Another hero falls

Eric “Bucs” Damons existed beyond the frame of the narrow scope of the elite South African sporting narrative.

Photo credit Lennie Himson. The image was scanned at the Kimberley Africana Research Library.

Eric “Bucs” Damons, who died May 12, 2021 in Kimberley, South Africa, was a legend of black rugby. Nobody within the current Griqualand West Rugby Union (GWRU) rugby circles will know his name. Not many within the old national South African Rugby Board (SARB) and the now South African Rugby Union (SARU) framework will know his name, nor will they care that he ever existed. But the tragedy of South Africa’s transition to “‘democracy”’ can be superbly explored through the lens of what has happened to sport within oppressed communities and to the memories of players like Damons while they were still alive.

A player of incredible talent, “Bucs” wasted away over the past few years. His stomping grounds, the AR Abass Stadium in Kimberley, stands like a silent tumor that grows with every death of the heroes that once gave it purpose. Eric “Bucs” Damons existed beyond the frame of the narrow scope of the elite South African sporting narrative. He is, in terms of this narrow view, of no particular importance or significance. The system that denied him his rightful place as a South African rugby legend is alive and well and currently under black management. It is supported, endorsed, and rubber-stamped by the victims and their descendants, of the very policies that denied them their place in the sporting sun during the hard days of legislated racism.

Today apartheid sporting policy is less transparent. It sneaks around feasting on the corpses of fallen community sporting heroes, denied space and place by the expediency of the ANC-managed sports unity deals, which coincidentally, was ratified in the city of Eric’s birth—Kimberley. It was this deal that slowly killed “Bucs.”

I was not old enough, nor was I ever good enough to play against “Bucs.” I saw him play in countless fixtures, and he was truly a sight to behold. His tall, wiry frame belied his strength, skill, and athletic prowess. I do not know anything about his training regimen, but from what I can remember, he performed some amazing feats on the rugby field. He loved, above all else, his club, Young Collegians RFC. The club died with the era of so-called unity. (The period refers to the negotiations to unite the segregrated sports bodies of Apartheid in the early 1990s, which effectively resulted in black sports bodies, particularly in sports like rugby and cricket, being swallowed by the more financially resourced former white sports associations.) It was a blow that shattered many lives, not only in Kimberley, but across the country where rugby was played for reasons that are worth far more than filthy lucre.

In my minds eye, I can see Bucs loping from the base of the scrum, his long legs punctuated by boots that could well have been designed for Goofy. Very often one of his hands would be gripping the large leather ball as he used the other to fend off would be tacklers. His cartoon-like gait always included a sudden turn of speed, which would see him burst through gaps as he rallied his troops toward the try line. In Kimberley rugby circles, Bucs stands alongside other legends such as Mr. Bunny Hermanus, Piet Van Wyk, Dennis Jacobs, Jaap Kruger, Toby Ferris, Freddie Fredericks, and others. It has always been a contentious issue that “Bucs” was never selected for SARU. (This is different from the current SARU and refers to the original, non-racial national rugby union affiliated to the South African Council on Sports, which in turn was allied to the anti-apartheid movement and agitated for “no normal sport in an abnormal society.”)  He certainly had the rugby acumen and was a fearsome opponent. Upon reflection at his omission from SARU honors, it in a way lifts the burden from his shoulders of having had to adorn the cloak of those who denied him in the first place. In South Africa, rugby justice is provided by allowing those who were suppressed by apartheid policies, to adorn the colors of the proud sporting symbol of apartheid—the springbok.

South Africa’s post-apartheid sporting dementia has worsened as is evidenced by the circus at the Cricket South Africa  as well as the shenanigans at SASCOC (South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee). The victory in the 2019 Rugby World Cup tournament by the springboks led by Siya Kolisi, has steered attention away from the stench of the longest rotting corpse in history–the springbok. This year, all eyes turn to the pending tour of the British and Irish Lions, long supporters of the system of sporting apartheid, and supporters of the system of convenient amnesia. A system that continuously and purposely denies the existence of heroes such as Bucs Damons.

On Friday, May 7, 2021, Mr. Abubacker “Baby” Richards also passed away. Mark Alexander, president of SARU, posted a tribute to Mr. Richards, a former president of the GWRU and said: “He was president of Griquas both before and after unity in rugby and whether he served as secretary, referee, president or chairman in rugby, he did so with much integrity and ability.”

Despite his years of service, even within the poisonous space of unified rugby in Kimberley, Mr. Richards features in a nameless photograph on page 30 in the 2011 publication “Diamonds in the Rough 125 Years of Griqua Rugby 1886-2011.” The publication, edited by rugby writer Wim van der Berg, does not even include “unity” as a memorable moment in the timeline of significant events on pages 39 through to 45. Unity, in the eyes of South African rugby, is an inconvenient blip on an otherwise untrammeled historical pathway. The suppression of sporting truth is the primary objective of the custodians of the game in South Africa.

The publication lauds the legends of Griqualand West Rugby on pages 50 through to 58, including names such as Ian Kirkpatrick, Piet Visagie, Gawie Visagie, Flippie van der Merwe, Andre Markgraaf, Dawie Theron and others; ll players who played for the whites only team of Griques under Apartheid. Bucs Damons is not mentioned. He is not alone in this, as not a single player from the non-racial fold is mentioned. They never existed and in the words of writer Wim van der Berg in an email from GWRU to the author:

Rightly or wrongly, it was not part of the GWRU history, and it developed in isolation and parallel to the GWRU. I make no excuse for that. Those were the realities of this unfortunate and, to the great majority hurtful, past of our country. In all my books there is little about the blacks’ contribution as it did not form part of the history and development of the union I was writing on.

An unintentional truth from a rugby writer that was commissioned by the custodians of the game in Griqualand West, and who has authored numerous books on the “real history” of South African rugby where there is no place or space for fairy tales and fantasy. Black rugby, or rather “struggle rugby” as it is known by anti-apartheid sporting activists and former SACOS stalwarts, has no place within the story of the fabulous springboks. It is an irritation that will hopefully fade away.

Eric “Bucs” Damons epitomizes the slow fading away of the story of the non-racial struggle in and through sport. The stories of Kimberley’s sporting greats, who were removed from the New Park area, where the GWK Park now stands, due to the apartheid Group Areas Act, are fading away. The GWRU has money for publications such as “Diamonds in the Rough”, but they have nothing for the stories of the clubs they destroyed. The sale of the AR Abass Stadium is one of the nails in the casket of Bucs Damons.

For some apartheid perspective, this is like watching Morné Du Plessis (one of the erstwhile stars of white South African rugby), homeless and derelict, without his story being told. The Baby Richards Hall at the AR Abass Stadium is an etching on a monument to what once was.

South African sport has always eluded truth. The glamorous coffee table publications that glorify sport as a unifying force are not truthful. These are slick marketing and PR pieces that are appealing to the uneducated eye, and rely heavily on historical decoupling from facts and context. The Supersport “documentary” series Chasing the Sun, about the Springboks’ run to the World Cup final in 2019, is another example of emotional manipulation of the feeble-minded and historically uninformed. It is fodder for another epic rugby blockbuster in the mould of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. Beyond the frame of these Pollyannaish productions, lies a truth wholly incompatible with the ridiculous picture of sport as a unifying force. It is not possible to unify around a lie and falsehoods.

Bucs Damons deserved better. He is worthy of honoring and he was worthy of honoring. Those of us who were privileged enough to have seen this gentle giant ply his rugby trade at the Union Grounds (AR Abass), should work toward ensuring that the proposed Truth Conference in Sport, which Sol Plaatje University and Walter Sisulu University are collaborating on, is realized. Kimberley is a fitting venue for such an event, and there should be space and place for the honoring of those denied by the neo-apartheid sporting dispensation.

Further Reading