Picture: Gallo Images/Getty Images/David Rogers
Picture: Gallo Images/Getty Images/David Rogers

For traditionalists it will be the public execution of an old friend. For the cynics it’s just urban renewal, though on a grand scale.

No-one knows when the axe — or the wrecking ball — will fall on Newlands but everyone knows the old rugby stadium is on death row. The executioners and their accomplices have issued only bland statements on the future of a piece of prime Cape Town real estate.

Investec would barely confirm its role, and all that Zelt Marais, president of Western Province Rugby, would say was: "We are still in confidential negotiations, both with regards to the Cape Town Stadium move and the redevelopment of Newlands."

The city council has had no application for demolition, or for rezoning, or development, says Marian Nieuwoudt, the city’s mayoral committee member for spatial planning.

It’s like bolting a turnstile after the last fan has fled. Cape Town’s worst-kept secret is that after 130 years of rugby at Newlands, the final whistle will sound in September or October and Cape Town Stadium will be the new venue.

Just how the second-oldest Test rugby ground in the world, owned by its clubs and once consistently profitable, reached this ignominious point, and how one of the richest rugby unions fell on hard times, is simple: a profligate union ran out of money. Investec, it has been reported without official substantiation (or denial), offered R110m to help it out.

Like any lender, Investec will demand its pound of concrete. Newlands will be leased for 99 years to the group, which will knock it down and "develop" it, according to property-speak euphemism. WP Rugby officials are quick to emphasise that the ground is not being sold.

The City of Cape Town desperately wants WP as an anchor tenant to help pay for Cape Town Stadium, its Green Point burden, a white elephant from the 2010 Soccer World Cup that was built at Sepp Blatter’s insistence when we were still sucking up to Fifa.

So if Investec wants to put up a block of flats where the rugby stadium sits, the council is not about to stand in its way. It might even grant permission for a shopping mall, much to the chagrin of nearby Cavendish Square.

"The impact on residents, in terms of the local loss of heritage and the daily implications of what will be huge redevelopment, will only become clear when we see the detailed proposals," says the Newlands Residents Association. "We all look forward to seeing those at the earliest opportunity."

The developers, meanwhile, are making everyone wait.

The final chapter

Cities knock down buildings all the time, even in Cape Town, but Newlands is different. It’s like chopping off a part of the mountain. No wonder there is so much emotion attached to the latest development.

Rugby historian Paul Dobson is one of the traditionalists who will mourn its passing. "There was your home, your church, your school — and there was Newlands," says the 84-year-old who played and refereed matches at the stadium where he watched his first match as a nine-year-old in 1945.

The residents’ association says there is "considerable sadness" among locals at the prospect of the historic stadium disappearing.

Nearby schools will need to seek other sources of income when the lucrative parking fees dry up. Groote Schuur School’s sports fields, just across the railway line from the stadium, had a festive air on big-match Saturdays. Fans came in lorries from as far as Port Nolloth, braaied before a game, partied after it, then took the long road home late at night or early on Sunday morning. WP’s new venue at Green Point won’t offer such pleasant, inexpensive diversions.

Cape Town Stadium has a different appeal, as shown by the packed houses for sevens rugby tournaments and the recent celebrity tennis match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with its world record 52,000 crowd. Perhaps the new generation of sports fans prefer the wide-open spaces of Green Point Common, with its proximity to the V&A Waterfront playground, to the confined precincts of Newlands. Or was it just the Federer drawcard?

Also, the railway that serviced Newlands is now erratic and dangerous; regular buses ply the Green Point route until late at night and are safer and more reliable. Parking, however, remains the nightmare that it is at Newlands.

Now that they have built it, will they come? Super Rugby crowds are in decline and the Rugby Championship is losing some of its allure. A senior WP rugby official fears that if this trend continues, the crowds at Cape Town Stadium will look like a puisie op ’n skoon vel (a pimple on a clear skin).

But rugby in Cape Town might be in need of a change and not all rugby people there will share Dobson’s nostalgia for Newlands.

For part of its lifetime, the stadium inevitably became yet another apartheid symbol, with a small section — the Malay stand — once reserved for people of colour.

WP president Marais may be one of those whose affections for Newlands are circumscribed; he played in the City & Suburban league of the nonracial SA Rugby Union that boycotted Newlands during apartheid. An element of the Newlands crowd has been notorious for supporting the All Blacks, a Johnny-come-lately protest against apartheid that led to Newlands being deprived of Test matches against SA’s great rugby rival.

But it wasn’t only bad finances or politics that spelt the end for the stadium.

Dobson believes Newlands began to lose much of its charm when the clubs were gradually exiled. "The clubs were the heart of Newlands," he says.

The clubs founded Newlands. The first match was in 1890 between Villagers and Stellenbosch University, a rugby rivalry that always ensured a big crowd, who had a strong bias in favour of the former. The first Test was played there in 1891 against the British Isles (not yet the British & Irish Lions). Since then 54 Tests have been played at Newlands, 35 of those won by the Springboks. The last will be on July 4, against Scotland.

Before Newlands became a venue exclusively for international and provincial matches (and with no curtain-raisers, another tradition abandoned) the ground hosted five club matches on a Saturday. At its height, crowds of 20,000 were not uncommon on club days.

There is excitement in Dobson’s voice as he recalls Newlands in its prime. The nine-year-old had grown to a self-assured 13-year-old by 1949 when the great event of an All Blacks visit took place, the first international tour since World War 2. By then he was allowed to catch the train on his own from Plumstead. He joined an already long queue for the first Test. It was 2.30 in the morning, but he was wide awake.

"Schoolboys sat around the fringes of the field, there was no barrier," Dobson recalls. They watched with delight as SA’s Okey Geffin, a World War 2 veteran, kicked penalty after penalty. "Even the policemen did bollemakiesies [somersaults]," he says.

When the Springboks prevailed 15-11, thanks to Geffin’s five penalty goals, there was the permitted chaos after the final whistle. The crowd invaded the field to share a moment with their heroes. Springbok captain Felix du Plessis, whose son Morné would also lead the Springboks in later years, was knocked over and ended up briefly sitting on Dobson’s neck.

With memories like that it’s easy to understand the old historian’s melancholia about a passing era.

"We’re losing part of our history by leaving Newlands. Our history is being gradually destroyed," says Dobson.

Not everyone is as gloomy. The residents’ association believes the demise of Newlands was inevitable.

"The ground and facilities are showing their age," it says. "And Green Point will be a world-class venue."

When the destruction comes it will happen in seconds with a controlled implosion, according to Joe Brinkmann, an expert in such matters. He should know — his company imploded the two cooling towers at the Athlone power station in 2010 and the Tulip Hotel in Cape Town’s CBD in 2015. It’s the best way in terms of safety, speed and cost, says Brinkmann, with the dispassion of an engineer. In other words, it will be pain-free.

But for many, like Dobson, it will hurt when the old place finally bites the dust, literally.