Black Bok shares rise to stardom

Rugby star Thando Manana, right, and author Sibusiso Mjikeliso hope their book will inspire young players to aim for the top. Picture: Eugene Coetzee

Former SA forward wants to inspire others to reach for their dreams

The lack of top black sports stars recounting their compelling life stories inspired rugby personality Thando Manana to write his autobiography, Being a Black Springbok.

A big audience was in attendance at the Port Elizabeth Opera House last night to celebrate the launch of the book, which explores Manana’s vibrant life on and off the rugby field.

Manana said he decided to stage one of his book launches in Port Elizabeth because it was his home town and he had a great affinity for the region.

“I was born in PE and it will always have a place in my heart. Also, we have produced and continue to produce rugby players,” he said.

The book was written in conjunction with author Sibusiso Mjikeliso, a sports journalist who spent many hours consulting with Manana.

Manana was the third black African player to don a Springbok jersey after unification in 1992, when he made his debut in 2000 in a tour game against Argentina A.

His route to the top of the game was unpredictable and unusual. From his humble beginnings in New Brighton, Manana grew to become one of the grittiest loose forwards of South African rugby, despite only starting the game at the age of 16. His rise through rugby ranks, while earning a reputation as a tough-tackling lock and later openside flanker, was astonishingly rapid.

Within two years of picking up a rugby ball, he represented Eastern Province at Craven Week and by 2000 he was a Springbok.

The book tells how Manana negotiated life’s perils and pitfalls, which threatened to derail both his sporting ambitions and the course of his life.

He had to negotiate an unlikely, but fateful, kinship with a known Port Elizabeth druglord, who took Manana under his wing when he was a young, gullible up-and-comer at Spring Rose Rugby Club.

Rejected by his father early in his life, Manana had to deal with a sense of abandonment and a missing protective figure, and he had to find, along the way, people to lean on.

Manana tells his story with the sort of candour he has become synonymous with as a rugby commentator, pundit and member of the Room Dividers team on Metro FM.

“Unfortunately, rugby in South Africa is still divided in terms of a common goal,” Manana said.

“Some of the reasons being a systemic and cultural racism problem in South African rugby and the forces that be are continually pulling in different directions because of self-gain. “People are clinging on to power for far too long, leaving certain provinces running dry and unable to retain some of their best players.”

Asked what had prompted him to write the book, Manana said: “We always think of writing a book every day of our lives and the lack of black sports people who had played at the highest level telling their stories was one of many reasons for me to put pen to paper.

“And, after the tragic loss of Solly Tyibilika, I was more determined to tell my very own story and share my very own unique experience I had encountered in rising to the top in my career, both as a person and professional rugby player. “It took myself and Sibusiso Mjekiliso 18 months to write the book, excluding the external editing and proofreading.

“I must say that it was the most pleasant thing to do as I revisited my footprints while writing the 120 000-word paperback.”

Manana hopes the book will inspire young players to reach great heights in the game.

“I would like readers to learn what it takes and what one has to go through in reaching for one’s dream and the realisation of what it means to play for the Springboks and experience international rugby.

“Young players must have goals, stay focused and make the sacrifices.

“The most difficult chapter to write was about my good friend Solly Tyibilika, who was gunned down at a tavern in Cape Town.”

Manana said he had seen many changes in the game since he first started playing.

“In terms of change, it has continually regressed from when the South African Rugby Football Union had been working hard to make rugby the game of all South Africans, mainly through its active development programme throughout the country which saw it, at one stage, spending more than R500-million in those programmes.

“As a result, provincial age-group levels, players of colour are playing an increasingly prominent role as development programmes are bearing fruit and the seniors are directly the opposite.”

Manana thinks EP Rugby is now on the right track under its new president Andre Rademan.

“The hardest part has been done, the old executive is gone. But there’s a lot of responsibility ahead for the new administration.

“We have the chance to at last get it right and to make sure that the next Siya Kolisi, the next Mzwandile Stick or the next Solly Tyibilika gets an opportunity to play for their mother province.

“The EP U19 team coached by Stick showed how much talent can come out of PE and EP as a whole. The Southern Kings also proved that this season.”

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