July 2, 1997

Brothers to Us: The Story of a Remarkable Family's Fight Against Apartheid
By Kristin Williamson (with a foreword by John Pilger)
Viking, 1997. 344 pp., $24.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Rugby, some claim, is the game played in Heaven, but for four white South African brothers and Christians in 1976, rugby in South Africa was a pillar of apartheid which embodied the absurdity and evil of that system. It was their springboard into the struggle for a non-racial democracy in South Africa.

Kristin Williamson's biography of Gavin, Ronnie, Valence and Daniel (better known as Cheeky) Watson hinges on the afternoon of October 10, 1976 when Valence and Cheeky played in the first, illegal, game of multi-racial rugby in South Africa. This changed their lives for ever, and their new lives helped to change South Africa for ever.

The four brothers, born between 1948 and 1954, had rugby fame behind or in front of them (Cheeky was a certainty for a Springbok jumper in 1976), a successful clothing business in Port Elizabeth and Mercedes to drive. They were golden-haired symbols for white South Africa.

They were also, however, born to a Christian family that took a belief in human equality seriously. They spoke Xhosa fluently and were genuinely blind to skin colour.

They were encouraged to put their Christianity into ever more political practice by playing that fateful game of mixed rugby. Gavin was threatened with a fall from a very great height in a Port Elizabeth jail, if they did not withdraw; Cheeky was offered the bribe of security, status and money in the South African Defence Force if they did.

They chose to follow their consciences. Valence and Cheeky, those of the brothers still playing rugby, found an enormous respect and emotional acceptance by the black players and spectators at the game. They also made enemies of the Security Police, and were driven into more active anti-apartheid politics.

Gavin, Valence and Ronnie worked for the ANC, the latter two underground, recruited by Chris Hani into MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe), the armed wing of the ANC. Gavin worked above ground with the churches, business and liberal white communities. Cheeky was a popular hero to the black township residents, coaching and playing rugby there.

Their rugby fame, skin colour and international profile narrowly kept them safe from the Security Police, though not for want of trying by the latter. Gavin took a knife in the heart, Ronnie fought with an armed British MI6 agent in a hotel room in Botswana, their home was burned down, and they were watched, bugged, followed and arrested.

It is one hell of a story with hair-raising adventures and lump-in-the-throat moments when the Watsons reach out to their black brothers on the rugby field or are cheered with ANC slogans and freedom songs by the 3000 black prisoners in the jail where they were detained as frame-up victims for arson and murder.

Williamson's book has little political analysis of the anti-apartheid movement or post-apartheid society. Moral struggle, not class struggle, is his liberal pitch, with only brief visits to the ANC's strategy for placing the profits of white (and black) businesses, and capitalist state institutions, ahead of more radical political and economic democracy.

As the Watsons return to their business interests, and Cheeky to preaching, after the overthrow of apartheid, they do, however, voice suspicions about the post-apartheid state retaining the old personnel, including the political assassins from the Security Police hit squads, and of the liberal whites who have only now found an anti-apartheid commitment and opportunistically joined the ANC now that it is the new government.

For all that the book isn't politically, it is an inspiring read about a courageous personal commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle, from the conservative bastion of white rugby, which makes clear why Limpho Hani, widow of the assassinated ANC leader, said that Gavin, Ronnie, Valence and Cheeky were "like brothers to us".