Gwijo Squad, the new sound of South African sport

A group of friends celebrating an iconic moment – the first match of South Africa’s first black Springbok rugby captain – gave birth to a sound that’s shaken up the sporting landscape.

It is said that freedom wasn’t free. And that, when democracy was negotiated, the last vestiges ceded into the hands of white minority control were the land and rugby.

Rugby was at the heart of the former rulers’ chests – almost literally so, when you consider the constant wrangling over the existence of the Springbok badge and its position on the World Cup jersey. The sport gave meaning to so many, within the segregated confines and among those marginalised.

However, time has brought a new generation and a breath of fresh air into the sport. They call themselves the Gwijo Squad and as far as disruptions go, they are the noisy new neighbours chanting in the west stand.

You might have seen them on some obtrusive viral video, perhaps sent unsolicited to your neighbourhood watch WhatsApp group. They sing songs of jubilation, elation and devastation. To the uninitiated ear, they sound like “struggle songs” but they are, in fact, the chants that reverberate through Xhosa initiation ceremonies, weddings and, of course, rugby matches in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces.

You might have even asked yourself, “Who are these people, really?” Perhaps you might question what they want at old rugby coliseums such as Loftus Versfeld, Ellis Park and Newlands.

More than a concert of predominantly black African, Xhosa-speaking rugby fanatics, the Gwijo Squad is made up of individuals determined to create a movement that could end in the true unification of a sport that was used as a powerful tool to suppress black people.

1 June 2019: The Gwijo Squad is made up of young sports fans who bring the tradition of igwijo to the stands to cheer on their teams.

A royal touch

Each member of the squad carries into the songs they sing their own personal struggles, rich history and enough passion to fuel a jet engine. They cry, “Bam’bulele uNomathemba … hiyo ha!” They’ve killed Nomathemba – a wail for a lost loved one.

Take Xhanti Madolo, or Inkosi Ngubesilo as he is known in the Tshatshu Royal Council. Madolo is a descendent of the once mighty House of Tshatshu that occupied the old Western Thembuland where Queenstown, Lady Frere, Cathcart and Cofimvaba can be found in the Eastern Cape today.

The British Empire’s Cape Colony governors Benjamin D’Urban, Harry Smith and George Cathcart stripped the Tshatshu Kingdom, under King Maphasa’s rule, of this land in 1852. AmaTshatshu as a kingdom and a clan were decimated and driven south and north.

Without identity, much less land, amaTshatshu found homage inside some homes of the amaTshawe or whichever clan gave them favour.

“After King Maphasa was killed in 1852, Sir George Cathcart sent out a proclamation that said ‘from henceforth you will cease to use the name (ka) Maphasa’,” says Madolo.

“You could not say you were ‘of Maphasa’, your king or monarchy. We were obliterated and we were scattered all over. After Chief Gungubele [Maphasa’s son] was apprehended for trying to get the land back from the whites, my father’s grandfather left with his mother, who was mam’ Tshawe [clan name], to go to the old Ciskei area.

“They became amaTshawe and assimilated into Tshawe rituals and traditions. Generations later, my father [General Lulama Madolo] was curious about his origins because the bigger community knew that we weren’t amaTshawe.

“My grandfather died in 1984 and things took a rather spiritual turn from there because he would visit my dad in his dreams, explaining to him that he must go find himself. Only at the back of those curious dreams, my father went from Bhisho to the old Transkei, to a rural area called kwaTshatshu to find more information. And it all unfolded from there.”

Becoming a man in more ways than one

Madolo’s search to discover his ancestry didn’t stop at hearing stories from his father. Something piqued his interest when, as an 18-year-old going into traditional initiation, his father instructed that he be initiated the Tshatshu way. From that day, he became a man in more ways than one and when his father died, he made himself a promise to continue the legacy of self-discovery.

“My dad passed away in 2013 without having solved the mystery and he didn’t have the tools I have, such as the internet, to continue the journey. Who am I to drop the baton?” asks Madolo.

He went one step further and became part of the Tshatshu Royal Council that has submitted a land expropriation claim with the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, which is now the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform. It is one of South Africa’s biggest land claims to date.

With the weight of this rich history – and a committed, lifelong fight for self-discovery and reclaiming the land of his forefathers – Madolo erupts at rugby stadiums into full fearless voice. The spirit of forebears Tshatshu, Tubhane, Mawuse, Maphasa and Gungubele drive him to go where his ilk were once forbidden from entering.

1 June 2019: The Gwijo Squad started as a group of rugby fans from the Eastern Cape who took the spirit of igwijo with them to Gauteng, initially to support first black Springbok captain Siya Kolisi in his inaugural assignment against England at Ellis Park in June 2018.

Igwijo and the trouble it caused

In many ways, Madolo has always been the guy at the forefront of a wave of change. In high school, he was the rugby cheerleader and courted trouble at post-1994 Dale College in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape for his penchant for igwijo.

“We sang the school songs with pride and vigour, but we mixed things up with igwijo the year I took over as cheerleader [in 2000],” he recalls.

“We needed to take the cheering to another level, because our team was on another level and the culture was changing. We started bringing in the more popular traditional songs: “Ntombi emnhlotshazana … Yinton’ le uyenzayo, ayilunganga (Fair-skinned girl, what you’re doing is not right)”. And we readapted struggle songs, replacing names like Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela with the first team captain.

“The boys took to it, but the teachers on the other hand had other opinions. They banned igwijo. I don’t know how many times I have been called into the headmaster’s [James Haupt] office because of igwijo.

“Then Grey High School [from Port Elizabeth] threatened not to play against Dale if amagwijo would be sung at rugby matches. They said they were ‘savage songs’ or something like that. But it was too big a thing, too big to contain. They couldn’t fight it and it grew into something that is now the norm in the passages at the school.”

The birth of Gwijo Squad

A group of rugby fans who took the spirit of igwijo with them to Gauteng and other parts of the country decided to get together, initially as a group of buoyant followers to support the first black Springbok captain – Siya Kolisi – for his first assignment against England at Ellis Park in June last year.

The decision was made over pints and pizza: buy a wad of tickets and let igwijo reign throughout the titanic battle. It was a day that for many of them – Madolo, Chulumanco and Mwezi Macingwane, Naledi Mdyesha, Sanani Mangisa, Sijadu Mzozoyana, Qhayiya Linda, Phila Bitterhout and others – was etched into memory.

“Coming from KHS [Kingsridge High School for Girls], when your brother school is Dale, you make friends with the lads, especially when you’re playing first team netball and they are playing first team rugby,” says Mdyesha.

“It was normal for us growing up to go to a netball game or rugby games and sing amagwijo. I never thought it was something that would catch so much attention at a later stage in my life. You move in one circle. I’ve known Xhanti for a long time, for instance. It so happened that we moved to Johannesburg and Xhosa people like to gravitate towards each other.

“That was the root of the Gwijo Squad. We were always going out to watch rugby together as mates, or over a braai, and the night would never end without igwijo breaking out.

“We would be out in public places, like at [restaurant] Cappello, and by the time everyone needs to go home igwijo comes out. It was just a part of who we were and everywhere we went it was, ‘Oh, here go those Xhosa people breaking into amagwijo’.

“The game at Ellis Park, Siya’s first game as Bok captain, introduced us as the Gwijo Squad. Prior to that, the Ubumbo [Rugby] Club guys, whom we have a decent relationship with, had started singing for the Stormers players after Super Rugby games. But that game ignited a fire in us.”

The shadows of rugby royalty

Mdyesha, tall and possessing all of her grandfather’s passion, was born for the netball arena. She made the University of Johannesburg first netball team as a junior first-year undergrad and might have gone on to higher honours, but her legal studies took precedence.

She grew up in a sports-mad family. How mad? Her grandfather, Sandile, would draw a faux tennis court on the streets of King William’s Town just so that he and his family could play the game. They weren’t allowed to join any recreational clubs, tennis clubs or Rotary clubs during the dark days, but that didn’t prevent him from instilling a sporting culture in the family.

Related article:

From this family branch came one of the best high-school flyhalfs the province had ever seen. Monwabisi Mdyesha, her uncle, was the most prodigious product from Graeme College in Makhanda (then Grahamstown) since the 1995 World Cup-winning Springbok Hennie le Roux.

“As a kid, I saw pictures of him all over the house,” she says.

“I would hear that my uncle was good at rugby, but I never actually got to see him play. There’s a crazy number of people who recognise my surname just based on Monwabisi’s talent, and that tells me how great he was at the sport.”

A new, unifying sound

It used to be that the sound synonymous with rugby stadiums resembled Loslappie by Kurt Darren or Die Blou Bul by Steve Hofmeyr. Stadium DJs knew the galleries to which they were playing and crowds were generally not accommodating of black people in the stands. Heck, if you were black and watching rugby at any of the Test stadiums, you had better have learnt Hier Kom die Bokke or find the nearest highway.

That was until the Gwijo Squad infiltrated rugby and cricket grounds, making themselves impossible to ignore.

Mangisa, the 100-cap darling of South African hockey, recalls how the racial tension she witnessed when she went to Loftus in the mid-2000s soured the live rugby experience for her.

For a decade, she didn’t go near a rugby stadium. Now she is part of those who’ve made it their mission to create a safe yet boisterous zone in the stands for those South Africans who might have felt unwelcome before at Loftus or Ellis Park.

“When I lived in Tshwane for a long time, Loftus was not a place I frequented because I didn’t fit the profile of the kind of person you’d find there,” she says.

“I experienced an intimidating atmosphere, I don’t know if it’s changed over the years. You felt like you didn’t belong. But going with the Gwijo Squad made it different, we could enjoy the game together.

“For me, it was the essence of finding igwijo in a space where you wouldn’t predominantly find it, and the comfort of going into that space, a rugby stadium, with like-minded people.

“We wanted to consume rugby and enjoy it in a space where we could sing and vocalise our support and have fun. That was the basis of it.”

With the birth of the Gwijo Squad, rugby has gotten a new lease on life. Though some, during this World Cup year, might pore over the transformation scorecards or play the quotas blame game before the national team heads to Japan, the Springboks will head east with a new spirit egging them on.

“Imagine singing igwijo straight after the haka,” says Mangisa.

“It would be a different vibe. You’ve seen the videos coming out of the Springbok camp as well, singing amagwijo. The guys are getting comfortable, too, to sing igwijo. You have guys like Beast [Mtawarira], [Sbu] Nkosi and [Sikhumbuzo] Notshe singing along. Could the Springboks have done that in their changing room five years ago?

“Music is such a powerful thing that you don’t have to know the language to sing along to a song, and that’s the beauty of it.”

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.