There is talk that last night’s Bok Test against England could have been the last at Newlands. It’s time. As much as I love the place and have fond memories of it, rugby fans must face the fact that it is time to move on.
In the Cape Town Stadium we have a magnificent arena in a majestic setting. Yet there is nothing going on but the rent. The stadium simply has to be financially viable and the City of Cape Town and Mayor Patricia de Lille have made a compelling argument for rugby to be an anchor tenant.
It makes the most sense. Rugby - specifically Western Province, the Stormers and Test matches - has consistently brought in the biggest crowds in the country. What is more, the Cape Town Stadium is close to amenities, has ample parking, with adjustments can accommodate the number of corporate suites the Western Province Rugby Union needs, is centrally located for public transport and is 100% compliant with international safety standards.
Newlands has history on its side. But good and bad history. It is the venue where the Boks’ epic 1995 Rugby World Cup journey began - first with a moving opening ceremony followed by a win over Australia. It set the tone for the rest of that historic tournament that saw the Boks taste World Cup glory on home soil.
But history has also not been kind to Newlands, chiefly because for years now it has fallen far short of safety measures. The Safety at Sports and Recreational Events Act that came into effect in 2011 gave Newlands Rugby Stadium three years’ grace to comply. The act was designed in the wake of the Ellis Park stampede in 2001, when 43 people died during a match between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.
The new regulations included that the stadium have the ability to be evacuated within 10 minutes in the event of an emergency, have physical barriers that can collapse to separate a stadium bowl and the field in such an emergency and have a temporary or permanent heliport.
The regulations also specify dimensions for spectators’ seats: that the seat-backs should be a minimum of 50cm wide and 30cm high and, going up the tiers, there should be 80cm from seat-back to seat-back. Newlands, with an official capacity of 48000 spectators, would require 48 turnstiles - one to every 1000 people. It has nowhere near that. It is surrounded by residential homes and traffic in and out of the ground on match day is a nightmare. Despite the proximity of a train station, it is off the beaten track for areas like Khayelitsha.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the place. I was in the crowd when Jonah Lomu bulldozed through Tony Underwood to score a famous try for the All Blacks against England in that 1995 World Cup. On many Saturdays, too, I donned my black Stormers kit to fanatically support the “Men in Black”.
For all the positive nostalgia Newlands conjures up, it also has plenty of negative memories for the many who were denied the opportunity to play representative rugby during apartheid. Many of these supporters and their children continue to support the All Blacks and New Zealand Super Rugby franchises when they play at Newlands. This is a complex issue and perhaps an argument for another day.
But in this spirit the Cape Town Stadium represents a fresh start. The timing couldn’t have been better. Yesterday, and for three weekends in a row, we saw a Bok side led by a black captain and the most representative national rugby side we have ever fielded in the history of Bok rugby playing winning rugby. The impact has been immediate and far reaching. It helps that they’ve won the series under new coach Rassie Erasmus, who seems intent on rugby bringing the nation together again, as it did in 1995, as much as he is intent on winning.
Making a case for and against the move may be purely academic, however. The union has relented because it owns the stadium and wants to hang on to its prized asset. But making it compliant with the safety standards will be prohibitively expensive and the coffers of the rugby union are bare. It would need to sell off the stadium to put matters right financially.
Newlands will forever be etched in our memories - for good or bad. But memories belong in museums. It’s time to move on and the sooner, the better. Rugby and our city need the move to Cape Town Stadium.
* Abarder is a former newspaper editor and communications professional. He writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.