Solly Tyibilika: One Dimensional Man

By Mandisi Majavu · 10 Dec 2011

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Many sports journalists view Solly Tyibilika’s rugby career, the former Springbok player who was shot dead at a tavern in Gugulethu, as a waste of talent.  It is said that Tyibilika could play like a champion if you could get him on the field.  Loffie Eloff, a rugby coach, is quoted in the newspapers as saying that Tyibilika had “discipline problems”.  “He’d just disappear for days, even weeks, on end.”

Tyibilika’s friends understood him differently however. His friends are quoted in the Sunday Times as saying that although Tyibilika was a talented rugby player, he did not “quite fit” into the “white rugby world”. Black people know that it’s not easy to fit into the white world. Firstly, one has to be born white to ‘really’ belong in that world. Secondly, as Tim Wise, an American thinker, points out this is the world in which to be white means that one’s legitimacy and talents are far less likely to be questioned than would be the legitimacy of a black person.

Oregan Hoskin, the South African Rugby Union president, described Solly Tyibilika as a “very talented player” and “a trailblazer among black African Springboks”. However, on the other hand, this is the same player that Jake White refused to play in a rugby test once. Springbok manager, Arthob Pietersen, had put pressure on White to get him to choose Solly Tyibilika for a rugby Test in Tyibilika’s hometown, but White refused and almost resigned over the issue.

It is revealing to hear Jake White talk about the rugby world. When White was the coach of the Springboks he says that the only group of people that mattered to him were the players and sponsors.  “Those were the two groups of people I had to keep happy because those are the two groups that know if you are doing your job or not," according to White. The sponsors of the springboks are largely white business people who have a lot of influence over decision making in South African affairs. The majority of players are obviously white and also have a lot of power in determining who is accepted and welcomed in the Springbok tradition.

In one of his interviews Jake White reveals how the players use their power, overtly and covertly, to exclude and shame players they view as being selected based on political grounds and therefore not worthy of being part of the Springbok tradition. According to White, “some of the senior players” in the Springbok refused to initiate Luke Watson into the Springbok because they felt he was not selected based on merit. The feeling was that Luke Watson was selected because of his family struggle credentials.  Hence the “senior players” decided that he was not “worthy of getting initiated because he wasn't picked and he got forced in and all that sort of thing."

This is part of the powerful white rugby world that Tyibilika had to contend with. Black people understand that to fit into the white world one has to adjust one’s attitude and mental outlook so as not to contradict the narratives that the white world is based on. Without such an adjustment, one quickly learns that one is not going to get very far in life.

It is also worth pointing out that to fully achieve one’s human potential, one needs to be nurtured, given visibility and opportunities to progress and to gain experience and self-confidence in one’s abilities. Sports that are regarded as “white sports” tend to have a culture of hostility towards blacks who partake in such sports.

Additionally, spaces that are considered to be for whites by birthright are not known for nurturing black talent. Instead such spaces are well known for typecasting blacks into negative stereotypical roles. Patricia Williams, a black feminist, said it best when she wrote “no matter what degree of professional I am, people will greet and dismiss my black femaleness as unreliable, untrustworthy, hostile, angry, powerless, irrational, and probably destitute.”

Hence, without any sincere attempts to understand the obstacles that Tyibilika had to negotiate as a black rugby player, the obituaries that dominated the South African print media in the last few weeks portray him as someone who was a walking stereotype of a shiftless and unreliable rugby player. These media reports highlight and foreground Tyibilika’s mistakes to reinforce the notion that he was never worthy of the Springbok jersey. The subtext is that Tyibilika was a “quota player” who could not cut it.

Affirmative action in sports and in the workplace has become another weapon that the white power structure uses to undermine blacks and to cast them as trespassers with illegitimate and unreasonable demands. On the other hand, white privilege, which includes the racial windfall that the younger white generation benefits from, is presented as something that the “industrious” white people are entitled to. To fit into the white power structure partly means one has to accept this nonsense as absolute truth.

When it is pointed out that this narrative is ahistorical at best, and a distortion of reality at worst, one runs the risk of offending the white community. According to David Edwards and David Cromwell, authors of Newspeak in the 21st Century, people tend to become defensive when presented with an argument or a question they cannot respond to honestly and rationally.

Edwards and Cromwell explain that the reaction is based on “a kind of trick of the mind”; when someone is presented with a sound and honest argument that they are unable to counter, they feel foolish and pained as if they have been personally attacked and insulted. “Quite often, they come to believe that they really have been insulted.”

The foregoing reveals the operational logic of the white power structure. As far as the white power structure is concerned it has the sole “power to put others into discourse” while remaining unseen, to echo John Fiske, an American thinker. The goal being to silence awkward debates, as well as to set the tone and parameters around certain discussions. 

It is within this context that the media presents us with a one dimensional view of Solly Tyibilika.

Majavu is the Book Reviews Editor of Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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9 Dec

One-eyed Men Aren't King

Dude, I don't know which reviews you were reading, but virtually every one of them I saw spoke of Solly as an incredibly gifted rugby player, not a shiftless stereotype. I'm not saying it's easy for black guys to get ahead, but your evidence is Jake White (who is, er, white) talking about Luke Watson who is, er, white, to prove how tough it is for blacks? You enter everything looking for race and guess what! You find it! Try opening both eyes, at least with respect for Solly, who was one of the most gifted loosies of his generation - black and white rugby lovers saw that and loved him for it. He deserves better than your obituary.

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Shakes Mm
11 Dec

Move on, Man

Mandisi, I've read your stuff for a while but really, all you say is the same thing over n over - black man strugglin' in a white man's world. We goddit, we livin' it. try find solutions, dude, and stop whinin', it's just irritating.

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11 Feb

Statistics Don't Lie

Really, you're going to use the fact that Solly wasn't picked for a game in his home town as proof that there is some huge white rugby plot to keep Black players out?

Jake White didn't pick him for the same reason he didn't pick Luke Watson, there were at least 6 other players in front of Solly who were measurably better than him in areas that weren't related to skin colour. Areas such as number of tackles made, number of carries, meters gained, steals affected.

Solly's largest problem was that he started playing in an era when the talent in our pool of loose forwards was at it's deepest and sincerely were he alive today he still wouldn't be first choice because compared to the players in front of him in the quee he was crap.

You really are stopping low to prove a point about blackness in a white world when you are this selective about the info you choose to show your audience. Pathetic.

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