Special Report: For Black South African rugby player, a COVID victory, and loss
From Tim Cocks
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (Reuters) - On Broadhurst Cona's fifth night in the COVID-19 unit of Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, the patient gave up on the bed next to him.
The man grabbed his throat in panic as he choked and kept pulling off his oxygen mask. Cona asked him to put it back on, but the man wasn't listening.
Cona woke up to a commotion early the next morning. The man's bed was empty and nurses in protective clothing sprayed it with disinfectant. It was sealed in a beige body bag and it took four people to lift it to a passageway that led to the elevator.
Cona didn't know yet because his companion was too sick to speak and his face was unrecognizable from the pain, but he had seen this man often as an opponent on the rugby field.
The two had played on rival black neighborhood teams under apartheid's segregation laws in the late 1960s. Cona had participated in international games with the South African Blacks-only team for the next ten years. He played against England, France and New Zealand's vaunted national teams and also toured Italy.
He was participating in a sport that for many had become a symbol of the African dominance of the majority of the country's blacks, but it was a game his large body and determination were made for.
The dead man, Phakamile Maqhasho, had never made it past provincial rugby, but the two had stayed in contact. Cona had last seen him four years ago at the funeral of a mutual rugby friend. Cona didn't realize he was in bed next to him until a few days later a friend sent him a copy of his obituary in a local Xhosa-language newspaper.
Now Maqhasho's funeral would come next, and Cona felt like he had witnessed what his own death from COVID-19 could look like. Would he ever see his daughter, and especially his son who lived on the other side of the country, again?
"I could be next," he thought to himself, and within 24 hours the 72-year-old's condition had deteriorated dramatically and he gasped.
For decades he had survived all the injustices that the South African apartheid system could inflict on a black: bulldozing his parents' home; moving to a black community; A racist law that, despite his talent, forbade him to play rugby in the all-white South African national team, the Springboks.
Cona gasped in his hospital bed and made a vow. "I can't have come this far to be killed by a virus. There is no fame if I die in my sleep," he later said. "Let me die fighting, on my feet instead of in my bed."
That night, after almost four hours of sleep, Cona got up and began to exercise vigorously: push-ups, pull-ups, jogging on the station, even shadow boxing - with the new corona virus as an invisible opponent. His body was heavy as lead and his chest felt like it was going to explode in pain, but he just kept exercising.
The nurses urged him to rest so he wouldn't be injured in the fall, and he politely declined.
He would fight this one.
Cona discovered rugby by accident after the South African government bulldozed his family home.
He was 6 months old when the African Nationalist Party, which represented the descendants of Dutch settlers, came to power in May 1948 - and set about implementing its vision of an apartheid state and cementing decades of racially discriminatory policies adopted by the former British Colonial rulers of South Africa was introduced.
Two years later, the government passed one of the most hated laws of the era, the Group Areas Act, which sought to keep races apart by delineating the neighborhoods where anyone was allowed to live.
They grabbed the best neighborhoods for the white minority and forcibly relocated black and colored - as mixed-race citizens are called here - people to less desirable areas. Cona was a teenager when his family, who lived in the quaint seaside town of Simon, were uprooted in Gugulethu parish.
"I still say that this was the most hideous piece of legislation of the apartheid era. Because it destroyed the fiber of the community," Cona told Reuters at his daughter Kholiswa 's home in the black Langa community, which has neat rows of apartheid bungalows - Regimes that were built are now painted in seditious colors that were previously banned.
Ironically, the forced move put him on a path that would become his life passion. There was no rugby team in Simon's Town, and Cona had only played soccer, which has always been the most popular sport among the country's black majority.
At the age of 22, he joined a soccer team in Gugulethu. In one game he played against a team whose players included Norman Mbiko, who happened to be the coach of a rugby team, the Flying Eagles, in the nearby Nyanga community. Mbiko later recalled noticing the stocky player who combined a rapid pace with a Herculean upper body strength.
"I could see he was going to be good at rugby," Mbiko told Reuters in an interview in his immaculate red-brick house, whose wood-paneled interior was adorned with team photos and newspaper clippings from his rugby days. "He was so quick for his size."
In 1969, Mbiko and another sports friend persuaded Cona to play rugby. Within a year, Cona had established himself as a powerful staple - one of the two front-row scrum positions usually reserved for the toughest players on the team - and rose to play for the Black Western Province's racial team.
Resources were scarce. The playing field was mostly filthy and they didn't have any of the facilities the white clubs enjoyed such as gyms or scrummaging machines. There was no changing room in Nyanga. They fit outdoors.
Despite the challenges, Cona and Mbiko were selected for the national black rugby squad, the Leopards, in 1972, with Mbiko as their captain. Cona came to be known as "Broadness" in rugby circles, partly a pun on his size, partly the result of a misprint on his "Dompas" - the passports blacks had to wear every time they entered a white area.
But it wasn't until 28 years later, long after they both retired and six years after South Africa moved to democracy in a historic election that brought Nelson Mandela to power, that their contribution to the sport would finally be recognized.
In 2000, the two men received what they had been denied for a long time during the apartheid era: the coveted green and gold blazers of the team, which for decades had only been reserved for white players, the Springboks. Balfour Ngconde, the sports minister under Mandela, who had fought for the belated honor, presented the men with the blazers.
"We were so excited. We always longed to be on one platform, not on separate ones," said Cona. But it was bitter.
"While we mingled afterwards, some of the guys said, 'It's just a blazer, it's meaningless.' And we all agreed. Because the whites who played are fine now, but we had nothing. "
"I was denied an opportunity"
On a bright September day, Cona surveyed his old club in Nyanga, just down the street from Mbiko's house. He picked up a rugby ball and jogged across the muddy, bald-headed field to practice some dummy passes. His short white hair flashed in the sun. Somehow he managed not to stain his immaculate black leather shoes and dark suit pants.
His large body had gained weight in the middle, but he was clearly still struggling fit.
Mphakamisi Zali, 24, who plays for the club, joined his longtime hero and they passed the ball between them.
"It's nice to have a legend like him back on our [rugby] pitch," said Zali. "I don't think he ever got the recognition he deserves."
Black South Africans have long had a strained relationship with rugby. This was the grudge against the country's white rugby establishment. The township crowds would cheer on the Springbok opponents - "We wanted everyone but them to win," Cona said. A spokesman for SA Rugby, the current governing body of the sport, declined to comment on its apartheid-era predecessor.
As Cona played in the 1970s and early 1980s, tour cancellations and international boycotts of racial South African teams increased. Protests against apartheid erupted across the country at home.
Morne du Plessis, a Springbok star from that era who later played with Cona on a veteran team after the end of apartheid, gives an idea of the conflicting feelings of some players at the time.
"That was the highlight of your rugby feat of being a springbok, albeit in a divided country," Du Plessis, captain of the national team, told Reuters over the phone.
As international protests gained momentum, he said many players were forced to ponder the system into which they had been indoctrinated. "For many of us it was a realization that this couldn't go on."
To calm public opinion, the rugby board that ruled the players began to make small concessions to the non-racist sport.
In 1976 a mixed team - not the official one - was formed to play against the New Zealand away team in Cape Town. Cona attended.
He shared a hotel room with two of his white teammates, the Springbok stars Moaner van Heerden and Richard Prentis. Cona remembers joking and laughing like equals, talking endlessly about her passion: rugby.
Despite putting aside racial tensions, Cona had begun to develop a burgeoning resentment at how apartheid had consistently denied him the opportunities of his white colleagues.
"It was the same story every time. I was denied an opportunity," he said because he was unable to play for the Springboks. "I'm not saying that I'm a superstar, but when I watch rugby now I can see that I'm better than some of the guys chosen in my position."
This was the case in all sports, but in rugby discrimination was exacerbated by the absurd perception of rugby as a "white" sport, said Hendrik Snyders, sports historian at the National Museum in Bloemfontein.
"In reality, the game in black communities - both African and colored - dates back to the late 1890s," he said. "There are a number of very skilled players like Broadness."
"I CRIED ALL NIGHT"
South Africa has suffered the worst COVID-19 pandemic in Africa to date - with more than 685,000 cases and over 17,000 deaths.
The virus has significantly alleviated the country's ongoing problems: the extreme inequalities in economic opportunities created by apartheid have actually worsened in the quarter of a century since it ended, according to the International Monetary Fund. Healthcare is a strong lottery in South Africa, with a top notch private system for those who can afford it and an overburdened public system for the mostly black citizens who can't.
Cona's friends and family persuaded him to go to the hospital for a COVID-19 test on May 15, 2020, when Cape Town was at the center of the South African epidemic.
He was sick, he couldn't eat, and he tried to walk. His daughter Kholiswa and a friend of his took him to a health center in their friend's car, where he tested negative, but his breathing was poor and he already had high blood pressure. They referred him to another clinic for a second test the next day.
The night he tested positive, Cona was transferred to Groote Schuur Hospital, one of South Africa's top public hospitals, which completed the world's first person-to-person heart transplant in 1967. Although the hospital was fraught with COVID-19 cases at the time, it did better than many public hospitals at the height of the epidemic.
When Kholiswa got word of her father's findings, she called her older brother Morgan, who had moved to Queenstown, South Africa's Eastern Cape, and they pondered the worst.
"I cried all night. He's 73, it was the time when everyone went to the hospital, it was the peak," said Kholiswa. "He has an underlying disease. The elderly died. I thought, 'No, he's gone.'"
But Cona didn't give up.
"I said to the nurse, 'I've played rugby all these years and people have attacked me and many times I haven't fallen. Nobody attacks me now: I'm NOT going to fall.'"
After Cona forced himself out of his hospital bed for days while exercising, he felt better in early June. He could feel the oxygen return to his lungs and he felt fitter and more vital. Three weeks after admission, a fully recovered Cona underwent one final medical examination before being taken to a quarantine facility.
"You are a fighter," said the doctor who examined him.
The day after arriving at his quarantine hotel, he received a pleasant surprise: Morgan had come from Queenstown with his wife Joyce and Kholiswa to welcome him. They weren't allowed in, but Cona's balcony overlooked the parking lot next to the hotel beach, and he could see Morgan and wave as he spoke to him on the phone.
"You are very lucky to see me because there are no visitors," he said to Morgan. "I'm very happy about it," came the reply over the phone line.
On a final day, Cona visited Mbiko's house. The age hit the 75-year-old hard. He has Parkinson's and needs a hiker to get some exercise, but he still proudly wears a springbok jersey. They remain close friends.
Mbiko had made quite a career as a coach after his retirement, including on the coaching team for the legendary 1995 Rugby World Cup. South Africa won the trophy at home in front of a huge crowd of black and white South Africans who were all shouting for the Springboks. Du Plessis, who had since retired from the game, was the manager.
In the game celebrated in the 2009 film Invictus starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, the Springboks overcome seemingly impossible odds of beating New Zealand's world-leading team.
In a gesture widely regarded as one of Mandela's most uniform gestures after being elected president a year earlier, at the game he donned the Springbok jersey, previously associated with apartheid oppressors among blacks, the detained him for 27 years.
The team only had one non-white player, Chester Williams.
Cona and his rugby friends watched the game live on television in Mbiko's house, part of which doubles as a tavern. Cona remembers that most people initially cheered the New Zealand team on, but at some point the camera cut to Mandela in his green jersey. Someone said, "Hey, let's do it for the old man," he recalled, and within minutes the whole tavern was unanimously behind the Springboks.
For the then Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, he only realized the importance of victory after the game.
"It was crazy," he told Reuters in a telephone interview. "We didn't see the impact that would have. 25 years later, I still think how lucky we were ... to unite our country like that."
After a short honeymoon period after the World Cup final, Cape Town's black rugby players quickly became disillusioned. Decades of apartheid-era neglect would cost a lot of money to fix, and the government had other priorities besides rugby.
To reverse segregation, teams from black townships had to play teams in richer, mostly white areas, and vice versa. But they didn't have the resources to compete - they still practiced in poor fields with no equipment.
Pienaar said the euphoria after the World Cup victory "put too much pressure" on South Africa to quickly resolve its entrenched problems.
Most players couldn't even afford the bus fares to go to those stadiums far away, Cona said. Although rugby, like life in South Africa, was no longer legally separate, most urban blacks remained too poor to live anywhere but in their townships. All the best black talent quickly left the township teams to join the better-resourced clubs. Within a few years, most of the clubs that had first sparked Cona's passion for the sport had either collapsed or merged into a mega-club.
"We expected that we would have the same facilities in our townships as in the white areas, but that never happened," said Cona. "Our fields are still the same as they were before unity. We knew it wouldn't be overnight, but it's been years now."
Andy Colquhoun, spokesman for SA Rugby, said: "We have learned that the idea that a South African sports association can create a mass participation project that reaches every community is impossible."
He added, "It is a sad fact that only a minority of the 25,000 schools in South Africa offer any type of sport to their learners, and we know that springboks are made in schools."
Pointing out the basic Get Into Rugby program with pride, he added, "With 170,000 children participating in a normal year, we know it just scratches the surface. But it would take hundreds of millions of rand to reach everyone . " , "compared to a current cost of more than 50 million rand ($ 3 million) a year.
Last year, South Africa won the rugby World Cup final for the third time. The first black female captain, Siya Kolisi, who grew up in a community near Port Elizabeth and often went to bed hungry as a child, received the trophy.
"These are things you never thought you would see in South Africa," said Cona. "We were so excited; it tells us we are going in the right direction."
However, full integration in rugby, as in society as a whole, remains largely a goal. The country is three-quarters black and almost 10% colored, but only 11 non-white players were part of the 31-man roster of the World Cup tournament.
LOST A BATTLE
On June 13th, a Saturday, Cona came to Gugulethu to welcome a hero organized by his local walking club. He was overjoyed. After the festivities at 9 p.m. that evening, his son Morgan called: He had just tested positive for the coronavirus.
Like his father, Morgan had high blood pressure, but Cona wasn't worried: if an old man like him could survive, his son should be fine. The clinic had even sent him home to self-isolate and concluded that his case was mild.
Cona called him back on Sunday. Morgan's wife Joyce picked up the phone and said he was too sick to answer the phone.
Morgan called Cona on Monday and said he was feeling worse. It sounded terrible: he had difficulty breathing and had a headache. Joyce later called to say Morgan had been admitted to a private hospital in Queenstown as a precaution even though his temperature was back to normal and he appeared to be on the way to recovery.
At 4:45 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Cona was at Kholiswa when Joyce called Kholiswa's cell phone. Cona approached, eager for news about Morgan. "I knew something was wrong. Joyce was crying."
Seconds passed before Joyce delivered the news: Morgan had died overnight.
"That was the sad part," he said. He turned his gaze to the window and did not speak for a long moment.
Then he finally said, "Morgan was so worried for me when I was in the hospital. But in the end I was fine. I won the battle." Another pause. "He didn't do it."
(Reporting by Tim Cocks; editing by Kari Howard. Additional reporting by Mark Gleeson.)
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