“It isn’t the mountains ahead that wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe.” – Muhammad Ali
Name : Mpho Mbiyozo
Occupation: my husband, but since that doesn’t pay nearly what it should, loose forward Southern Kings Rugby
Age: Dirty Thirty
Education: BA Media + History, U of Cape Town
Hobbies: Sports, Top Gear, surfing, beer, meat, maskandi music and our chubby little daughter.
I married up. Apparently marrying up has been a well known strategy for women throughout civilization. I didn’t know as much until I just googled it, but it seems to have worked out for me nonetheless.
I have always been drawn to people who overcome. It is not requisite – you can be born with a silver spoon up your arse and be inspiring. But there is something magnetic about people who have walked a longer journey to get to the same place. Their character is practically guaranteed; I want that on my side.
Mpho was born in Lusikisiki to a single mother who never had the privilege of education. He had far out-stripped his initial prospects by the time he was 15. He is the beneficiary of her inexhaustible spirit and the generosity of some truly remarkable people. He graduated from one of the top high schools, represented South Africa 33 times as a Springbok Seven, won the World Series, captained his team at the World Cup and is currently the only black Super Rugby player in the country with a University degree. He has no living direct blood relatives and has buried his mother, father and brother long before their time. He is patient, affable, handsome and unassumingly wise. He accepts people for who they are, is slow to judge and quick to forgive. I feel much better going the distance with him around.
We moved to Port Elizabeth 2 years ago. After 10 years in Cape Town, Mpho had reached the top of his rugby career given the available options. The opportunity arose for him to play in PE. It was a risk as the team was not at the top level, but they enticed him with an opportunity to share in building it up. Most black rugby players come from this region. With a sub-par professional union, they have not had the development structures necessary to maximize their potential. Accordingly, top talent gets poached by other unions and many more players exit long before their time due to lack of options.
I supported the decision whole-heartily. PE was always going to be a downgrade from Cape Town but it presented a unique opportunity. There are many problems in the world, yet it is tough to make a meaningful difference. When someone presents a vehicle to make an impact while doing what you love, you take it.
Ten days ago, the Southern Kings reached a critical milestone toward their vision when they played their first ever Super Rugby game. Despite much controversy, the team has reached the highest league in the world. Not only that, they made history as the first ever team to win their debut match.
We watched from the stands.
Mpho has always worked hard, but for the past 4 months he has gone above and beyond. He told me awhile back that playing Super Rugby is his dream. In the same breath he admitted he was scared it might never happen. He eats poached salmon and quinoa, has beaten all his fitness scores, maintained his goal weight and goes to sleep at 9pm reading his play book. He captained the team in 2 pre-season games, was lead tackler in one and named Player of the Camp. He has made several tv appearances and been one of the public faces of the team.
After the game, I could not sleep. I have never wanted anything so badly for anyone. I could give a crap about the shiny lights, but there is something so very powerful about chasing a dream. I want him to meet his full potential, believe in himself and apply it to the rest of life.
Mpho will tell you it is the nature of the game. How you handle being benched defines you as a player – it takes a far better person to stay positive and focused than it does to get frustrated. Not only does he have the courage to set a brazen goal, but he comes from a long suffering people that certainly have patience. He will continue to work on what he can control and contribute no matter what. Things will come right.
It is super humbling. Especially because I am on the other side of him losing my shit.
In a sport loaded down by statistics, here are a few that I had to do by hand with a calculator. In opening week of Super Rugby in South Africa:
- 110 players dressed
- 10 were black/ 7 starters
- 15 coloured/9 starters
- Out of 52 million South Africans, 4.5 million are white (8.9%), 4.6 million coloured (8.9%) and 41 million black (79.2%)
- It looked the same in week 2 and will again in week 3.
- “Invictus” happened 18 years ago.
This is a seriously unpopular topic. I can feel people getting uncomfortable through my keyboard. I won’t be surprised if someone brings up the number of white soccer players or asks why we cannot just put race behind us. I have answers for that. I am, however, sensitive about making excuses for my husband. I know nothing about rugby and have no objectivity. Sport is harsh – for every champion there are many more who just aren’t good enough. Mpho could be terrible for all I know. So could the other 30 odd black players watching from the sidelines.
There are 6 million South Africans living in shacks, all black. My black nanny gets paid as much in a day as I do in 30 minutes and I pay double the asking wage. She uses it to care for her elderly father, 2 children, schizophrenic brother and her dead sister’s 2 orphans. This week, my black friend got stopped in her driveway for ‘suspicious’ behavior and had to prove she lives there; a white neighbor called the cops on her and her 9 year old son when they entered the complex. Mpho has been held to the ground with a gun at his back by a white police after using a pay phone and been called a ‘dirty kaffir’ out a car window. I had to stop seeing my white manicurist after she complained about black people crowding her at the mall. My white friend refused to hire black employees because she “didn’t want clients to have to hear another useless black voice”.
Do the math. This is South Africa; whether we like it or not, race matters. If you wish it away not only do you choose ignorance, you deny a constructive conversation about how to create change. If you pretend it is in the past or not applicable in your backyard, you fear what it says about you. And if you tokenize someone, you break their soul. If that is your goal, only God can help you.
In 2005 I went to to a rugby capping ceremony. Capping involves inducting players onto a professional team after a qualifying number of games. It was delightful; 10 players were capped, 2 of them black. At the end, the captain approached them to thank them for a great season:
I love my husband and admire him more than I can ever express. He inspires and humbles me every single day. If things will indeed come right, it will be because of his wisdom and patience. He will teach our daughter integrity and fortitude and she will learn quickly that her father has courage her mother does not. But, as incredible as it is to walk next to someone willing to double the distance, it sucks to have to do it and I am deeply sorry people get used to it.