CAPE TOWN, South Africa, Oct 9 (Reuters) - On Broadhurst
Cona's fifth night in the COVID-19 ward of Cape Town's Groote
Schuur Hospital, the patient in the bed next to him was giving
The man gripped his own throat in panic as he choked, and he
kept pulling off his oxygen mask. Cona pleaded with him to put
it back on, but the man was beyond listening.
Early the next morning, Cona awoke to a commotion. The man's
bed was empty, and nurses in protective clothing were spraying
it down with disinfectant. He was sealed in a beige-coloured
body bag, and it took four people to lift him away to a passage
leading to the lift.
Cona didn't know it yet, because his companion had been too
sick to speak and his face unrecognisable with pain, but he had
seen this man many times before, as an opponent on the rugby
The two had played in rival Black neighbourhood teams under
apartheid's racial segregation laws in the late 1960s. Cona had
gone on to compete in international games with South Africa's
Blacks-only team over the following decade. He played against
England, France and New Zealand's vaunted national team, and
also toured Italy.
He was competing in a sport that, to many, had become a
symbol of Afrikaner domination of the country's majority Blacks,
but it was a game that his broad body and determination were
The dead man, Phakamile Maqhasho, had never made it beyond
provincial rugby, but the two had kept in touch. Cona had last
seen him at the funeral of a mutual rugby friend four years
back. Cona only realised it was him in the bed next to him when
a friend sent him a copy of his obituary in a local
Xhosa-language community paper some days later.
Now Maqhasho's funeral would be next, and Cona felt like he
had witnessed what his own death from COVID-19 might be like.
Would he ever again see his daughter and especially his son, who
lived on the other side of the country?
"I could be next," he thought to himself, and sure enough,
within 24 hours, the 72-year-old's own condition had
dramatically worsened, and he was gasping for breath.
For decades, he had survived all the indignities that South
Africa's apartheid system could throw at a Black man: the
bulldozing of his childhood home; his move to a Black township;
a racist law that forbade him from playing rugby on South
Africa's all-white national team, the Springboks, despite his
Wheezing in his hospital bed, Cona made a vow. "I can't have
come this far to be killed by a virus. There's no glory if I die
in my sleep," he would later recount. "Let me die fighting, on
my feet, rather than in my bed."
That night, after barely four hours of sleep, Cona got up
and started doing vigorous exercise: push-ups, chin-ups, jogging
around the ward, even shadow boxing with the novel coronavirus
as his invisible opponent. His body was heavy as lead and his
chest felt like it was about to explode with pain, but he just
kept on training.
The nurses urged him to rest, lest he injure himself
falling, and he politely declined.
He was going to fight this one out.
Cona had discovered rugby by accident, after the South
African government bulldozed his family home.
He was 6 months old when, in May 1948, the Afrikaner
Nationalist Party representing the descendants of Dutch settlers
came to power and set about implementing its vision of an
apartheid state, solidifying decades of racially discriminatory
policies introduced by South Africa's British former colonial
Two years later, the government passed what would be one of
the most hated laws of the era: the Group Areas Act, which
sought to keep the races apart by demarcating neighbourhoods
where each was allowed to live.
They grabbed all the best neighbourhoods for the white
minority, forcibly relocating Black and coloured as mixed-race
citizens are called here people into less desirable areas.
Cona was a teenager when his family, who lived in picturesque
seaside Simon's Town, were uprooted to the township of
"I still say that was the most heinous legislation of the
apartheid era. Because it destroyed the fibre of the community,"
Cona told Reuters at his daughter Kholiswa's house in the Black
township of Langa, whose neat rows of bungalows built by the
apartheid regime are now painted in riotous colours that
previously were forbidden.
Ironically, the forced relocation set him on a path that
would become his life's passion. There was no rugby team in
Simon's Town, and Cona had only ever played soccer, which has
always been the more popular sport with the country's Black
When he was 22, he joined a soccer team in Gugulethu. In one
match, he played against a team whose players included Norman
Mbiko, who also happened to be a coach of a rugby team, the
Flying Eagles, in the nearby township of Nyanga. Mbiko would
later recall noticing the stocky player who combined a
blistering pace with a Herculean upper-body strength.
"I could see he'd be good at rugby," Mbiko told Reuters in
an interview at his spotless red-brick home, whose wood-panelled
interior was adorned with team photos and newspaper cuttings
featuring him from his rugby days. "He was so fast for his big
So in 1969, Mbiko and another sports friend persuaded Cona
to start playing rugby. Within a year, Cona had established
himself as a powerful tighthead prop one of the two positions
in the front row of the scrum that are usually reserved for the
team's heaviest players and rose up to play for the racially
segregated Black Western Province team.
Resources were scant. The pitch was mostly dirt, and they
had none of the facilities the white clubs enjoyed, such as gyms
or scrummaging machines. There was no changing room at Nyanga;
they suited up in the open.
Despite the challenges, in 1972 Cona and Mbiko were selected
for the national Black rugby squad, the Leopards, with Mbiko as
captain. Cona became known in rugby circles as "Broadness," part
wordplay on his size, part the result of a misprint on his
"dompas" the passes Blacks were required to carry every time
they entered a white area.
But it wasn't until 28 years later, long after they'd both
retired and six years after South Africa had transitioned to
democracy with a historic election that brought Nelson Mandela
to power, that their contribution to the sport would finally be
In 2000, the two men received the thing they long had been
denied during the apartheid era: the coveted green and gold
blazers of the team that had for decades been the realm of white
players alone, the Springboks. Balfour Ngconde, the sports
minister under Mandela who had fought for the belated honor,
bestowed the blazers on the men.
"We were so excited. We had always been yearning to be on
one platform, not separate ones," Cona said. But it was tinged
"While we were mingling afterwards, some of the guys said,
'It's only a blazer, it's meaningless.' And we all agreed.
Because the whites who played are well-off now, but we had
"I WAS DENIED AN OPPORTUNITY"
On a bright day in September, Cona surveyed the grounds of
his old club in Nyanga, just down the road from Mbiko's house.
He picked up a rugby ball and jogged around the muddy, balding
pitch practising some dummy passes, his cropped white hair
flashing in the sun. He somehow managed not to sully his
immaculate black leather shoes and dark suit trousers.
His big frame had put on weight around the middle, but he
was clearly still fighting 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
pitch," Zali said. "I don't think he ever got the recognition he
Black South Africans' relationship with rugby has long been
fraught. Such was the resentment of the country's white rugby
establishment, township crowds would cheer the Springboks'
opponents "we wanted anyone but them to win," Cona said. A
spokesman for SA Rugby, the sport's current governing body,
declined to comment on its apartheid-era predecessor.
When Cona was playing back in the 1970s and early 1980s,
tour cancellations and international boycotts of the racially
segregated South African teams were mounting. Back home,
anti-apartheid protests were erupting across the country.
Morne du Plessis, a Springbok star from that era who would
later play with Cona in a veterans team after apartheid ended,
gives an idea of the conflicted feelings of some players at that
"That was the pinnacle of your rugby achievement, to be a
Springbok, albeit in a divided country," Du Plessis, who was
captain of the national team, told Reuters by telephone.
As international protests gathered steam, he said many
players were forced to reflect on the system in which they had
been indoctrinated. "For many of us, it was a realisation that
this couldn't go on."
In an effort to placate public opinion, the rugby board that
governed the players started making small concessions to
In 1976, it created a mixed team not the official one to
play the visiting New Zealand team in Cape Town. Cona
He shared a hotel room with two of his white teammates,
Springbok stars Moaner van Heerden and Richard Prentis. Cona
remembers that they joked and laughed like equals, and talked
endlessly of their passion: rugby.
Though they set aside racial tensions, Cona had started to
develop a budding resentment of how apartheid had consistently
denied him the opportunities his white colleagues had had.
"It was the same story every time. I was denied an
opportunity," he said of being unable to play for the
Springboks. "I'm not saying I'm a superstar, but when I watch
the rugby now, I can see I'm better than some of the guys who
are being selected in my position."
Such was the case with all sports, but in rugby the
discrimination was worsened by the absurd perception of rugby as
a "white" sport, said Hendrik Snyders, a sports historian at the
National Museum in Bloemfontein.
"In reality, the game in Black communities both African
and coloured dates back to the late 1890s," he said. "There's
a whole line of very able players like Broadness."
"I CRIED THE WHOLE NIGHT"
South Africa has suffered, so far, the worst COVID-19
pandemic in Africa with more than 685,000 cases and over
The virus brought the country's lingering problems into
sharp relief: The extreme inequalities in economic opportunity
established under apartheid have actually worsened in the
quarter-century since it ended, according to International
Monetary Fund data. Healthcare is a stark lottery in South
Africa, with a world-class private system for those who can
afford it, and an overburdened public one for the mostly Black
citizens who cannot.
Cona's friends and family persuaded him to go to hospital to
get a COVID-19 test on May 15, 2020, when Cape Town was at the
heart of South Africa's epidemic.
He was ill, he couldn't eat, and he struggled to walk. His
daughter, Kholiswa, and a friend of his took him to a health
centre in the friend's car, where he tested negative, but his
breathing was bad and he had pre-existing high blood pressure.
They referred him to another clinic for a second test the
The night he tested positive, Cona was transferred to Groote
Schuur Hospital, one of South Africa's best public hospitals,
which in 1967 had completed the world's first human-to-human
heart transplant. Though the hospital was under strain with
COVID-19 cases at the time, it was coping better than many
public hospitals at the epidemic's peak.
When Kholiswa got the news of her father's result, she
called her older brother, Morgan, who had moved to Queenstown in
South Africa's Eastern Cape province, and they ruminated on the
"I cried the whole night. He's 73, it was the time
when everybody was going to hospital, it was the peak," Kholiswa
said. "He's got an underlying condition. The elderly were dying.
I thought, 'No, he's gone.'"
But Cona wasn't giving up.
"I told the nurse: 'All these years I've been playing rugby
and people were tackling me, and often I didn't fall. No one is
tackling me now: I am NOT going to fall.'"
Finally, after days of forcing himself out of his hospital
bed on his training regime, Cona started to feel better around
the start of June. He could feel the oxygen returning to his
lungs, and he felt fitter and more vital. Three weeks after
being admitted, a fully recovered Cona went for a last medical
exam before being transferred to a quarantine facility.
"You're a fighter," the doctor examining him said.
The day after he arrived at his quarantine hotel, he got a
pleasant surprise: Morgan had travelled from Queenstown with his
wife, Joyce, and Kholiswa to welcome him out. They weren't
allowed in, but Cona's balcony had a view of the parking lot
next to the hotel beach, and he could see Morgan and wave while
talking to him on his phone.
"You are very lucky to see me, because there are no
visitors," he told Morgan. "I'm very happy about that," came the
reply down the phone line.
On a recent day, Cona went for a visit at Mbiko's house. Age
has taken its toll on the 75-year-old. He has Parkinson's and
needs a walker to move around, but he's still proudly wearing a
Springbok jersey. They remain close friends.
Mbiko had made quite a career for himself as a coach after
retiring, including on the coaching team for the legendary 1995
Rugby World Cup. South Africa won the cup at home, in front of a
huge crowd of Black and white South Africans, all screaming for
the Springboks. Du Plessis, by then retired from playing, was
In the game, celebrated in the 2009 movie "Invictus,"
starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, the Springboks overcame
seemingly impossible odds in beating the world-leading New
In what was widely seen as one of Mandela's most unifying
gestures after being elected president a year earlier, at the
game he donned the Springbok jersey, which until then had been
associated among Blacks with apartheid oppressors who'd
imprisoned him for 27 years.
The team had only one non-white player, Chester Williams.
Cona and his rugby friends watched the game live on TV at
Mbiko's house, a part of which doubles up as a tavern. Cona
remembers most people initially cheering for the New Zealand
team, 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 then-Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, it wasn't until
the game was over that he realised the significance of the
"It was insane," he told Reuters in a phone interview. "We
didn't realise the impact it would have. Twenty-five years
later, I still think to myself how lucky we were
to unify our
country like that."
After a brief honeymoon period following the World Cup
final, disillusionment swiftly set in among Cape Town's Black
rugby players. Decades of apartheid-era neglect was going to
take a lot of money to fix, and the government had other
priorities besides rugby.
In an effort to reverse segregation, teams from Black
townships were required to play teams in richer, mostly white
areas, and vice versa. But they had no resources to compete
they were still practicing on poor fields with no equipment.
Pienaar said the euphoria in the wake of the World Cup win
"put too much pressure" on South Africa to quickly fix its
Most of the players couldn't even afford the bus fares to
travel to these faraway stadiums, Cona said. Although rugby,
like life, in South Africa was no longer legally segregated,
most urban Blacks remained too poor to live anywhere else but in
their townships. All the best Black talent swiftly abandoned the
township teams to join the better-resourced clubs. Within a few
years, most of the clubs that had first stoked Cona's passion
for the sport had either collapsed or been merged into one
"We expected in our townships we would have the same
facilities like those in the white areas, but that never
happened," Cona said. "Our fields are still the same fields like
before the unity. We knew it wouldn't be overnight, but it's
been years now."
Andy Colquhoun, spokesman for SA Rugby, said, "We have
learnt that the idea of any South African sporting federation
being able to create a mass-participation project that reaches
every community is impossible."
He added, "It's a sad fact that only a minority of South
Africa's 25,000 schools provide any kind of sport to their
learners, and we know that Springboks are made in schools."
He pointed with pride to the grass-roots program called Get
Into Rugby, but added: "With 170,000 children participating in a
normal year, we know it is just scratching the surface. But we'd
need hundreds of millions of rands to reach everyone," compared
with a current outlay of more than 50 million rand ($3 million)
Last year, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup final for a
third time, with its first Black captain, Siya Kolisi who grew
up in a township near Port Elizabeth and often went to bed
hungry as a child receiving the trophy.
"These are things you never thought you would see in South
Africa," Cona said. "We were so excited; it tells us we are
heading in the right direction."
Still, full integration in rugby, as in society as a whole,
remains mostly an aspiration. The country is three-quarters
Black and nearly 10% coloured, but just 11 non-white players
were part of the 31-man squad in the World Cup tournament.
A BATTLE LOST
On June 13, a Saturday, Cona arrived home to Gugulethu to a
hero's welcome, organised by his local walkers' club. He was
overjoyed. After the celebrations, at 9 p.m. that evening, his
son, Morgan called: He'd just tested positive for the
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, concluding that his case was mild.
On Sunday, Cona phoned him back. Morgan's wife, Joyce,
picked up the phone and said he was too ill to come to the
On Monday, Morgan phoned Cona to say he was getting worse.
He sounded awful: He was struggling to breathe and suffering
headaches. Later, Joyce called to say Morgan had been admitted
to a private hospital in Queenstown, as a precaution, although
his temperature was back to normal and he seemed on the path to
On Tuesday morning at 4:45 a.m., Cona was at Kholiswa's
house when Joyce called Kholiswa's mobile. Cona approached,
anxious for news on Morgan. "I knew something was wrong. Joyce
Seconds passed before Joyce delivered the news: Morgan had
"That was the sad part," he said. He moved his gaze to the
window and didn't speak for a long moment.
Then, finally, he said: "Morgan was so worried about me when
I was in the hospital. But in the end, I was fine. I won the
battle." Another pause. "He didn't."
(Reporting by Tim Cocks; editing by Kari Howard. Additional
reporting by Mark Gleeson.)