Hacjivah Dayimani’s extraordinary story is one of survival, courage and poignant perspective, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
There’s much to be said for the unvarnished interview. The trouble is that in these days of media massaging and press officers, almost everything is spun and manipulated. Players are constantly on-message; cliche city abounds.
And then Hacjivah Dayimani steps up, his big sneakers stomping over convention and carefully-scripted soundbites.
‘I was a thug,’ he says of his early life. ‘I had a thug’s mindset; there are some things I’m not proud of.’
We’ve occasionally been told players’ stories of hardship and strife – think Ashwin Willemse and Siya Kolisi – and Dayimani adds to that dark narrative with a story that is raw and visceral and utterly surreal.
Growing up, he was a hustler and a fixer, doing what he had to for survival. His pals were alcoholics, gangsters, drug addicts. Some ended up in jail; others were killed.
His mum cleaned houses. His dad? Who knew? He walked out when Hacjivah was small.
His was a hand-to-mouth existence. He’d flog oranges and naartjies while traipsing through Cape Town suburbia. Knocking on doors, he’d spin elaborate stories, lying for a buck or two. Anything for a sale.
The young Hacjivah later pumped petrol, in Beaufort West of all places, a halfway stop for dreamers and travellers.
He’d flog raffle tickets, too, but only after photocopying the form, pocketing the extra R50 he might earn to give to his grandmother.
He’d sell sweets and chips for bus money. Anything to scratch out enough money for a meal.
Years later, in boarding school at Jeppe Boys, he became a quasi-entrepreneur. If you wanted a phone, a sim card or a cover, Hacjivah was your go-to guy. The hustle was his.
Hardly the sins of a gang-banger, but an indication of the hard-scrabble world Dayimani inhabited.
His dreams were modest. A decent job. A small car. That would do.
His mum, a part-time sangoma who cleaned houses, was concerned by Hacjivah’s environment in the Cape, with its gangs and violence and constant dark shadow. She packed him off to Cradock long before his teens. His grandmother took charge. They lived in her shack and poverty abounded. Hacjivah got used to sleeping on an empty stomach.
Inevitably, he was soon on the move again. Aged 12, he hitchhiked to Joburg where his father, a member of the Igbo Jewish people of Nigeria, lived.
Their relationship was fractious and his dad made it clear he thought little of his son’s rugby aspirations, which took hold at the local primary school on the southern side of the city.
In Grade 7, he found himself among a group of Danie Theron Primary School boys hanging about the rugby action at Alberton High. His team was three players short.
‘What position you play?’ a coach asked Dayimani.
‘You’re wing,’ said the coach.
Tall and lean, Dayimani wreaked havoc on his way to scoring eight tries.
‘Right,’ said one master, ‘you start at Hoërskool President on Monday.’
It was a turning point in his young life. He had finally found something to pin his dreams on.
His rugby flourished, even while his father was deeply unhappy with him playing on Saturdays, the traditional Sabbath for Jews.
Dayimani was soon enticed to Jeppe, one of Johannesburg’s heavyweight rugby schools found in working class Kensington. It was the perfect environment made easier by the comfort of a full scholarship, in Jake White’s name, no less.
Suddenly, the hardships of his early life and the threat of being swamped in darkness evaporated. Not only had Dayimani found a game he loved, he dared to dream. He told himself that even a modest contract would represent success in his world. When he got really bold, he dared wonder what it would be like to own a Hyundai i20.
His ambitions were humble, but who could blame him? He had no role models. No one he knew had finished school. He didn’t even know anyone with a good job.
What Jeppe did was polish the rough edges and confirm him as a No 8; tall and raw-boned with classical skills.
In Grade 10, another significant milestone occurred: Dayimani was effectively ‘adopted’ by the Smooks, a white, Jewish suburban family from Johannesburg. The one-time self-confessed ‘thug’ says they taught him to change his behaviour and his thinking.
The Smooks instilled the value of self-worth; all the things a stable family usually provides. The family remain pillars in his life; dependable, loving, inspirational.
As he progressed through the grades, Craven Week selection followed, as did a run in the SA Schools team.
The big schoolboy match against England was broadcast on television and one of those who took it in was Hacjivah’s father. His precocious son scored a try. Later, he told Hacjivah how proud he was.
When he died of brain cancer some years ago, father and son had broken bread, but the relationship wasn’t entirely mended.
Before long, the boy who once believed he had no future landed a junior contract with the Lions. Aged 17, he sent his first cheque to his mum and felt good.
He made the senior Lions side in 2018 and prospered, at Currie Cup and Super Rugby level, demonstrating skills as the thinking man’s No 8 in the mould of a Gary Teichmann or Warren Whiteley.
More recently, he was laid up at home recovering from a knee injury suffered last November. It was a tough time. Doubt intruded and he found himself imagining a life without rugby, the inevitable concerns of a young man – he’s 23 – facing an existential crisis. Compounded by the effects of the lockdown, he says he lacked a sense of purpose, not quite sure what to do or how to manage.
‘It was pretty scary,’ he admits.
Happily, one of his sidelines has taken life. In 2019 Dayimani started an online sneaker store with his own label – Hibacci, a riff on the Japanese name for the traditional hibachi ‘fire bowl’ – that has proved a hit with Gen Z and the Instagram crowd.
It’s been a helpful means to understanding a world away from rugby.
The grim effects of lockdown also partly inspired him to write a heartfelt open letter – deeply brave and honest – that was widely circulated last year. It told Dayimani’s story in his own unalloyed words. Despite his struggles the theme that resonated was one of pride, of how he had made something of his life, something from nothing.
‘People judge you by what they see,’ he explained, ‘rather than the depth of where you started from.’
‘People say I haven’t reached my potential. I say you’re looking at it from your perspective. Even sitting on the Lions bench is the greatest thing. Look where I come from …’
It’s a reality that has shaped his thinking, so he doesn’t obsess about owning a Ferrari, or even playing for the Springboks. Luck plays no part in what he does. ‘It’s all fate,’ he says.
He accepts the South African custom of preferring barn-storming No 8s – Duane Vermeulen a case in point – but he’s hardly discouraged. His gifts are in other areas: soft hands, a penchant for space, awareness and fast running.
‘If there are six guys ahead of me in the reckoning, I must make sure I’m No 1,’ he says.
Deep into recovery, Dayimani’s focus is to get back to playing.
‘To be seen, I need to play. I see inspiration all around me. From my family. Even my friends, who showed me I can’t be like a gangster. That could never be my life. I never once thought of giving up. I always felt I was destined. When times were tough, they were very tough. The days I had no food to eat …
‘But times are good. I’ve already reached my dreams.’
Built tough, his future emphatically won’t be defined by his past.
Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen on Dayimani
‘He’s a freakish athlete.’
With these words, Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen provided the essence of Dayimani.
‘In the 10 years I’ve been involved with professional athletes, eight of them in strength and conditioning, Hacjivah is the most powerful, most gifted player I’ve worked with. His strength-to-weight ratio is off the charts; he can do sub-11sec for 100m.
‘Rugby-wise, because of his speed and agility, he’s a big threat in the wider channels. If he finds space at speed, he’s a big threat. Blend his tackle ability with strength and power and he can do a lot of damage.’
Van Rooyen adds that what is most exciting is that there is still much room for growth and understanding in Dayimani’s game, something the player himself acknowledges.
‘He isn’t even close to his potential and has battled with a couple of knee and groin issues. But if we can keep him on the paddock for six or seven months, we’ll see a potential animal.’