One of the finest rugby players of the apartheid era, Fredericks fought relentlessly for an end to segregation in sport writes Sarah Boomgaard.
Salie Fredericks, one of the greatest players to ever grace South Africa’s rugby pitches, passed away on 6 July 2017 after a hard fought battle with diabetes.
Fredericks was born in 1943 at 33 Lee Street, District Six. He shared a two-bedroom home with his parents and nine siblings and was forcefully relocated to Lavender Hill as a result of the Group Areas Act of 1950. The act barred people of colour from entering designated white areas, which housed the better sports facilities. Despite this, Fredericks flourished into one of the best rugby players South Africa has produced. At the pinnacle of his career, the talented Fredericks could easily have walked into any international rugby squad. However, due to racist Apartheid legislation, he was never afforded the opportunity to represent his country and play for the Springboks.
Fredericks played soccer and cricket in primary and high school and only began playing rugby for a club at the age of fifteen. Although he began his rugby career as a flyhalf, who was able to kick with both feet, he was moved to play as a flanker and later as lock. In this position he played in nine Tests against the African Springboks and the South African Rugby Federation’s Proteas between 1963 and 1974. Fredericks’ rugby record is unmatched by anyone in the South African rugby community. He played over two hundred games for the non-racial Western Province (WP) team, a remarkable accomplishment. Fredericks was appointed captain of the WP team in 1967 and held this title until his retirement eleven years later. In an interview conducted before his passing, Fredericks recounted numerous highlights from his rugby playing days. He was immensely proud of his WP team who had an unbeaten record from 1968 until 1974 and won the Rhodes Trophy in 1969 and the SA Cup for three consecutive years, from 1971 to 1973. To this day, Fredericks’ prowess on field is admired by many. Former Springbok and Stormers rugby player, Luke Watson, cites Fredericks as his childhood hero.
Fredericks was held in the highest esteem and widely respected by many in the rugby fraternity. He was often referred to as the “Muhammad Ali of rugby”. Fredericks had even earned the respect and admiration of President Zuma who paid tribute to him after his passing. President Zuma characterised Fredericks as one of the country’s “best ever rugby players who made an indelible contribution to rugby and fought for non-racialism in sport”. President Zuma further described Fredericks as“ a remarkable player who selflessly chose to make a difference in South Africa’s sporting code, especially in teaching black youngsters.”
Fredericks was not merely a phenomenal rugby player, he was an activist and fought for an end to segregation in sport. Dr. Danie Craven, who is still widely regarded as the father of South African rugby, once stated that “over [his] dead body will a non-White player wear a Springbok jersey.” This blatantly racist statement hurt Fredericks terribly as a result – he carried the hurt and resentment for many years. However, with the end of Apartheid in sight, Fredericks was among a select few of prominent rugby players of colour invited to Craven’s office. Fredericks then asked Craven for an apology and to recount the statement but Craven did not relent. Fredericks was fearless and did not allow himself to be intimidated by the so-called “legend”
While Fredericks’ friends and mentors hailed from a variety of backgrounds, his connection with the Muslim community is undeniable. Fredericks shared a very close relationship with the late Shaykh Shakier Gamieldien of the Al-Azhar masjid in Aspeling Street, District Six. During our interview, Fredericks bashfully recounted how the late Shaykh would kiss his hand upon seeing him. This is perhaps because Fredericks was among the skilled artisans chosen from the congregation to build the Shaykh’s new home when the Shaykh was forcefully removed from District Six and relocated to Surrey Estate. Thereafter, whenever they met the Shaykh would kiss Fredericks’ hand symbolising the respect and gratitude, which he had for Fredericks.
Fredericks however, was far more than a rugby player. He was a man of exceptional character, courage and humility. The enormity of his janazah was a reflection of the great impact he had on the Muslim community. Notwithstanding, the congregation included many individuals of different faiths, ethnicities and social backgrounds. While Fredericks himself was a devout Muslim, he never judged people by their religion, race or financial standing. He was only concerned with the individual’s character and heart.
Fredericks embodied the characteristics that make a good Muslim and a good South African. He was brave, kind, compassionate, humble and selfless. His memory deserves to be cherished and his accomplishments celebrated. Perhaps it is time that Western Province Rugby reconsiders the calibre of people they celebrate and those they choose to honour by dedicating stands in their memory.