Morgan Muvhango has no interest in being a token selection. So when he was named to play in the South African national bowls squad before his skills warranted it, he asked the selectors to drop him.
It may have looked good for a federation that on the surface is dominated by older, white faces, but he just wasn’t ready. Muvhango had only started playing the game three years earlier and was still coming to grips with its complexities and nuances.
Now, with a distinguished international career behind him, he can look back on his journey. It is one that wasn’t always smooth and welcoming, but being a pioneer is never easy.
“If I remember correctly, it was 2007. They asked me to the camp, the national camp, and I didn’t like it because I think it was like a transformation thing. It wasn’t like I was good. I wasn’t good and I wasn’t happy for them to call me,” says Muvhango.
“I wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t good enough to compete with the Protea boys, and for two years they were doing that. From there I said to them: ‘I am not good enough. I don’t want to be here because of my colour. I want to be good, I want to compete. I want to be like the best, to be like these guys.’ So then they dropped me for the next three years.”
But then Muvhango made the breakthrough he had been after, claiming the national men’s singles title in 2014. He didn’t know it at the time but he was the first black player to do so. Another barrier broken.
“When I won the SA singles in Cape Town, then I was like, I’m good now, I am playing good bowls. I was like a professional.”
He admits the win came as a bit of a surprise. Fellow player Louis Fourie had urged him to compete and another, Richard Miller, sponsored his flight to Cape Town. “In those days I didn’t have anything. So I just said to myself, okay, cool, let me go and try. I’ve never been in Cape Town before.
“I was just enjoying my sport. I wasn’t there saying I am going to win the singles now. I just went there to enjoy it, to see, to enjoy going for this sport. That week, things just swung my way. That’s when I realised, if you don’t practise, you don’t get anything.”
Falling in love with bowls
While Muvhango felt on top of the world, winning a national title in bowls was not something he originally set out to do. Having grown up in Limpopo, football was his sport of choice as a youngster, and the only contact he had with the more sedate sport was after moving to Johannesburg and working as a greenskeeper at the Florida Bowling Club.
“In those days, I didn’t even know that young people could play the game. I thought maybe it’s only for old people, because while working there all the time I only saw these old people playing. I didn’t even try and, to be honest, I wasn’t even interested to play the game until my boss introduced me to it.
“Theuns Fraser was a Springbok in those days and he asked me to practise with him all the time. He invited me to come down to the club to practise and that’s where I eventually started. From then, I just loved it, practising with him, sometimes also practising alone.”
Soon Muvhango was competing, first socially and then more seriously after moving from the Florida club to the Discovery Bowling Club in Roodepoort when the former closed. He missed out on representing South Africa at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 as the squad had already been selected prior to the national championships, but he did don Protea colours in various other competitions.
“It was amazing because that was something I was looking for, to represent my country, to be right there with the top boys, because I was enjoying the sport,” he explains. “When I got the call that I was selected for my first one – I think we went to Namibia to play a quadrangular – I was like, this is something. I couldn’t wait for the day to arrive, to have that place, to wear those colours. I was so happy.”
Racism on the greens
In 2018, he was part of Team South Africa at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in Queensland, Australia. While he relished the opportunity to represent his country and loved the experience as a whole, on the greens he wasn’t having a particularly happy time.
“The way they treated me, I wasn’t happy. I have to be honest, I don’t like to hide things. I didn’t enjoy bowls at the Commonwealth Games. The women were all right, but the men, we were not a team, not a team to be able to win a medal there.
“I don’t know why, but I just felt while I was there that maybe I shouldn’t be there. It was my first Commonwealth Games, but these guys who have been playing many Commonwealth Games never welcomed me. I was very lonely there. But I just had to be a man, to be strong and take it easy.”
Muvhango remembers several incidents of discrimination. When given the wrong-sized woods, the balls used in bowls, he complained to management but was told to just get used to them while another player on the team had his woods replaced. “They didn’t allow me to change. They said it’s not the balls, it’s me.” He was also chastised for wearing sunglasses between ends, despite other team members doing the same.
These incidents and the many snide comments he has endured on the greens over the years are what he says have prevented more black players from trying out the sport he has grown to love.
“I have been playing now for 16, 17 years, and I can tell you the way some of the white guys are treating us on the green, it’s not good at all. Maybe it’s just me, sometimes I accept whatever they say like they’re not serious, they’re joking.
“With bowls you have to enjoy yourself, but some of them don’t want to lose. They’re so angry. I don’t see more black people playing and from my side, I think it’s because of the racism thing. I think it’s a financial problem as well, because bowls is an expensive sport. It’s expensive because of all the clothes and when you win, you don’t win anything. This sport hasn’t got any money.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are some white people with a good heart. I met a lot of them in bowls. Maybe that’s why I succeeded. As you play, you realise there are some good okes here, too.
“There are blacks playing, but most of them are greenskeepers. I’ve got my young brother Wilson, he’s playing, too. We’re always playing together. I’m hoping to see lots of black okes playing this game. I’ve even been encouraging my kids, too.”
As for his own career, at the age of 41 Muvhango is by no means old for the sport, but he reckons it might be time to call it a day.
“At the moment I am slowing down. I want to concentrate on working. With this [Covid-19] lockdown, things have changed. It has not been good for us, the greenskeepers, so I don’t think I will carry on because of time. I’m thinking of slowing down a little bit, let the youngsters have a run as well.”
Nothing is decided just yet, though. Given the right team environment and encouragement, Muvhango might be lured into the mix for a hopefully more positive, redeeming Commonwealth Games experience in 2022.