Tony Ward: Meeting Madiba a moment of magic
I thought sport and politics shouldn't mix until I saw a 'Whites only' sign on the 1980 Lions tour of South Africa, remembers Tony Ward
Published 07/12/2013 | 02:30
BACK in the 1970s I spent the best years of my life as a carefree student at the magnificent Plassey Campus in Castletroy just outside Limerick City. I was but one of 300-plus students training to become specialist PE teachers in this radical new departure for third-level education.
That I was ultra-enthusiastic goes without saying. Short of becoming a full professional in my chosen discipline, studying for a life immersed in sport represented the stuff of dreams.
Mention politics and sport, and like almost everything back then, I was crystal-clear on the divide. Never should they meet. We undergraduates, about to change the world, knew sport was and would forever remain pure and untarnished. That was the third term of 1978, the final semester of the four-year course.
Two years on and my view on the world and purity of sport had changed radically. In May of 1980, I had got the call to drop everything and head down to join Bill Beaumont's Lions in South Africa. Little did I know what lay ahead. Even if I had, such was the obsession with rugby at that formative time in my life that I'm not too sure it would have made a blind bit of difference.
On Thursday, May 24, I touched down in Johannesburg's Jan Smuts Airport – as it was then – and as I walked through arrivals to be greeted by Lions team manager Syd Millar and a battery of South African photographers, a cold chill ran down my spine.
There on the wall over the toilet was printed in stark lettering: "Whites only."
I had not thought twice about going to South Africa once the call came. I wanted to be a Lion above everything. It was as simple and as selfish as that.
But over the coming weeks of the greatest experience of my rugby-playing life, I was set to scratch below the surface and discover the real South Africa, the real meaning of apartheid and how my sport (rugby) and politics (South Africa) were inextricably linked.
Space prevents me recounting the many first-hand experiences that saw me leave the country better informed but much chastened and heavily scarred emotionally.
From sneaking into townships in Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth (New Brighton), to visiting racially segregated wards in the main children's hospital in Cape Town, to becoming particularly friendly with anti-apartheid activist brothers Cheeky and Valence Watson, who were involved in controversial mixed-race rugby teams.
Then there was the constant reminder from non-whites everywhere we went "to beat the Bokke".
It was so confusing initially – why would they want us to beat their own? Within no time that and so many of the harsh realities of apartheid life in South Africa became clear.
On another occasion playing golf, myself, John Robbie, Clive Woodward and Paul Dodge were surrounded by youngsters – about late teens and literally dressed in rags. They all wanted to caddie as they clamoured "massah (master), massah, pick us".
It was heart-rending. They explained that they were only allowed play golf on a Monday morning very early but had to pay way in excess of the two rand they received for the three to four-hour caddying.
By the end of that tour my mind was made up: Ireland were set to tour 12 months on in 1981, but I would not be returning – on moral, political and sporting grounds.
ALONG with Hugo McNeill, Donal Spring, Moss Keane and Ciaran Fitzgerald, I made myself unavailable to the IRFU. Did I deny myself another couple of caps? Possibly. Did my not going to South Africa with Ireland make a whit of difference? Probably not. All I know is that 30-something years on, I would make that same decision again.
I thought no more of it and then in 1990 I was invited to a luncheon in the then Berkley Court Hotel to meet Nelson Mandela and his then wife Winnie. It was a moment touched with magic.
I have been back to the Rainbow Republic in a journalistic capacity a few times since and between a secretly organised tour of his political home in Pretoria to an official tour of Robben Island prison, the magnanimity of Nelson Mandela and his amazing life is almost beyond words.
When that final chapter in the history of the world is written, the name Mandela will be right up there at the very top. An extraordinary human being at the end of an extraordinary life and one whose Rainbow legacy will stand the test of time. But for now, a nation weeps and how.