Meet Vince van der Bijl – cricket icon with a powerful message of hope for SA

Often referenced when sporting buffs debate the greatest to never play Test Cricket, now 75, gentle giant Vince van der Bijl’s life of service continues apace. The ‘white stokvel’ he helped start during Apartheid South Africa’s darkest days has grown into powerful catalyst for social change. Its flagship is in the 2 000 pupil Ukhanyo Primary School in the Masiphumelele township near Kommetjie. This is a story with a message of hope. Van der Bijl spoke to BizNews editor Alec Hogg.

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:08 – Introductions
  • 01:18 – Vince van der Bijl on his cricket days
  • 03:11 – On the Proteas chances in the World cup semi final
  • 08:31 – His Background
  • 13:23 – His sports initiative in Masiphumelele township near Kommetjie and how it came to be
  • 23:26 – What drives him
  • 29:02 – Conclusions

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Edited transcript of the Interview between Alec Hogg and Vince van der Bijl

Alec Hogg: As a youngster, unfortunately, it was the time before we had television in South Africa, and we used to be glued to the radio and listen to the exploits of our local heroes in Natal, as it then was, leading the field, Vince van der Bijl. So it’s such a privilege to be able to be talking with him today, a cricketing legend in South Africa. He’s done huge things within the time that we were in isolation. Had he had the opportunity of playing test cricket. Well, who knows what could have happened then, but Vince has actually been doing other things with his life and investing in the future of South Africa.

Vince, lovely talking with you. I see you’re 75 now. So those days of playing cricket for Natal and then Middlesex, where not many of the younger generation would realise that you went over and played one year of county cricket, I suppose, just to show that you could do it, ended up being number three on the averages there behind Joel Garner and Richard Hadley, who are icons around the world because of what they did in test cricket. Do you feel a bit sad? I’m sure you do, that you didn’t get the opportunity to play during those years, given South Africa’s isolation.

Vince van der Bijl: Alec, thanks for having me first of all. No, I don’t. You know, I was lucky; my dad played for South Africa before World War II before he got injured. And I knew when we were picked, we weren’t gonna go because Qantas had refused to fly us, and we were gonna have to go in Australian Air Force flights. So we knew upfront, and by that stage, we were pretty aware of what was happening in this country. And I say it often, I was lucky enough to play overseas, I was lucky enough to play against the greats, Richard Hadley being one, and there are so many people who never got the opportunity to actually get picked, be seen. So if you go back in history, I say I can’t be. I’m delighted what’s happened with post-isolation, but I think isolation and the ICC coming in with different formats of which I was part, you know, T20 opening up, has fractured the game so much that it’s quite difficult to have some sort of historical reference like the Ashes. You know, that’s all disappeared. Our history started in 1994, really.

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Alec Hogg: The South African team today, the Proteas, they went to the World Cup, which is happening as we have this conversation. I wouldn’t say they’re no hopers, but they certainly have over-performed so far with the semi-finals coming. Can they win it?

Vince van der Bijl: Any side that beats India has gotta be on top of their game, plus, plus. India has got what I regard as a complete team. All-rounders, great fast bowlers, great spinners, batsmen coming out of their ears. So, whether it’s us or anyone else, Australia, New Zealand, doesn’t really matter. Our guys have gotta be on top of their game to beat them in the semis. I think we have over-performed, and I think It’s wonderful the Kolisi effect it’s had on sport in this country, but it almost has tarnished the victories and the great movement this protea side has done and people like Bavuma coming onto criticism, saying that he shouldn’t be playing. He’s got an average of 50; very few people in the world have an average of 50. In the South African context, to have someone like Bavuma – who I know and I respect deeply and I know his background and his family background of how he came through it – I think is fantastic. I think he’s being unfairly criticised. I do think if I could just add something Alec that I see from afar is that there doesn’t seem to be enough communication on the field and I’m not just talking about from Bavuma.

I’m talking about if our guys are bowling badly, normally the leaders of the bowling unit in this case will be Maharaj and Rabada, will be constantly talking to encourage them. I always go back to the Allan Donald, Lance Klusener run-out. And during that over, no one spoke, they didn’t speak to each other. It’s always quite amazing. I think that’s the only thing I can say that I think our batsmen have been fantastic. These batsmen have been developing their art only in the last 12 months, 15 months. People like, a Klaassen and a Markram were always potential players, but you look at them now, they are leaders in their field. And from the bowling point of view, I think Rabada has been outstanding. Maharaj has shown great maturity, de Kock has obviously been having the time of his life. So I did read an article about participatory grief. I don’t know if you saw that. That when we watch, you know, as we have the Springboks play those last three matches, 15 minutes before they end, we give up hope on them. And they come through and they prove us wrong time and time again. I think the protests have proved us wrong time and time again. And yes, we played badly against the Netherlands. Yes, we got smashed by India. But our victories against Australia and England were spectacular.

So I think they have over-performed. And I think us as fans have got to get through this thing about wanting them to be perfect. The difference between soccer, rugby, and cricket is, in soccer and rugby, they play for clubs, and they have those clubs, they have brands, and they play for their country. In cricket, we have lots of formats. And we have people playing all over the show. They’re playing in the West Indies, in Canada. They play in India in the IPL. And you never know what team they’re playing for. So this is why, if I said to you, who does Ngidi play with, I wouldn’t have a clue. Who is de Kock going to play for in the next 12 months? I wouldn’t have a clue. I can’t follow him. Because I’ve always traditionally followed teams. So in soccer, in Masiphumelele, they’re strong on pirates. Everyone talks about Pirates and everyone talks about Manchester United. Those are the teams. They do follow people, but they know who they play for. So when you watched us in Natal, we played for Natal. And before I got onto the scene, you could play for South Africa. So I think this is the difficulty we have as a fan base. I hope they get behind us because our guys have done incredibly well and I pray that we can get through. I think beating India in the semis is a more realistic thing, than beating them in the final. In the final, the pressure will be astronomical. So I pray that they will come through in some way that makes us proud.

Alec Hogg: Well, that’s a very interesting segue. You mentioned Masiphumelele, which is a township in the Western Cape. Just your own background, your family, you’re from the Western Cape, and yet you ended up teaching at Maritzburg College. I know you’ve got lots of fans there. I have many friends who were taught by you and are great admirers of you. But, how did you end up in KZN rather than where you are back now in the Western Cape?

Vince van dr Bijl: I was born here. Our family came out here in 1866. We had our 350th with 13 clans a couple of years back. My dad was an icon. He was the headmaster of Bishop’s Prep. He was a Rhodes Scholar. He had three blues in Oxford. He was in charge of a couple of regiments in the war. He had an MC and bar. He was boxing, cricket, and athletics for Oxford. And he played for South Africa, and his average is 51.1. He only played in one series, and the time was test. I get people now who are much older than me and some are still alive who’ll shake me by the hand and burst into tears because I’m the son of Peter. So when I was young, I was always Peter’s son. I was never introduced as Vincent. And the same thing happened to him with his father. And his father tried to get him out of the Western Cape, and eventually, he was lucky enough to go to Oxford. But when I was gonna go to Varsity, dad said, get out of my territory. And I sat next to a guy called Peter Hudson, and he said, come up to Maritzburg. So I arrived in Maritzburg, I didn’t know a soul, and I had to reconstitute my life. And I had to start from ground zero. It was the best thing I ever did.

I was in Pietermaritzburg, I was myself, and I had to develop friendships, I had to develop connections, I had to develop new ideas of doing things. I went up as quite a good sportsman; you know, I played Western Province schools for three sports but I wasn’t brilliant. And I only developed that really in my second year. I and Clive Rice played in the second team for Maritzburg Varsity. So we had a Natal Varsity team, which was Durban and Maritzburg and then we had these other teams, so Clive and I played in the second team. And we were strong, but that’s how I ended up in Natal. And I was a teacher during my UED and my teaching diploma year at college, and they wanted me to come back. And I loved the school, and that school turned from a rugga-bugger school to a holistic education school that it is today. Very modern, very into the new South Africa. It’s a fantastic school. And I was lucky enough to be part of that under a wonderful head called Keith Olivier, who was an English teacher. Brilliant, the way he changed that school. So that gave us the background of education, sport, life skills, arts, all the other things to produce a holistic individual to become better citizens and better people.

People filled with hope. And so that’s the lesson I learned. I was a fat chubby 15-year-old embarrassed to be my father’s son. I was uncomfortable in my own skin, and suddenly I shot up at the age of 16 and became good at sport. And for the first time in my life, I felt I could achieve. Unlike dad; we were both third-class matriarchs, okay, we weren’t bright. And he was a Rhodes Scholar for heaven’s sake. So, that was interesting for me, that suddenly now I could do things and people regarded me. And also, my older sisters taught me how to dance. Because the opposite sex was frightening for me at that age. And suddenly I could move, and I was able to talk to women, for example. That’s why we introduced hip-hop dance this last year at Masiphumelele because there are a lot of people who don’t want to play sport or chess or sing in the choir or do cadets. They might be overweight; they might be embarrassed. And dance gives them a sort of expression that they didn’t realise they could have. And everyone can dance. You know, if you want to dance, you can dance. So that’s a sort of background. I came from three generations of van der Biljs; my dad’s uncle was picked for South Africa in 1894 but couldn’t go for business reasons because he had to be away for three months. Dad got a cap. I was picked but didn’t get a cap. So we have an unusual history.

Alec Hogg: What a lovely story, but I think more so because of what you’ve shared with us now, your own experiences that you’ve applied in Masiphumelele. Let’s just go back into that now. Where did that whole idea come from that you would be involved in that upliftment in that way?

Vince van der Bijl: I’m a Stokvel member, Alec. I go back to about 1981; we started a White Stokvel. We used to go into Soweto and Gugulethu here and spent a lot of time in Alex. It was the first time that we met groups of people who we were not working with who were employed by us, if you look back in history – and I’ll give you one example – we were going onto our first Stokvel meeting. Andrew Lukhele, who is still chairman of the Gauteng Stokvel Association, took us in. So I’m sitting in the front with him. He’s borrowed a cab from somewhere, and I’m saying, do they know we’re coming in? And he says, no. I said, what’s the reaction? He says, I’ve got no idea. So it’s three o’clock on a Sunday. Stokvel lasts the whole weekend, so they were a bit shocked when we arrived, and it’s a small pondo with a huge tent.

There are about 150 Africans in there, all very happy. And they welcome us with open arms, which shattered me, you know, about 16 white males and females come in and I sit next to Florence, And I realised afterwards, because we chat, Florence is a mother of three, has a grade 12, and I introduce her first conversation ever. Introduced to Alistair Macduff who’s into business and pretty well off also I say, Florence this is Alistair Macduff. And she says, Macduff? And Alistair says yes. She says, ‘who said watch out for that leaf there may be a serpent beneath it’? And he says, I don’t know. She says, well you aren’t very well read that was Macduff in Macbeth. That was the first conversation. Now don’t tell me you aren’t going to be inspired by that. You realise the potential. We have won four Rugby World Cups. Only 6% of the schools, of 25,000 schools in this country have sports after school. Think about that. Can you think if we could unleash people who have a holistic education, not just sports, not just education and not just life skills.

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Alone they don’t mean much. Together, they are so powerful. If you’re social, you might become a drunkard. If you’re good at sports, you become focused on that only. If you’re educated, even today, you can’t get a job if you have a degree. You’ve got a, you know, 60% chance of getting a job and 30% chance of getting a job if you’ve got a grade 12. So it’s the collection of those three that’s crucial, including art, hip hop dance, cadets, anything that brings people who have been isolated for so long, not regarded as individuals, and actually just boxed as a township black African, or colorued. I hate being called a white. I’m a South African. You know, the fact that I’m white is immaterial. The fact that I’m a Christian is immaterial. I could be a Muslim. Doesn’t matter. And so what we’re trying to do in Masi, just to get back to your question, we’re trying to look at individuals.

3,500 kids in the two schools, 1,910 in the primary school, can you imagine? Grades of 250 and the school rocks, it’s brilliant. And the high school we’re moving into now. We want them to know they’re being looked at as individuals, that they can be part of a collective. Now whether that’s a team or the school, whatever it is, that they feel part of the whole and they are not just on their own. 30% of the high school kids in Masi High School do not go home to a room wherever they stay. 30% do not have an adult in that home. Think about that. I had a privileged life, totally, but I had an unhappy teenage period. Can you imagine being a teenager, no adult’s role model except the teachers and sometimes the coaches?

And having to navigate your life where there are gangs, there’s drugs, there’s sexual harassment, there’s murder. And if you come down to a Ukhanyo, Alec, it’ll blow your mind. I cannot tell you how it elevates me and everyone involved. I’ve got so many people involved. There are so many rotaries and NPO’s involved and donors involved and very special people involved. When you go there, you’re uplifted. Do you remember Don McCaskill? Okay, so Don is in Perth. He’s had pretty bad cancer for a while, 20 years. And he connected. And so he helped me raise some money in Perth, and then he came out here. And what he said to me was really interesting. He said, you can send me as many videos as you like, but to experience it is life-changing, to see what the children are. So I came back from the ICC in Dubai. I had double cancer, so I was very lucky to survive. I was teetering for about a couple of months. And I got out of it, and it didn’t change my life. I’m still the same driven, obsessive bloke I was before, unfortunately, not balanced enough.

And I phoned up Brad Bing of Sporting Chance, because I knew him and I love his dad, who passed away quite recently, Fred’s a beautiful man. And I said, listen, I wanna do things. I wanna have a purpose, so I’m happy to coach for you, pro bono, just put me somewhere. And he said, there’s a place in Ukhanyo Primary School, Masiphumelele, just up the road from me, say 4k’s away. They want to start cricket, so I went there. And here was a school just with a netball court and a pretty old netball court. And I sat there waiting for a neighbour, Jonas, to come and join me. I’d been into town just before, so I sort of had a feel for them as much as a whitey can.

I saw this girl about 10 years old, tripping across, singing and humming, going to school. And I thought, here is a kid in a township, can’t wait to get to class. And it took me about 18 months to get the MCC to help me because I was on the World Career Committee. They gave me startup funding of 300,000 Rand every year for three years, and that was sort of startup. And we started something, and it started as a sports program. Then Cool Play came on with their life skills, and then we managed to get facilities built from very generous donors. And the most important part, we got the teachers involved. We have about 12 teachers that teach everything from chess to art to sports, and we have about 10 teachers ourselves, who are mostly sports employees. And the school now has cadets started by people in Ocean View. We have a choir, we have hip hop dance, we have art, we have chess, and we have seven to eight sports. And everyone can participate. So of the 1,910, about 750 are playing in some sort of team. And they’re playing in the branded kit that you and I played in. They play with Ukhanyo on their chests, so they know who they’re playing for.

The teachers invested, the teachers come down to PT and jump over the hoops. So you’ve got these quite old people sometimes, some overweight, jumping over hoops with the kids. The kids love it, because they know the teacher wants the very best for them as individuals. I can’t tell you enough about that school, and now we’re going to the high school and hopefully doing the same within a couple of years. It’s inspirational. I got an email this morning to say, four of our under 11 have been chosen to play in this Western Province Cricket Festival. We’ve got three under 13 girls, soccer players who were picked from Metro South. And we are not intending to produce, you’ve got two very good Western Province rugby players. We’ve just had a barbarians under nine festival where the girls played with the boys. In Ukhanyo, our best tackler is a girl.

I’m just one of tens of thousands of people involved like this, I’m not special. As my wife says to me, why are you actually doing this? I said, I’m doing it 50% for me, give me purpose, and 50% for them. This is not me being some incredible individual, I’m doing it as well for my own purpose. You know, that’s really the story.

Alec Hogg: It sounds a little bit like the starfish. You’ve given us the number. 94% of South African schools don’t have extracurricular activities. And some people would look at that and say, well, why bother? But it’s like those starfish on the beach, the famous story about the guy walks along many starfish, he starts throwing one back in and after little while, someone comes up to him and says, why are you bothering, it’s never going to make a difference? And he said, well, it did for that one. Is that what drives you? I’m sure people watching this conversation are going to say, hang on. Maybe I can get involved. How did that door open for you? And for somebody who also wants a purpose in their life, how would they even start?

Vince van der Bijl: I think we have two sort of mantras. The first one is that there are two drivers we have. One is gender equality. It’s huge. So we started a menstrual pants part of what we do so girls can play sport and not miss out on school as well. So we try to look after the whole. So Gender equality, we think, is about the most important thing. And the second is social cohesion. So the under nine barbarian rugby festival, which was so successful, because of this one thing, yes, the girls played and five schools in the valley are now gonna play rugby next year, which they didn’t play this year. But the most successful, what we got, between the eight schools, we got groups of eight people, one from each school talking to each other.

That got the parents talking to each other. I know of play dates that have emerged from there across schools. So we had coloured schools, we had predominantly black schools, most schools are mixed. We had a Muslim Primrose rugby team coming down. So we had a cross of religions. We have to cross historical divides. Otherwise, we’re gonna sit here like people who write about Bavuma. Because he comes from Langa, how can he captain South Africa? Look at Kolisi’s story. We have to open this country up. So those twomantras.

We think there are only three institutions that can change, be generation changes inside Africa. Only three. Hospitals, churches, and schools. They will be here in 100 years’ time. These foundations and these trusts and these things that we do might not be.

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But the teachers are gonna be there. We have to build capacity within it. So on our board, we’re lucky to have a headmistress of a coloured township school in Westlake. We’ve got a priest who comes from Masiphumelele. We’re looking to have someone from the hospital because the hospitals can come in and help us with teenage pregnancies, help us with HIV education, to try and fill these kids with hope. And that’s the story filled with an idea that the future is possible, that they have a place in this country.

We took 55 kids about six years ago, we’d been going for seven years, to the aquarium. John Tresvon gave us these tickets. 50% of the kids there had never seen Cape Town. 25% of people living in Kommetjie, close to Kommetjie, had never seen the sea. 100% of the three teams we took across to Heart Bay did not know Heart Bay existed.

We have to be part of this is to open them up to lives and that’s when we play against Kirstenhof or Reddam. They go and see across the valley here, over the mountain, the Lente Kirsten as we call it, and go and see what the other part of life is. And meet also as black kids playing rugby.

So I’ll tell you one story. This kid of eight and a half playing for Kirstenhof, talking to a Reddam guy. And the Reddam guy quite honestly says, you know, I don’t like tackling. This beautiful child says, I love tackling. So I said to her, why did you get involved? – and she was beautiful. She had beautifully braided hair. – and I said, why did you get involved? And she said, because I was being bullied. I needed to strengthen myself. Do you get bullied now? No. We’ve got Avayo who joined our very successful under 13 girls soccer team. Why did you join? She was being teased for being too thin. She wasn’t too thin. You wouldn’t find a thin person in Masiphumelele because they look after each other. One of the things that’s really great about a township in my view, and these stories, there’s just hundreds of them. I could go on for 48 hours, but these are stories about people you get to know and you get to appreciate the strength, the resilience of them.

A friend of mine, Paul Harris, who was ex-FNB, he was lucky enough to see the World Cup final and the semis. And he wrote to me and he said, the Springboks are an epitome of this country because we have such resilience. Sometimes we get over the line very clumsily and in the last minute, but we get there. This is why I love living in this country. It’s such a beautiful thing. That’s why I like living here. I could have left the country, Paul could have, so many people could have, but there’s something about this country and its people which are just beautiful.

Alec Hogg: It’s all about hope, peddlers of hope is what the politicians try to be, but sometimes the stories of hope come from experience, real life experience.

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