In the third instalment of SA Rugby magazine’s series on black rugby legends, GARY BOSHOFF looks back on the career of former Saru lock and captain Salie Fredericks.
Salie ‘Lippe’ Fredericks was born in District Six, Cape Town, and grew up with four brothers and five sisters in a two-roomed house. They were a poor but proud family. His father, Ismail, worked for the local council and was a member of the Hamediehs Rugby Club. Salie didn’t play rugby at primary and high school, but soccer and cricket.
Fredericks started his rugby career as a flyhalf playing in the streets of District Six. It was only later, under the tutelage of Gus Jacobs, a local athletics coach from Hewat College in Athlone, that Fredericks honed his special running skills. He also credits Jacobs for teaching him the importance of fitness, flexibility, breathing and speed in rugby. Fredericks believes these skills and abilities ultimately gave him the edge over his peers and teammates.
I enquire about his nickname, ‘Lippe’. ‘It isn’t because I have thick lips,’ he says with a smile. ‘I don’t, but because my lips would often be cut or swollen after a game, my teammates started calling me “Salie Lippe”. And the name stuck.’
The only time I saw Fredericks before the interview for this article, was in 1988 when Tygerberg played Western Province in the SA Cup final at the Athlone Stadium, Cape Town. I caught a glimpse of him while he was encouraging his players from the sideline (he was part of the WP Union management team).
Since that day I have learned so much more about his accomplishments on the rugby field, which over the years have become part of the folklore of non-racial sport in this country.
I also became aware of his health setbacks. When I called him to arrange our meeting I expected to hear a frail and tired old man on the other end of the line. However, the 73-year-old answered the phone in a friendly, lively manner and immediately agreed to do the interview.
The following week I travelled to Cape Town to the home of this famous rugby legend. A man who, to my embarrassment, I knew very little about.
Fredericks dominated the non-racial rugby scene for 20 years in the 1960s and ’70s. He played his first provincial game for the Western Province Union against the Eastern Province Federation at the Adcock Stadium in Port Elizabeth in 1962. He fondly recalls the great Eric Majola (father of Khaya and Mongezi) playing flyhalf for the EP side in that memorable first encounter.
His subsequent meteoric rise through the South African Coloured Rugby Board (SACRB) ranks resulted in him being selected for the SACRB team for the 1963 ‘Test’ against the South African African Rugby Board (Saarb) at the Adcock Stadium.
Fredericks, a man of few words, expressed himself through his rugby and over a short time managed to build a huge following among the so-called coloured and African communities of the time.
In 1967 he was appointed captain of the Western Province Union, a position he kept until he retired in 1978. ‘I retired on stage,’ he declares, meaning he was never dropped from a rugby team.
He also has the notable achievement of being appointed Saru captain the same year.
Such was his leadership and playing talent that he retained the captaincy for seven years until 1974, a unique achievement in Saru. His WP team were unbeaten from 1968 until 1974, winning the Van Riebeeck Trophy in 1967, the Rhodes Trophy in 1969 and the SA Cup for three consecutive years, from 1971-1973.
South Africa was a deeply divided country during the ’60s and ’70s. These divisions were particularly evident in rugby. One of the popular anecdotes Fredericks likes to recount was when Cuthbert Loriston, president of the South African Rugby Federation (Sarf), invited him to a meeting to discuss an offer to join the ranks of the South African Rugby Board (Sarb), of which Sarf was an affiliate.
‘I never went to that meeting,’ he says emphatically. ‘For me it was about my community, my team and the WP Union. We had to stick together to keep winning; we were like family.’
During one of Fredericks’ many visits to Port Elizabeth (where he had developed an almost cult-like following) he was introduced to Govan Mbeki, one of the Rivonia trialists, who had just been released from Robben Island.
‘Uncle Govan told me about conversations he and his fellow prisoners had about me on Robben Island. He called me his “Silent Warrior”, the man of few words who was a catalyst for unity in rugby during the apartheid years,’ he says proudly.
An international who Fredericks rates highly is Gordon Brown, the great Scottish and British Lions lock who toured South Africa in 1974. From a local perspective, he fondly recalls his rivalry with Temba Ludwaba (Kwaru), who was featured in the last issue of SA Rugby magazine. He also rates Pieter Jooste (Tygerberg), Peter Singape (Kwaru), Archie Mkele (Kwaru) and former teammate Ismail Bohardien (No 8), who played during the golden years of WP rugby (1971-1973).
LIFE AFTER RUGBY
As we talk about his glory days, Fredericks constantly tells me how blessed he has been and how great God is. He reflects on his close relationship with Allah through his spiritual leaders in the Muslim community and how this inspired and carried him throughout his life. His faith and the link to his community formed the bedrock of his physical and mental prowess as a rugby player.
The once great player is battling diabetes (he lost both his legs in 2014 because of the disease) and the after-effects of a massive stroke he suffered two years ago. This left him wheelchair-bound and reliant on his daughter Ilhaam and son Luqman.
Yet the fire that empowered him to become a fierce competitor and the spiritual connection to the Almighty are still evident in the Salie Fredericks of today. When leaving his home, it strikes me that the man I have come to know during the 90-minute interview is so much more than I have read and heard about.
Assalam-o-Alaikum, Silent Warrior.