VICTOR Olonga, the former Zimbabwe rugby captain, has stated that his relations with other races were seriously strained by an incident in which he felt badly betrayed by some powerful officials 20 years ago, adding that these days he seldom interacts with those different to him.
The tough-talking older brother of the famous history-making Zimbabwe cricket player Henry Olonga spoke to this newspaper this week for the second and final installment of a special feature in the wake of a global racial storm following the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a white police officer in the United States last month.
“When I played, it (racism) always produced a very strong resistant reaction, with emotion,” Olonga tells IndependentSport.
“It’s important to understand that I was a boy playing with men. Immaturity, little experience and to some degree a lack of guidance contributed to a negative response. It was simply too much for me to process and handle correctly.”
The 46-year-old former Sables livewire says he now lives a simple life in Bulawayo, his hometown, with minimum social contact with different racial groups.
“At present, I hardly interact with other races and thus it is easier to control how I engage with them. Who would have thought that the way to avoid racism was avoid other races? Or is that in fact being racist?”
Racism against people of colour, in Olonga’s view, also emerges out of historical subjugations against them, leaving these groups — especially blacks — extremely vulnerable across the world.
“Black people have the unenviable distinction of having some of their greatest contributions to society forming the worst part of their legacy, slavery and colonialism. That’s an extremely hard obstacle to get off,” Olonga says.
“That can strongly influence the culture of superiority that other races have over blacks. Irrelevant of how far from that period one was born, it is very difficult to see yourself as equal or inferior (to blacks) if your race resisted, escaped or negotiated a way out of both. This appears to disqualify blacks from fair and equal treatment.”
Olonga narrated how his suspension by the Matabeleland Rugby Football Board (MRFB) at the turn of the millennium left a bad taste in his mouth. The star fullback was then captain of Bulawayo high-density outfit Highlanders, a club he had joined in the hope of being a role model to budding young black players.
“When I was playing for Highlanders after I left Old Miltonians, we were playing against (white-dominated) Busters. The officials were all white, the referee and the two touch-judges. A player ran down the line, and we conceded a try. But we were convinced that he had put his foot into touch, he stepped out,” Olonga explains.
“Guys were aggrieved, so one of my players verbally abused the referee. I don’t know what was said. But the referee came to me after the conversation and said, ‘Victor, one of your players abused me.’ So come Monday one of the officials from Matabeleland Rugby Football Board called me and said ‘these guys are charging you for abuse’. But then, during the match the referee actually came over to me and said he was citing my players, not me. But now I’m told I’m the one being charged. So at the disciplinary hearing I came out of the room and said I’ll come back in after the verdict. So I came back and they said they were suspending me for one month, and put 90 days away. So I said ‘cool, I cannot understand the charge, but we can’t go round in circles.’ They said I could train with the (Highlanders) club, but couldn’t play. I said fine. I cannot remember the (MRFB) officials. One is late, and the other one was a Mr Moore.
“My family house is in Ilanda, the suburb where Busters Rugby Club is. So I went past Busters one day and they were having an Under-20 thing. So the guys said ‘we are short, come play’. I said ‘I’m suspended’. One of the guys said he would talk to Mr Moore. So Moore said ‘it’s okay, it’s just a friendly match’. I was still reluctant to play. But they insisted. So on the Monday I get called and they say ‘you violated the terms of your suspension’. I said no ways! So they called each other, one white guy to another. And then the person who said it was okay for me to play said I had forced myself to play. Any man, even with a gun, cannot force himself to play. So the suspension was added by 120 days.
That incident was the single biggest thing that forced me to have this attitude. My reaction was to never forgive them. I could understand everything else that they do, but that was dishonest. That’s why my relationship with those people is that way. When people show you who they are, you don’t forget. Nothing has been done to convince me otherwise. It’s never the same with those guys. Perhaps it’s easier now that I’m not involved (in rugby). A lot of people who are involved in Zimrugby now were there back then, and they knew what happened to me. They never did anything. As for me, what could I do? If I did anything, if I reacted, I was stuffed. You are not going to play for the national team.”
Olonga, who has turned down several requests to make a comeback into some kind of capacity, has continuously declined, saying he does not feel the environment is any better than it was before.
“People haven’t lost the ability to lie, have they? As long as there are issues outside rugby, different interests, things like that will always happen,” he says.
The ex-Sables skipper was also suspended by the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) in 2004 after leading a player rebellion that caused the cancellation of an important match against Uganda. He would never play for his country again.
“My last suspension with ZRU was after I had just turned 30. It was because of a game that was cancelled, and as the captain I was at the centre of it. I was given a two-year ban,” he says.
“What I remember as the Sables captain was poor leadership. I was never a good leader. Maybe it would have been different for me without leadership. I was very young. I didn’t have proper guidance. That was one of the biggest issues. If I had the chance, I wouldn’t probably have done the things I did. A lot of people didn’t understand the system. Nothing has changed. I don’t think people want to change. So, people today will still mess around. We have come a long way from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, we didn’t come all the way to behave like this.”
Olonga believes the arrest of Floyd’s killer, the white policeman Derek Chauvin, may help lay bare some of the real motives behind racism and brutality.
“Derek Chauvin should be trialed so as to allow him to explain his actions,” says Olonga. “His honest explanation may shed light on why United States police officers deal with blacks the way they do.”
Olonga, a gifted utility back regarded as one the best natural talents from his country, played professionally in the United Kingdom, particularly leaving a mark at his last club, Penzance & Newlyn RFC.
Overcoming racism in the sport and generally in life might require some form of aggression, remarks Olonga.
“Literally tackle it,” he says.
“In rugby, a tackle is used to stop and prevent an opposing player’s progress. Maybe the world should try that. Interestingly, racism is not discriminatory in its distribution. It permeates all aspects of life. In rugby it will be here in Zimbabwe, South Africa, the UK, whenever the outcome will involve different races it will be present. What needs to be understood is how (to deal with it). One subtle way is to extract contributions with minimal responsibility. You have to understand that the less responsibility you have in any endeavour, the less value, experience and enjoyment you get out of it.”