OREGAN Hoskins these days works as a magistrate in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of his home province, KwaZulu-Natal.The South African lawyer is an upstanding man who commands enormous respect in the rugby world and even more so in this country — a friend of Zimbabwean rugby from his time as president of the South African Rugby Union (Saru), to this day.
Hoskins’ love affair with this country had however started not in a manner any person in his position would wish for.As head of a “marked” organisation, Saru, Hoskins had the very unenviable task 11 years ago of standing up against powerful politicians — whole ruling party machinery — in defence of a vulnerable young Zimbabwean rugby player clearly the target of a sickening xenophobic onslaught.
To lesser men, it would not be something worth fighting for. Despite his 19 Springbok caps at that time and the blessings of the International Rugby Board, which certified him eligible to play, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira was still a non-South African citizen travelling on his Zimbabwean passport.
So when the ANC government in November 2009 ordered Saru to stop selecting the Harare-born prop forthwith, the easy way out for the South African rugby governing body would have been to meekly oblige.
But not with a man of Hoskins’ stern moral fibre in charge.That Mtawarira went on to add three more Test caps to his name after the initial government ruling was the kind of defiance that demonstrated just how much the South African rugby authorities were willing to fight for this brilliant youngster from Zimbabwe who had charmed fans, coaches and teammates alike.
Hoskins, in Mtawarira’s autobiography titled Beast, remembers the fateful call at the end of 2009 when the South African Deputy Minister of Sport and Recreation, Gert Oosthuizen, delivered the news.
“Gert said he wanted to talk to me about Beast,” says Hoskins in the book, authored by South African journalist Andy Capostagno.“He said, ‘the minister (Reverend Makhenkesi Stofile) has asked me to tell you that you will not pick Beast for the (end-of-year) tour’. I asked why, because by this point Tendai had already played 19 Tests for the Springboks over two seasons. I said, ‘Why are you making this an issue?’ And he said, ‘because he is not a South African citizen’.”
Hoskins, who is of mixed race, says he felt that Oosthuizen, a white Afrikaner who had been previously been helpful towards the sport, had let rugby down on the Mtawarira issue.
“I said, ‘I understand the citizenship issue because I’m a lawyer, but I cannot accept this (Mtawarira being banned). How do I tell this young man that he cannot play for South Africa when you do not have a legal case, either as the Ministry or Sport or as government]?’ Gert claimed that the Sports Act states that you must be a citizen to represent South Africa and I said, ‘no it doesn’t. I know the Act back to front. I’ve read it and I’ve studied it and your regulations have not even been promulgated because they would be unconstitutional. That’s why you as a government have never published them.’”
While Hoskins stood his ground in defence of Mtawarira, he sometimes felt he was fighting from a position of weakness. Being the head of white-dominated sport that was still at loggerheads with the politicians over the slow pace of racial integration, Hoskins says he was worried the government would simply pile the pressure back on him.
“We had a massive argument and he (Oosthuizen) would not listen to reason,” says Hoskins. “I told him, ‘I’m very angry because you’re putting me and rugby in a predicament. I understand that, politically, rugby is still seen as a white sport and I represent that sport, so the last thing I am going to do is cause problems with the ANC and government. Rugby is not in a position to stand its ground. If I were the president of the South African Football Association (Safa), I would have done so. I would have told you to f***k off. But I know that as rugby I can’t.’ So we had a full-on slanging match on the phone, but in the end I had to put the phone down on Gert and call Beast.”
Hoskins, while assuring Mtawarira that he would move mountains to secure him the citizenship, recalls how agonising the task of breaking the bad news to him was.
“I had never phoned him, but now I did and I said, ‘Tendai, you need to come and see me, it’s very important’. And he found my place, which is not easy. It’s in a valley in Westville (near Durban). So he sat in my house and I said to him, the Minister of Sport has just ordered me not to pick you’. And he just burst out crying. It was heart-wrenching, because I liked Tendai from day one, from the time he moved to Durban, I was president of KZNRU at the time and I saw this kid coming from Peterhouse (a school in Zimbabwe), playing loose forward, being moved by Dicky (Sharks coach Dick Muir) to prop and making success of it.
The reason I valued him so highly was he was a foreign kid who did not have the luxury of a richer father, like Bryan Habana or Schalk Burger, for instance, standing there at the side of the field literally easing the aches and pains they get from rugby. Tendai had nobody, literally nobody, and he had made a success of it. And here was this massive guy, sitting in my house, crying his heart out, and I thought I was responsible.”
In Hoskins’ words, the attempts to prematurely end Mtawarira’s Bok career were “utterly xenophobic”, and he quotes the chilling warning of ANC MP Butana Komphela, who in January 2010 said “government is going to punish rugby” over Mtawarira’s selection.
To hammer his point home that Mtawarira was being targeted because he was a black foreigner, Hoskins brought out examples.“I then went on to give him (Oosthuizen) a list of Zimbabweans and Namibians who had played for South Africa, because I had done my homework. I showed him the list and then I said, ‘you know what the sad part is Gert? They’re all white players. Now for the first time we have a black Zimbabwean and you and your Minister are saying we can’t pick him. But the precedent has been set: the Beast has already played 20 Tests’.”
Although not known to Hoskins at the time, another high-ranking figure to successfully lobby the government to grant Mtawarira citizenship was the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who made a surprise call to the star prop in 2010.
“I answered and a voice said, ‘is that Beast? It’s the Arch here’. It was none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the line,” says Mtawarira. “He said, ‘I love what you do for South Africa. Every time you get the ball the crowd shouts, Beeaaasst! And I think it’s fantastic. You’re a great ambassador and role model, you represent us and this whole thing that’s happening to you is unfair and unjust’. I was surprised that the Arch even knew about me, but he said, ‘I love rugby, I watch it all the time.’”
Mtawarira was granted his South African passport in June 2010 and went on to enjoy an illustrious Springbok career. He retired from international rugby last November after starring in South Africa’s 2019 World Cup success, with 117 Test caps and groundbreaking records to his name.
Hoskins — who has spoken in favour of Zimbabwe’s inclusion in the South African domestic rugby system — resigned as Saru president in 2016 following a vicious power struggle. He was at the helm when South Africa won its second World Cup title 2007 in France.