Luke Alfred and Ian Hawkey’s new book Vuvuzela Dawn details 25 sports stories that shaped democratic SA. Here Alfred reflects on the project, the politics and psychology of winning and losing big.

When I was toying with the idea of writing the book that was to become Vuvuzela Dawn, I had in mind writing something worthily commemorative — a big, virtue-signalling whopper about SA sport, in other words.

Like other parts of the world, we needed a national sports museum or a hall of sporting fame, I reasoned, and if there was no prospect of this coming to pass, I’d write a book which masqueraded as one.

After a couple of rejections from local publishers, I refined the process. How about a book of sporting stories featuring South Africans instead?

In this country we love our stories, those smoky tales around the braai, so what better way of smuggling in the mustard of commemoration — to coin a phrase — with the wors and bun of a juicy story?

Discussing it with the book’s co-author, English journalist Ian Hawkey, we also gave the book a specific chronology, 1994-2019, and realised we could package it to coincide with the 25th anniversary of democracy celebrations.

Hansie Cronje
Hansie Cronje

Such celebrations have been muted, perhaps nonexistent, but there’s a little celebration contained between the covers of Dawn (as Hawkey and I have come to call it), because it shows the forgotten heroism of our rowers and athletes and rugby players.

Sport is a meritocracy: nine times out of 10, better teams beat worse teams. Barcelona are a better team than Real Madrid. The Crusaders are slicker, quicker, more powerful than the Sharks.

Unlike the rest of the country, where so much — politics, business — is fouled by patronage, inefficiency and corruption, sport offers us a spectacle we can trust.

While we know the outcome of an election, crucially, when the Proteas play England in the opening game of the World Cup, we won’t know who has won until the last ball has been bowled. Sport, in its pure form, remains untarnished in so far as it provides an end we don’t know in advance.

Kamp Staaldraad
Kamp Staaldraad

It isn’t all celebration, mind. The book contains certain chapters — on Hansie Cronje, Kamp Staaldraad and the excruciating World Cup tie against Australia at Edgbaston in 1999 — that show sport, and the institutions which surround it, at its most greedy, paranoid and twitchy.

Surprising lengths

For the most part, the stories are about overcoming. The swimmer Ryk Neethling returned home after having bombed in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. On the plane, with media accusations of "choking" ringing in his ears, he read a book by an Aussie shot putter about the systematic world of doping in international sport. He was spooked.

In a swamp of soggy self-regard, he thought: "I’m done."

But he wasn’t. Back in Tucson, Arizona, where he started working as a realtor after completing his studies, he woke every morning to his demons, those creepy little horned fellows that told him all too frequently that he was a loser.

At first, he believed them. But, imperceptibly, things changed. His therapy was to coach swimming in the evenings after work. He trained a group of veterans who loved being in the water. Haltingly he began to frolic, swimming by himself.

Slowly a relay team formed around him and Roland Schoeman who, like Neethling, had been at the University of Arizona on a scholarship. They were joined by a third swimmer, Lyndon Ferns, and a fourth.

Any illusions that they were freestyle medley world-beaters was rudely shattered in Barcelona at the World Aquatics Championships in 2003. The team bounced into the final on a technicality because the eighth-placed Swedes were disqualified.

They swam, therefore, as the ninth-fastest team, and it showed. "If we’d stopped at halfway [in the Barcelona final]," Neethling told me, "no-one would have missed us."

Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend, Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling
Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend, Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling

In between Barcelona and the 2004 Olympics in Athens, things changed. The relay team decided on a fourth member (Darian Townsend) and Neethling and Schoeman expediently buried their much-publicised differences.

Ferns, despite a bout of overtraining, began to hit the best form of his life. The team changed their race order and tried not to gripe too much about Swimming SA.

Penny Heyns
Penny Heyns

Eating a team meal before the relay final in Athens, Schoeman forked a rice ball into his mouth but his mouth was so dry that grains of rice dribbled down his chin. His teammates roared with laughter, the little incident breaking the tension.

An hour later, the four smashed the world record, winning the gold medal in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay final against teams that contained international swimming greats like the Australian, Ian Thorpe, and the American, Michael Phelps.

Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar, 1995 Rugby World Cup
Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar, 1995 Rugby World Cup

In telling the stories of our sport over the past 25 years, we’ve looked for the incidents and details that will bring them alive again for readers who already know much about the 1995 Rugby World Cup or the 1996 Olympics at which Penny Heyns and Josia Thugwane won gold medals.

Thugwane, the tiny marathoner from Mpumalanga, loved his pap. He took a 5kg bag of it to the team’s pre-Atlanta training camp in Albuquerque in New Mexico, where it was quickly polished off by him and his teammates.

Extra supplies needed to be rushed in from SA. Thugwane was king of the kitchen: when pap was being prepared, no-one else could touch it.

Josia Thugwane
Josia Thugwane

The men’s marathon is traditionally the final Olympic event. Soaring summer heat in Atlanta meant the race started earlier than originally intended and, on the morning of the event, Thugwane and the rest of his team were up at 5am. Thugwane asked the manager of the team, Bob Norris, to grab him a quick breakfast at the local McDonald’s, handily located in the athletes’ village. Norris demurred. Thugwane insisted. "Please Bob," he said, "I want a white bread roll to have with my cup of rooibos tea."

It was hardly the breakfast of champions but on such a snack Thugwane went on to win the Olympic gold medal in the 1996 men’s marathon.

Sitting between his parents on the family couch at home that Sunday night was young Matt Brittain. A favourite sport hadn’t yet emerged for him, but he spent the following afternoon running around the family garden until it grew cold and his mum called him in. When she asked what he was doing, he replied (with the candour that only the young can muster) that he’d decided he was going to compete in the Olympics one day. It was best to start his training early.

His was no idle boast. Despite a back injury shortly before the London Olympics in 2012, Brittain did go to an Olympics, stroking the lightweight fours rowing crew to gold.

Theirs was an odyssey. Crew members chopped and changed. Sizwe Ndlovu, the scull, had a debilitating wrist injury. The crew scraped into the Olympics. Even the boat changed.

During a Tzaneen training camp months before London, tempers frayed. One of the dams upon which the crew trained was dubbed "the land of speed". Now they simply found themselves in the slough of despond.

Yet on the day of the final, they were brilliant. With about 600m of the 2,000m course to go, Brittain raised his voice above the growing din and shouted one word, a word that signalled a subtle raise in the crew’s rowing rhythm.

"Gold," he shouted, as the crew passed the 1,500m mark in fourth place. Never had a more prophetic word been spoken in the remarkable story of SA’s sporting readmission since 1994.

Brittain’s story about watching Thugwane on television as a boy was a discovery for us, the book’s authors, an echo pulsing through our sporting system.

We will discover other echoes in the years to come, finding out that someone we don’t yet know about watched Caster Semenya win gold in the 800m at Rio three years ago and was inspired to become an Olympic athlete as a result.

Our sport now has critical mass, a momentum of its own. Quietly, and without anyone really noticing, a tradition of excellence has been formed.

• Vuvuzela Dawn: 25 Sports Stories that Shaped a New Nation is published by Pan Macmillan