John Robbie has lived in South Africa for nearly 40 years but he has not lost his soft Dublin accent. The former Ireland and Lions rugby player has achieved a lot in his life. He recently retired from his popular breakfast radio show in Johannesburg, where he gained a reputation for holding the country’s politicians to account and championing the new South Africa. He should feel pride at his achievements on and off the field, yet he still harbours guilt and shame for the decision that originally took him to the country.
“When I was a young man, I ate, slept and breathed rugby,” he says. “You have no idea. It consumed me. I had been lucky enough to tour South Africa with the Lions in 1980 and just had one of those amazing experiences, playing in the last Test. In 1981, the opportunity came up to tour with Ireland to South Africa. Should I have thought that touring apartheid South Africa was wrong? Absolutely. Did I know that what was happening there was wrong? I did. But I was thinking just about rugby, selfishly about the opportunity to be treated like a professional for a few months and play at the highest level. I have lived to regret that decision my whole life.”
In 1980, the Lions were faced with anti-apartheid protesters in South Africa and tension lingered throughout the country. The prime minister of South Africa, PW Botha, clenched tightly to the last remnants of the apartheid system with all of his might, regardless of its cruelty. Paranoia and pain became entrenched in a splintered country that was descending into chaos.
Later in 1981, just four months after the Ireland squad had left South Africa, the anti-apartheid activist Griffiths Mxenge was savagely assassinated by a death squad in a township south of Durban. He was abducted, beaten with a hammer, stabbed multiple times and his throat was slit. Against this backdrop, rugby was still being played in front of packed stadiums every Saturday afternoon.
Robbie’s decision to tour apartheid South Africa with Ireland was understandably controversial. High-profile teammates such as out-half Tony Ward, lock Moss Keane and full-back Hugo MacNeill refused to travel. Robbie had seen the segregation on the streets of South Africa the year before as a Lion. He knew the system was abhorrent, but he also was a young man determined to play for his country at the highest level. Robbie had secured a graduate job with Guinness brewery in Dublin and had originally been allowed to tour but, when this permission was then rescinded, he chose to quit the job and tour anyway.
“Compared to the Lions tour, from a playing point of view, the 1981 tour was not good. I got injured fairly badly and nothing seemed to go right on the field. I have thought about the decision so many times. I used to think: did I actually know how bad apartheid was? Of course, I did. I should never have toured. Despite what I went on to achieve, I consider it a stain that will never leave me.”
Injured in South Africa on the tour, Robbie was isolated in a hotel room awaiting treatment when he was invited to a traditional South African braai in Durban. The combination of beautifully cooked slabs of meat and a selection of ice-cold Castle Lagers loosened the young scrum-half’s tongue and he got chatting with a man who eventually offered him a sales position with an engineering firm in Johannesburg. Robbie had a young wife, a baby and no job at home in an increasingly economically depressed Ireland, so decided to give South Africa a year.
“Like so many Irish people around the world, you give a country a year and, before you know it, you look back and so many years have passed,” he says. “I got a job in sales, which ended up being the perfect training for my later work on the radio. If you can give a detailed technical presentation on equipment to senior engineers, you are pretty well set up for what comes later. I played provincial rugby for Transvaal and went from playing in front of small, passionate crowds for Greystones and Leinster in the cold and wet to huge provincial rugby games in the Currie Cup, sometimes in front of 50,000, due to the Springboks being isolated from world rugby.”
Robbie played in the famed Springbok jersey but never received an official cap. The games where he represented the country were not officially recognised and he never got off the bench for the ones that were. He grew used to the hard, physical game and was voted one of the top five players in South Africa in 1987. He used his strengths as a general at No 9, organising the huge South African packs he played behind.
Living in South Africa throughout some of the worst years of apartheid reshaped his view of the world. “I look back now and, honestly, at times I cringe. I once wrote an autobiography and I’d love to gather every copy and burn them all. You lived in a bubble and you knew it was wrong, but you heard people justifying it as fear from communist Russia. There was a huge amount of propaganda going around and a lot of fear. I was living in this privileged bubble of playing for Transvaal with my job, but eventually, and thank God, I started speaking out.”
Robbie’s provincial team, Transvaal, was made up predominantly of Afrikaners who worked as policemen, farmers and government officials. As an English-speaking Irishman playing at scrum-half, he was a unique figure in the highly charged atmosphere of Currie Cup rugby in the 1980s. He became more vocal against apartheid and found himself increasingly under siege, not necessarily on the field, but off it.
“I remember vividly I was asked to a golf club in Pretoria to hand out awards. In the middle of the evening things got seriously nasty, with threats of violence against me. It was a bad time, especially having to be there with my wife. Years later, I heard from a guy from the club who had been involved and was deeply ashamed of what he had done. I wanted to reach out to have a conversation, but he was too embarrassed.”
Given his fame and gregarious nature, Robbie was asked to cover sport on the radio, originally with a popular phone-in show in Johannesburg. This eventually translated into current affairs, with Robbie able to give a rare perspective into a South Africa that was ushering in a new era, with Nelson Mandela being freed from prison in 1992.
“It was the most exciting time to live in, to see the hope that Nelson Mandela ushered in. There was an incredible hope in South Africa and a belief that anything could happen. I was privileged to be on the radio in those years, playing a very small role in contributing to the new South Africa, I always hoped positively. Being a part of it helped me reconcile my decision to come out here in 1981. I have always hoped that my work in the new South Africa will go in some small way to atoning for that decision I made coming out here as a player.”
Robbie hosted the country’s most popular breakfast radio show for 17 years and gained a reputation as a tough interviewer of South Africa’s leading politicians. Years after apartheid, he met sinister figures such as the notorious former police colonel and assassin Eugene de Kock, nicknamed “Prime Evil”, who was sentenced to 212 years in prison in 1996. De Kock calmly told him that the apartheid-era police had ordered him to assassinate Robbie with a crossbow.
“There were numerous death threats against me from my work on the radio, and unfortunately, it just became part of my life. Eugene de Kock told me calmly that he was under orders to kill me with a crossbow but ultimately decided against it. When you think back, you wonder how you got through it, but equally, you think back with pride at the new South Africa that was being formed under Mandela.”
Despite his accent and pride in his Irish upbringing, Robbie considers himself completely South African now. The Jacob Zuma government filled him with despair, but he has high hopes for the new president Cyril Ramaphosa’s strong anti-corruption policies. The 2019 World Cup lifted by Siya Kolisi was greeted with jubilation on the streets of South Africa: does Robbie think it inspires the nation similar to the victory in 1995 where Mandela famously donned the Springbok shirt.
“The one image of that World Cup victory that sticks in my mind is Siya [Kolisi], Rassie Erasmus and Duane Vermeulen standing together and I thought in this country when we want to, we can achieve anything. If South Africa has a strong game plan, great people working for a collective goal together we can achieve whatever we want on the world stage. We just have to hope that the good stands tall over the bad in this country.”
Robbie considers himself an ambassador for South Africa and is keen to talk about the beauty and the hospitality of the country when he returns to Ireland. Recently, he was asked back to his old rugby club in Dublin. After giving an amusing talk about his life in rugby and beyond, Robbie was chatting to friends and former teammates when a woman approached him.
“Everyone had been very kind and enjoyed what I had to say. I was having a great time, then this lady who is president of the local GAA club in Greystones stopped me and said that my decision to tour South Africa in 1981 had disgusted her. All I could do is hold my hands up and say ‘mea culpa’. She was right and I was glad she had been honest with me. It is a reminder to me that no matter what I have done in my career – and I hope I have done some good – I live with the guilt of going on that tour and I will do so for the rest of my life.”
Jonathan Drennan is on Twitter and you can read his interviews here.