CAPE TOWN – Being on his first trip overseas would’ve been daunting enough for Thando Manana, who hailed from New Brighton township and later Gelvandale near Port Elizabeth.
But his trip to firstly Argentina, and then Europe, was as a member of the Springbok squad in 2000 under coach Harry Viljoen.
It doesn’t get bigger than that for a South African rugby player, and especially so when you are black at that point of post-unity rugby.
But as Manana detailed during the Cape Town launch of his book, Being A Black Springbok: The Thando Manana Story, at the University of the Western Cape last week, it didn’t mean that he would give up on his beliefs or culture.
That, though, was exactly what he had to stare in the face during the tour, when told that he had to be initiated as a Springbok.
We all know what the “kontiki” entails – drinking awful drinks, being slapped or hit with various objects, and so it would continue as you go from being a “boy” to a “man” in Springbok culture.
Manana, though, would have none of it, and as he recalled at UWC – one of the homes of non-racial sport – he stood his ground.
“For the first time, to have eight players of colour in a 40-man squad – Breyton Paulse, Quinton Davids, Chester Williams, myself, Lawrence Sephaka, Deon Kayser, Gavin Passens and Etienne Fynn – I said to Gideon (Sam, Bok team manager at the time), hold on, a statement must be made and I feel that another statement can be made – ‘Let’s accommodate the different cultures’,” Manana said.
“I said to Gideon, as a Xhosa man yourself, I don’t mind going there, but I’m not going to take shots and drink the mixed drinks there.
“Gideon tried to speak to the guys, but then it was leaked to the media. It didn’t bother me because I didn’t have laptops or data, because I am from Kimberley and didn’t have internet! But you had guys from the Lions who had laptops…
“The day of the kontiki, (then-Bok assistant coach) André Markgraaff also came to chat to me and I said yes, the right of passage for me was to be in the team. I was already initiated as a Xhosa man, and they accepted it.
“The experience (of the tour) was unbelievable, but the team spirit broke eventually as we had a midweek team that was travelling separately.
“But I played the games, met other people, and I left a mark – let’s accommodate different cultures. And today, we have a Pedi, Chiliboy Ralepelle, a Xhosa, Siya Kolisi, Bongi Mbonambi from Welkom… All these different ethnicities, and it was good to see Jesse Kriel attending a Xhosa ritual in PE.
“And I see myself as someone who maybe opened those doors of understanding and learning about our different cultures and heritage.”
Despite a career that saw the loose forward featuring for Eastern Province, Griquas and the Bulls, Manana didn’t spend many years after that 2000 on the field, as he felt that he was “seen as this tyrant who wouldn’t toe the line”.
But he is firm about the fact that he has no regrets, having become a successful businessman since and also a popular rugby commentator and analyst.
“I get a sense that, if I didn’t stand up, all the other people wouldn’t have taken my question as front-page news in SA – which it was, because I was seen as this tyrant,” said Manana, who played in three tour matches on that 2000 trip.
“I was not the son of Cheeky Watson, I was not Luke. I was just standing up for a belief that, as a man, you are told what a man should be in the Xhosa culture.
“So I felt I should stand up and take it up with Gideon Sam, who understood my thinking. I think he handled it how I thought he would, but I was disappointed that it was leaked to the media.
Looking forward to Coming Home and starting new chapter in my Life. Nothing can dim the Light that 💡 within. Been A Great 4yrs JHB. Santè🥂❤📻 pic.twitter.com/9NZHg7gxsf
“Years later, I told him that I was a bit disappointed, that it shouldn’t have come out the way it did, as it did cost me my playing career as I stopped at a very early age – because I was seen as a tyrant, who was not wanting to toe the line.
“But do I regret that? No. Do I blame anyone? No, because I am a Christian, and we all make mistakes. If I made the mistake, I will take it. But the way it was handled, it certainly could’ve been handled better.”
But there are many lighter moments in the book, written by sports journalist Sibusiso Mjikeliso, such as Manana’s very first encounter with “buffalo wings” at a restaurant while part of the Coastal Sharks Under-21 squad on tour in Johannesburg.
Manana said that the word “buffalo” had caught his eye, as he thought it would be actual buffalo that would be a huge meal.
“The other guys were all ordering cheeseburgers, ribs, you name it. And I couldn’t wait for my buffalo wings… And as the waiter arrived – I couldn’t believe it! It came in that basket!”
Safe to say, Manana went to bed fairly hungry that night.
But his hunger to pave the way for black South African rugby players has never diminished, and he hopes that his powerful story will inspire the current and future generations to heed those lessons to become a success on the rugby field, and in life.