A departing pioneer

Former Zimbabwean diplomat Buzwani Mothobi (pictured), who died in Harare last week aged 80 and was buried in Bulawayo on Tuesday, was among the earliest black people in Zimbabwe to play cricket, write Enock Muchinjo and Brian Goredema in a forthcoming book on the history of black cricket in Zimbabwe.

In this tribute, we publish extracts from the upcoming book.

Tucked in the letterbox of a house in Highfield, Salisbury, was mail containing news that would thoroughly thrill the recipient — or so thought the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCB).

It was an invitation for Buzwani Mothobi, requesting the stocky all-rounder from Rhodesia to captain South Africa African XI, a combined team made up of the best black cricket players from South Africa and Rhodesia.

Buzwani Donald Mothobi — known to his peers and in cricket circles as Don Mothobi — was a middle-order batsman and fast-medium swing bowler who was already 36 at the time, on his way out of cricket, hence would be tempted at the prospect of finishing a career of limited opportunities on a high.

But Mothobi was never going to answer the UCB’s call.

Zimbabwe’s armed libertation struggle was at its peak, around that time in 1975, and for Mothobi — now a fully-fledged political activist — accepting the invitation would have constituted betrayal to the oppressed black people of the two neighbouring countries.

With the sporting boycott of South Africa during the apartheid era taking toll on a sports-mad nation, Mothobi declined selection into the cross-border select team on the basis that he believed the UCB was feigning racial inclusivity in a desperate battle against international isolation.

“The UCB was simply trying to break sanctions,” Mothobi said. “They knew about the cricket here and they asked for a team to be organised, made up of blacks from the two countries. So I was approached and from the very beginning I wasn’t interested. The situation was hotting up here and I was quite involved politically. I felt strongly against playing for that team. I said I cannot be used in that manner.”

South Africa African XI had initially been formed in 1973, playing one-day games between 1973 and 1976 against a touring English team, D.H Robins XI, and losing heavily.

Players from Rhodesia were not initially included.

The first opportunity for black Rhodesian players came in 1975.

While the invitation was declined by Don Mothobi — now on the wrong side of 30 and deeply immersed in the political developments of Rhodesia — his young fellow countryman, a sprightly 21-year-old seam bowler called Peter Chingoka grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

The team played against Natal in Durban in the 1975-76 season and then Eastern Province in Port Elizabeth in 1976-77. So lopsided were the games that on both occasions, Natal and Eastern Province declared the 60-over innings against South Africa African XI, but still won by huge margins.

As for Chingoka, accepting call-up paid dividends. He was appointed captain of the South Africa African XI side that competed in the Gillette Cup knockout competition in 1975-76 and 1976-77.

Thanks to a comfortable family background provided by his father, a high-ranking officer in the Rhodesian police, young Peter Chingoka had learnt his sport at the prestigious twin-private schools, Hartmann House and St George’s College, where he also played rugby as a fullback who enjoyed defence while possessing enough pace to be an effective extra man in attack.

Don Mothobi’s upbringing was considerably different.

He was born in the rural Matabeleland North district of Nyamandlovu in August 1939 — the son of migrant workers from Botswana who settled in the western part of Rhodesia in the early 1930s.

His father, a teacher by profession and a strong believer in education, had been schooled in South Africa at Tiger Kloof Educational Institute near the Northern Cape farming town of Vryburg.

Tiger Kloof had a strong Batswana presence in those days to the effect that Sir Seretse Khama and Quett Masire — Botswana’s first two presidents — began their studies there.

So in 1953 Mothobi Sr sent his son to his alma mater, which had been re-opened in 1905 following the closure of a forerunner, but then still under the aegis of the London Missionary Society.

That is where young Don first came into contact with cricket, and fell in love with it. The missionaries taught cricket at their schools across South Africa, attracting thousands of eager black boys who would later on inspire many future generations of non-white cricketers.

The London Missionary Society, however, soon fell foul of the apartheid government following the introduction of Bantu Education at Tiger Kloof and other schools across the Northern Cape.

Tiger Kloof was shut down in 1955, amid student protests, and all foreign learners were ordered out of country.

Teary-eyed Don packed his bags and waved goodbye to friends, leaving behind strong classroom and cricketing bonds built over two-and-a-half years.

Back home in Rhodesia, Don’s father — ever hunting for quality education for his son — already had a school in mind.

The young man was happy to be back home, but his new school was a little bit further away from Nyamandlovu, his place of birth, and Bulawayo, his beloved home town.

Goromonzi High School — 30km outside the capital city Salisbury — had been established nine years earlier in 1946 as the first government boarding school for black students.

Mothobi’s arrival in 1955 played a big part in Goromonzi’s becoming one of the first government-run black schools to play cricket in an organised manner.

Headmaster John Hammond, who was white and a big cricket fan, was deeply fascinated by the young newcomer’s intimate knowledge of the sport, so the two came together and quickly popularised the sport at the school.

Several boys flocked to cricket, which rivaled football for quite a while, with Goromonzi producing good cricketers who later played important roles in the game post-school days.

Matches were played on concrete pitches and mats, thanks to Hammond’s resourcefulness.

Upon graduating from Goromonzi, Mothobi enrolled for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in Salisbury.

The colonial government used the university to experiment with racial integration, so bright black students like Mothobi were admitted.

Mothobi played for the university’s multi-racial club throughout his studies. The varsity team did not play in a formal competitive structure because its top players were constantly being snapped up by the country’s biggest clubs at the slightest hint of talent.

Specially-organised Sunday games against social and church teams were played by those who remained in the varsity side.

It was not until the mid to late 1950s that the first black cricket clubs were formed in Salisbury and Bulawayo.

In Salisbury, the club was set up in Harare African Township (present-day Mbare), named Harare Cricket Club (Harare CC).

Then the Bulawayo African Cricket Club, or simply Bulawayo Cricket Club (Bulawayo CC), originally based in the black township of Iminyela.

The clubs were the brainchild of the two cities’ African Administration Departments — which were the local authorities’ own means of keeping in check political activity among young blacks.

The municipalities provided equipment and venues. In Salisbury, the Stoddart Hall Grounds in Harare Township was the training ground. Matches were played at Number 5 and 6 Sports Grounds, Chitsere Primary School as well as the coloured and Indian school, Morgan High.

In Bulawayo, Barbourfields Stadium — a football ground — was the main training and match venue, with some games being played at Pelandaba.

“The facilities were quite rudimentary,” Mothobi commented. “In Mbare at Stoddart, there was a guy from the city council, a certain Mr Roberts, who supplied equipment.

“He put up nets, chicken wire, gravel and grass. At least it was an effort.”

Hailing from Bulawayo and living in the capital, Don Mothobi had the unique privilege of playing for both pioneering black clubs in the two cities.

“When I was at the university, I would cycle to Mbare to play for the club, and whenever I was at home in Bulawayo, I played for the BCC (Bulawayo Cricket Club).”

Matches in Salisbury were mainly against the coloured club, Central CC, as well as Indian teams such as Starlights, Mayfair, Playfair, Oriental CC and Waterfalls.

Harare CC lost most matches.

There were some really good players at both Harare CC and Bulawayo CC. In Salisbury, Mothobi had the highest regard for such men as Joel Mkondo, Matthew Muzanenhamo alongside the three brothers Ferris, Josiah and Shepherd Mushonga.

Mothobi and Mkondo, albeit briefly and at separate times, would in the post-Independence era become chairmen of Bionics Cricket Club, present-day Takashinga Cricket Club.

Black cricket was considerably stronger in Bulawayo, and in 1959 and 1960 Harare was outclassed twice when the clubs met in a clash of the cities. The teams travelled overnight by train on the eve of the match.

Makokoba, Bulawayo’s oldest township, was the hub of black sport in the city and many good cricketers of the time came from there.

There was less of rivalry and more of camaraderie, though, between Bulawayo CC and Harare CC, due to shared history and similar ideology.

Such were the strong ties that on his visits to Salisbury to promote African cricket, Bulawayo star player Jini Ntuta would turn out for Harare CC as a guest player.

In Bulawayo, Mothobi teamed up with very good players in the form of Ntuta, Peter Mahlangu, Elliott Kupe, Jerry Vera, Memo Khumalo, Sister Gumbo, as well as much older players like the Reverend Griffiths Malaba and others.

Ntuta — a hero of Zimbabwe’s liberation war, senior member of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) and the country’s Deputy Minister of Mines at Independence — was murdered in a hail of bullets in Matabeleland in November 1984 at the height of the Gukurahundi Massacres.

After pursuing him for more than two hours, unknown assailants pumped rounds of gunfire in him, even as his body lay on the ground lifeless and ripped apart.

Aged 60 at the time of his death, Ntuta had been a top-notch batsman and wicket-taking seamer for Bulawayo CC in the 1950s and early 1960s but, with age, he turned to administration and became a stalwart of black cricket advancement.

Ntuta, Mothobi remembers, was an outspoken personality in cricket as he was in politics — ever voicing against racial segregation and what he labeled biased umpiring against black players.

In 1960, Ntuta captained an all-black “national team”, Southern Rhodesian Africa XI, which lost to Southern Rhodesia Indian XI by an innings and 14 runs.

He also strongly advocated — during regular trips between Bulawayo and Salisbury — for the formation of a non-white Rhodesian national team consisting of black, Indian and coloured players.

As for Jerry Vera, in addition to being an outstanding sports star he was also a larger-than-life figure — a bosom buddy of Zimbabwe’s liberation icon Joshua Nkomo.

An all-round sportsman, Vera was also a star player for Highlanders — the country’s oldest football club.

Sporting prowess aside, Vera was a social animal, a ladies’ man — a celebrity of sorts who despite his roots in Manicaland, became hugely popular in his adopted hometown that he earned himself the affectionate nickname “Mr Bulawayo”.

He liked to be in the thick of things, so he was at one time secretary of both the Bulawayo African Cricket Association and the Bulawayo African Football Association. He was also a Bulawayo representative for the University of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

What about Mothobi’s other teammate, Sister Gumbo?

“Yes, that was his real name,” said Mothobi with a half-suppressed laugh. “Sister was the name of one of the midwives at the hospital he was born. His mother liked both the lady and the name, so she decided she would name the little boy after her.”

Mothobi, who furthered his studies in Canada between 1966 and 1973, joined Zapu in 1977 and was posted to Zambia as the organisation’s director of information and research.

He was a civil servant at Independence in 1980, and later became Zimbabwe’ ambassador to Japan and Korea then Kenya and Uganda.

We spoke to him in 2016 in his expensively-furnished office on the fifth floor of the Old Reserve Bank Building on Samora Machel Avenue in Harare — where he now worked as executive chairman of Zimbabwe’s State Procurement Board.

At 77, he was still a man of calm and gracious demeanour — quite the gentleman and ever the cricketer.

He had just come out of cancer surgery when we met him, but not even ill health would deter him from meticulously chronicling yesteryear events of a game that was a part of his life for many years.

Mothobi said he had followed Zimbabwean cricket from a distance in recent times, sometimes with “dismay” at unfortunate developments in the game.

“I can’t say I have followed ardently, but I have followed with great dismay, in particular the poor results and the chaos in the administration,” Mothobi said.

“We had made real progress in the early years after Independence. But the problem with cricket in Zimbabwe is that it tended to be centred around a few white families: the Grippers, Flowers, Rennies. They tended to want to control the game.

“But the departure of those white players, was it in 2004, 2005? … it was the real beginning of the demise of our cricket. Now everyone who wants to have a scalp play Zimbabwe.”