias sat in the old changing rooms of Newlands Stadium in Cape Town and gazed down at the rare white jersey in his hands.

“I tell you, I just couldn’t wait to get that jersey onto my body,” Tobias said. “We were wearing white for once, as Ireland were wearing our normal green. I remember a friend said that the white jersey is perfect Errol, you will stick out, and you will show the Afrikaners just how good you are.”

Tobias’s journey to full international recognition for the Springboks brought pressure not only from some racist white fans but also from black South Africans. They didn’t want the fleet-footed flyhalf to wear the green and gold jersey so beloved by their oppressors. Tobias worked as a builder and had worked on enough white-owned mansions to understand the stark inequalities that the apartheid system had created between races in South Africa.

I refused those opportunities in France and Wales because I had something to fight for at home

Just two months before his Springboks debut, South Africa’s elite schools’ rugby tournament Craven Week was mired in controversy after nine out of 23 white schools refused to play against black opponents.

“There were many people who were unhappy about me playing for the Springboks. There were, of course, racists who didn’t want a man of colour wearing the jersey. Then, there were also people of colour who didn’t want me to play. I knew this, but if I didn’t play, and take this opportunity that I had been given, the Boks would stay a white 15, maybe for a long time to come.

“I needed to play to show white people that not only am I good enough, but that other people of colour are good enough and maybe even better than you are at this game if you give them a proper chance. I wanted to prove to the world that South Africa had talented coloured players.”

Tobias was facing enough resistance in South Africa that he was completely unaware of the pressure that his Irish opponents had faced before the tour. A series of protests against the tour was organised in Dublin by the leader of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, Kader Asmal, who would later return to South Africa and become a key minister in Mandela’s government.

Members of the Irish clergy, trade unions and eventually, the taoiseach Charlie Haughey strongly urged the IRFU not to travel to South Africa on moral grounds. In a nationwide poll commissioned by The Irish Times, only 32 per cent of the public were in favour of the tour. Players Tony Ward, Donal Spring, Moss Keane and Hugo MacNeill refused to tour South Africa, not wishing to endorse the apartheid regime through international sporting competition.

Scrumhalf John Robbie and Number 8 Michael Gibson were refused leave to tour by their employer Guinness. Gibson stayed at home and kept his job, while Robbie resigned, travelled and this year said that his decision to tour is “a stain that will never leave me”.

Shortly before making his full debut for South Africa, Tobias was telephoned by representatives in France and Wales who offered him lucrative three-year contracts to play club rugby. He was living in a country where he was unable to visit the same beaches and bathrooms as potential white team-mates, yet he resolved to stay and fight for his place on the Springboks.

As a player, Tobias idolised Mike Gibson and was always on his toes looking for the opportunity to slice through a tiny gap, regardless of the risk. Off the field, he finally sensed that he could make history and wear a full Springbok jersey, his club performances were just too good to ignore anymore.

“I refused those opportunities in France and Wales because I had something to fight for at home. I did it not only for me but for others who came after me who would get the opportunity to play for the Springboks. I knew that the Springbok jersey was finally just in sight, and I could not turn it down. My opportunity to play for the Boks came in my 30s, so I knew I didn’t have much time left.”

Errol Tobias photographed at a President’s XV training session in September 1984. Photograph: Mark Leech/Getty Images
Errol Tobias photographed at a President’s XV training session in September 1984. Photograph: Mark Leech/Getty Images

Usually an outhalf, Tobias was selected to start in two Tests against Ireland team at centre, alongside the mercurial Danie Gerber. He had found his Springbok team-mates mostly polite if sometimes distant off the field. An exception was Afrikaner Rob Louw, who was his room-mate and who eventually became the godfather to his child.

Louw remains one of his closest friends. In the first Test, Tobias made a memorable break with the first ball he received from Naas Botha at outhalf, setting up Louw for a try. Tobias vividly remembers Fergus Slattery yelling at his opponent David Irwin above the din from the crowd in Cape Town.

“I remember clearly after making that break that led to the try, and hearing Slattery, who was a marvellous player and captain, yelling at my opponent David Irwin, ‘you have to switch on and take this guy seriously, you cannot give him an inch on this field, or he will make you look foolish all day long’. That Irish team really had some wonderful players, Ollie Campbell being a brilliant kicker of the ball.”

When Tobias made his debut in Cape Town, Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island, a few miles from the stadium, but completely cut off from society in his small cell. News of the debut performance reached Mandela, for once the newspapers that he and his prisoners received on Monday were not wholly cut to shreds by the censors. The Springboks were exempt from the censors’ scissors, and Mandela was able to read about Tobias’s performance in Newlands in full detail.

I will never forget it, I came into the changing room, and they were chanting my name, ‘Errol, Errol, Errol’

“Years after I stopped playing, I was lucky enough to be invited for dinner with Chester Williams and our wives to have lunch with Madiba. He told me that when I was picked to play for the Springboks that he and all of the prisoners really wanted me to do well. He said that it showed white South Africans that if we give someone of colour a chance, look at what they can do and how we can help make a better South Africa. It made me really happy to hear this from Madiba.

“I knew I wasn’t an Uncle Tom, I was picked on merit because I was one of the best players available in South Africa. I knew I could benefit the country by showing them another way forward. Some people still criticised me for playing, but that is life. Jackie Robinson was called an Uncle Tom in baseball, and he fought through and broke down barriers. I did exactly the same thing in rugby.”

After the first Test in Newlands, Tobias returned to the changing room to hear his formerly reserved Afrikaner team-mates chanting his name. “I will never forget it, I came into the changing room, and they were chanting my name, ‘Errol, Errol, Errol’. I was told that if I played well, and proved myself on merit, that the Afrikaners would accept me, and they did in that side.”

Tobias’s Springboks defeated Ireland over two Tests, and he was picked for the ill-fated Springbok tour in 1981 to New Zealand that was besieged by protesters against apartheid on and off the field. He was miserable on tour, unable to get selected for the Test team in wintry conditions, and surrounded by angry protests wherever the team bus pulled up.

“That tour was an unhappy one. It was difficult, and really, we shouldn’t have gone. The people in New Zealand rightfully showed that they weren’t happy with apartheid and demonstrated against it in numbers. If that tour did do something good, it showed South Africans exactly what the world thought of apartheid and that was time for it to stop completely. There had to be another way forward and thank God there was in years to come.”

Tobias returned to South Africa from the tour and visited a local restaurant, with the owner recognising him. After sitting down to eat, he noticed that a coloured man was being refused service from the same owner who had happily served him moments before. Tobias had slowly gained a level of fame and acceptance as a Springbok that unwittingly had allowed him a rare degree of immunity from the horrors of apartheid.

“That incident was a really horrifying one. I was not long back from New Zealand, and I ordered food and was about to start eating when I saw this man being refused service. I went up to the owner and asked him what was wrong, and he said I’m not serving a coloured man in here.

England’s Will Carling and Rory Underwood talk to Errol Tobias during a training session in 1994. Photograph: David Rogers/Allsport
England’s Will Carling and Rory Underwood talk to Errol Tobias during a training session in 1994. Photograph: David Rogers/Allsport

“I said ‘look at my skin, I’m even darker than this man’. I paid the man what I owed him for the meal and left without eating a thing. Months later, I got a phone call from the new owner of the same restaurant, he was ringing to tell me that I was welcome at any time with my family for a free meal and at his restaurant people of any colour were welcome. Small actions can make a big difference.”

In 1984, he was picked to play against England in South Africa in his favoured position of outhalf. On the bus en route to Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, Tobias looked out of the window and saw three young black boys rummaging through a rubbish bin looking for something to eat. In a few hours, he would run out against England as the leader of the Springbok backline in front of a capacity stadium chanting his name.

“That image has always stuck with me of those young boys looking for food in the rubbish bin. It was brutally sad to see. I turned to Rob Louw, and I said that today I will score a try and dedicate it to those boys. I did end up scoring and thought about them. I wanted to show all South Africans that if people of colour are given a proper fair opportunity, look exactly what we can do for this country.”

His final caps for the Springboks came against a South American Jaguars side led by the magnificent Argentinian outhalf Hugo Porta in 1984. Tobias outplayed Porta over the two Tests and ended his international rugby career at 34. He finally left the field with such a masterful performance that an Afrikaner fan stopped him and told him that if he had asked his daughter for her hand in marriage then and there he would accept happily.

I finally feel completely accepted by everyone in South Africa. I always carry a pen with me for autographs, as I still get stopped and recognised wherever I go, mostly by Afrikaners

Tobias understood that talk in apartheid South Africa was ultimately cheap, however well-meaning. After leaving the stadium as a revered Springbok, he still had to deal with the harsh realities of life as a second class citizen under PW Botha’s brutal apartheid government. Tobias ran free on the rugby field as a Springbok, but off it, he remained constricted in his movements that were designed to shackle the lives of ‘nie blankes’, or non-whites.

Tobias rejoiced when Mandela was eventually freed from prison in 1990, and eventually became president of the new rainbow nation in 1994. Having started the line break towards acceptance for players of colour he watched Chester Williams as part of the 1995 World Cup-winning Springboks at home, and latterly, Siya Kolisi captaining the Springboks to victory in Japan in 2019.

“I think that rugby in South Africa is more than a game as it really does show what can happen when we work together and help each other as people of all races to create a harmonious future. I was filled with pride to see Chester play in 1995, and then to see Siya lifting the trophy as captain in 2019 was really special. I think that Rassie Erasmus deserves huge credit also for the way he brought that team together to really produce something special.

“I know that when I put on the Springbok jersey, it helped to change a lot of hardened attitudes before Madiba’s release. It put a seed on doubt in the Afrikaner’s mind, even the most hardened ones, once they saw me play and excel at the highest level for their beloved Springboks. I know that I left the Springboks in a better place than when I received my first jersey, and I know now that South Africa is thankfully in a better place.”

Tobias sits at home in South Africa surrounded by beautifully framed Springbok and international jerseys from his playing days that remind him of happier times. In March, he lost his beloved wife Sandra, after a heart attack. His strong Christian faith sustains him through dark days but he remains full of his pride for his role as a Springbok in the last days of apartheid.

“I finally feel completely accepted by everyone in South Africa. I always carry a pen with me for autographs, as I still get stopped and recognised wherever I go, mostly by Afrikaners. I have an autobiography out that has become a best seller here in South Africa, people want to know my story, which makes me proud.

“I wanted to show what was possible when you looked beyond colour and gave people a chance to prove yourself on merit, that you were the very best for the job. I can look back on what I did with pride.”

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