Cape Town – Johan ‘Rassie’ Erasmus is not your typical white Afrikaner, as we already know from his playing and coaching career.
But his life story is about so much more than just rugby, and it shaped the way he thinks these days and arguably played a significant role in him appointing Siya Kolisi as the first black African Springbok captain in 2018.
Erasmus turned 50 on November 5, the day the Boks faced Ireland in Dublin, and that is why it was an appropriate time for a documentary about his journey up to now – Rassie: The Official Film – which was aired last Sunday on M-Net and SuperSport.
The Bok fairytale of Erasmus and Kolisi leading the team to World Cup glory in 2019, having taken over just 18 months earlier, was well documented in a previous T+W production, Chasing The Sun.
But in this documentary, we see where Erasmus grew up and his personal circumstances during apartheid, and what planted the seed for him to become a top-class loose forward and then later the World Rugby Coach of the Year in 2019.
Born in 1972, Erasmus experienced apartheid at its worst in the Eastern Cape town of Despatch. He speaks about his relationship with his father, who had worked for the then-Bantu Administration and Development government department – which meant that he had to issue the dompas to black people coming to work in white areas.
“My dad was working for, they called it Bantoe-administrasie (Bantu Administration and Development) – he had to write the dompas … We didn’t know about the dompasse – we just saw that black people are going home at 5-6pm. You didn’t know that white people hate black people, because you were 10,” Erasmus said.
“One day, I was riding a friend’s bicycle, and the chain fell off. And it was this old black guy walking up the street … he had actually worked in our garden before.
“And sh*t, I will never forget: I didn’t know how to call him, because I didn’t know his name. So, I called him what the people called black people at that time … And the look on his face f**ken haunts me till today.
“I went to ask my mum, and she said ‘Hoe kon jy dit doen?’ (How could you do that?) I said, ‘But everybody in the town is talking like this’. My mum explained to me that this is an ugly word, and then I said ‘But then the people in town shouldn’t say it’.
“My dad didn’t explain to me why, but he just said ‘You f**ken never do it again’. My dad couldn’t handle that dompas that he had to sign. We will sit in front of the TV, and he will tell the stories … He would say ‘We are doing something very wrong in this country.’”
Erasmus goes on to reveal how his father battled with alcohol addiction, and the impact it had on his life in a couple of emotional scenes, with tears in his eyes.
“My dad got home at 4.30 in the afternoon, and he would buy a 750ml Mainstay (cane spirit vodka). He would go and sit at six ’o clock and then at nine ’o clock … I don’t know what’s the English word for it – he would get the horries (delirious from drunkenness),” the former flank said.
“He would get so drunk that he would start hitting himself until the blood comes out of his (skin). You would soema fall asleep there next to him because you are trying to protect him.
“Many, many good things, and obviously some bad things that happened here (in their Despatch house) …
“One day when he wanted to drive to Kirkwood … f**k, he wanted to shoot me. And my sisters had to hide me on the roof. You become so alert when you go through that for 18 years …
“I taught myself to look in people’s eyes, and without speaking, I could see how drunk or how far, or when … I think I learned that skill there.
“It’s not a feel-sorry-for-Rassie, point-fingers-at-my-dad thing … He did many wonderful things here as a father. He always said to me ‘Sh*t, this can’t be’. He can’t at five ’o clock take a woman and a child away from each other. How the f**k can you treat people like that? I mean, you could see it, man…
“If people knew being an alcoholic is an illness, and treated it that way, he could’ve taught me much more. But we didn’t, because f**ken society decided it’s a disgrace …
“That is why I feel the community makes statements and almost indoctrinate you to believe that is the right way. Like, our church didn’t allow black people in. Gay people weren’t allowed in. Alcoholics were bad people – they weren’t people that were ill, that needed help.
“I think, if I had followed (kind of thinking) that in my life, I would’ve been f**ked.”
Before his rugby career became serious, after having represented Eastern Province Schools, Erasmus recalled his compulsory stint in the apartheid forces’ army, where he was “scared” as he didn’t know how to cook and generally be independent.
But he said that with the “war” having stopped in 1989, he didn’t have to deal with the riots in black areas, and then could go on to the University of Free State – and that is where his rugby career blossomed.
He was a bit too young to be in contention for the 1995 Bok World Cup squad, but made his Test debut in the final game of the lost 1997 series against the British & Irish Lions at Ellis Park.
Erasmus was part of Nick Mallett’s record-equalling Bok team that won 17 Tests in a row between 1997 and 1998 – and his laptop was ever present to help the coaches analyse games.
He then goes into how all the adulation and stardom eventually caught up with him – so much so that he went from captaining the Cats to a Super Rugby semi-final to moving back to Bloemfontein, saying ‘die liggies het my gevat!’ (the lights got me) to Saru president Louis Luyt.
During his Cats stint, he mentioned how he took issue with coach Laurie Mains – a New Zealander who had been in charge of the All Blacks before – for the way he treated black players.
There was a particular incident where Erasmus said Mains had asked fullback Conrad Jantjes to fake an injury during a game so that Dean Hall could come onto the field. Erasmus said he told his former Cheetahs coach Peet Kleynhans about it, and the latter let the cat out of the bag to the media, and Mains was exposed for how he had operated.
Having had to end his career prematurely due to a foot injury, Erasmus went from a Cheetahs player in 2003 to their coach the next year, where he brought the Currie Cup trophy back to Bloemfontein before moving on to the Stormers in 2008 – having also helped Jake White prepare the Boks ahead of their triumphant 2007 World Cup campaign in France.
He enjoyed being at a big union, where money wasn’t much of an issue compared to his Cheetahs days, although he stated that he was viewed as an outsider by some people in the Cape rugby community.
The Stormers ended fifth in the 2008 Super Rugby season, and after a difficult 2009 campaign, he focused more on his director of rugby duties, with Allister Coetzee becoming the coach.
Soon enough, he was serving his country, first as a technical advisor to Peter de Villiers at the 2011 World Cup, and then as the general manager of high performance at SA Rugby in 2012.
That is where he began his “roadmap” strategy of identifying the best young talent in South Africa, as well as making a concerted effort to tackle transformation and provide proper opportunities to more black players.
“Don’t say the stereotypical answer of ‘We’re going to pick on merit, but if we pick on merit, we think tha t… ’ – don’t talk that k*k that everybody talks,” Erasmus said.
“Say ‘Hey, I’m going to find them.’”
And eventually when he got the Bok job in 2018, he walked the walk as he appointed Kolisi as the captain for the three-Test series against England.
“I wasn’t sure who must be captain. Who’s the franchise captains? Siya was at the Stormers. Who was the best flank? Siya. And that is what made it so lekker. If that was a token thing, we would’ve started f**ked up like we always do with transformation,” Erasmus said.
Erasmus had brought Kolisi from the Eastern Cape to the Stormers, and even got him out of a contract dispute at the Cheetahs – and walked the path right through to the 2019 World Cup final, and that relationship continues today.
“I will never be that ar****le again. The relevant one, the correct one … It hurt my family, it hurt my future, it hurt my team. It hurt South Africa, the Springboks at that time. It hurt Laurie Mains, it hurt Conrad Jantjes. I never want to go through that again,” Erasmus said.
“When we got together on the bus (for the Bok World Cup trophy tour), this is massive. In every town and every city and every township where we drove, they were part of the team – it was like they were with you in the bus, man.
“I wanted that to keep going: not the winning of the World Cup, but that feeling of feeling part of change for the better.
“I surely know I changed, from being brought up a certain way. And something changed my life …
“You can’t just win and do a trophy tour, and think everything is fine now. Look at 1995 – f**k-all happened after that.
“We did that in 2007 – f**k-all happened after that. We have to follow it up.”