Rugby champion Sipho Tanana navigated the tough times

Sipho Tanana
Sipho Tanana
Image: SUPPLIED

The Border rugby fraternity is mourning the death of stalwart Sipho Tanana, who died last Thursday aged 88.

Tanana, widely regarded as a champion of black rugby, was born on June 3, 1932.

He will buried on Thursday at the Berlin cemetery after a funeral procession from his farm in Berlin. 

Tanana was secretary of the Border Rugby Board in 1969 and general secretary of the South African African Rugby Board when a dispute ensued among the officials of the SAARB about the venue of a tournament scheduled for 1969. A group led by Grant Khomo, who chaired the SAARB at the time and was supported by EP Rugby Board secretary Mvelo Singaphi, argued that the tournament was scheduled to be played in Port Elizabeth.

Tanana, supported by the Border region, insisted the earlier decision was that the tournament be played in Mthatha. It should be remembered, too, that the former Transkei was even then positioning itself for independence, which happened in 1976. Tanana won the battle over PE but the dispute continued in Mthatha during the tournament.

In 1972, Tanana was instrumental in bringing an English tour to Mdantsane, captained by John Pullin against the Leopards, captained by Norman Mbiko

In 1972, Tanana was instrumental in bringing an English tour to Mdantsane, captained by John Pullin against the Leopards, captained by Norman Mbiko. When he launched the campaign to bring this tour to East London there was no stadium in Mdantsane. He used the tour to lobby the SA government to fund the building of the Sisa Dukashe stadium. The English had made it a condition of their tour to have a match with the Leopards and Tanana played the politics to his advantage.

In 1974 he was part of organising a British Lions tour to South Africa led by Willie John McBride. It played only one Test match in South Africa but the British Lions had also insisted on a match with the Leopards. This was a difficult time for sport in South Africa in general, but rugby in particular. Not only was there racial tension between the apartheid state and black rugby, but the struggle against racial sport caused divisions among black administrators too, which caused splits to form in black rugby. Those wounds have not completely healed.

Internationally South Africa faced sports isolation and sanctions. The SA Council of Sports, Sacos, had adopted the slogan “no normal sport in an abnormal society”. This progressive principle had inherent contradictions when it discouraged sport on the playing fields of privileged universities. Cosas was opposed to this aspect of the policy as these facilities were built out of the black people’s taxes as well.

At home the government insisted that there could not be two Springboks representing South Africa. This is what gave rise to the name Leopards to represent the black national team under the SAARB. The name Springbok was reserved for whites who were given the right to represent the country. Black teams were prohibited from playing in white-owned venues. It is interesting that, according to Tanana, black rugby administrators were under pressure from white politicians to comply with separate sporting facilities.

He believed white rugby administrators had no problem sharing facilities with blacks

He believed white rugby administrators had no problem sharing facilities with blacks. For example, when in 1959 the Border Rugby Union approached the White Border Union for a match to be played at Selborne College, the obstacle was that the law did not allow multiracial matches in white school grounds.

In 1974, the Leopards undertook a rugby tour to Italy. SAARB officials included Tanana. He remembered that while in Italy the SAARB delegation received an invitation from the South African government delegation booked in at Lake Likano at in the border of Switzerland and Italy.

At this meeting the government delegation informed the SAARB officials that Ciskei was going to be the last homeland to be granted independence. They said  this was would happen soon but they needed administrative skills to run the government. They appealed to the sports officials, who had good administrative skills, to leave sport and come on board to build the Ciskei government administration.

They were also told in that meeting that Mandela would not remain in prison for another 20 years.  Furthermore, they encouraged the rugby administrators to recruit the youth to take an interest in public administration to strengthen the homeland.

Upon returning from Italy the SAARB delegation convened a meeting of the board on June 3 1974 in Port Elizabeth to report back. According to Tanana the meeting was also attended by ANC people. At this meeting it was confirmed that Mandela’s release was imminent. Therefore, it was necessary to strengthen the administration capacity of the black governments.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Tanana embodied the complex nexus between sport and politics in apartheid South Africa

Following these discussions, in 1976 three of the Border African Rugby Union executives decided to resign from rugby to join homeland politics. Tanana was one of them. He was appointed secretary-general of the Ciskei National Independent Party (CNIP) with Lennox Sebe as president. Sebe was not the first choice for presidency, according to Tanana. The South African government wanted Maqoma, who was a school principal in Port Elizabeth, as president. But he refused to vacate his post without giving three months notice. Maqoma was chief of AmaJingqi and would have ascended to this position by virtue of his traditional leadership role.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Tanana embodied the complex nexus between sport and politics in apartheid South Africa. He had both the political and administrative skills to navigate his way through this trying period. He did what he needed to do during his lifetime.

Tanana is survived by his wife Ncediwe, five children, 12 grandchildren and six great grandchildren.


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