By Clement du Plessis
THE Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (an affiliate of the South African Senior Schools Sports Association, under the auspices of the South African Council on Sport) only ever had one convenor who did the job for thirty years.
Cecil Blows has seen it all when it comes to track and field athletics.
Not only was he an eight times senior men’s sprint champion; he was the longest-serving sports convenor, and organiser of the world’s largest gathering of track and field athletes at a single venue in a single season – better known as the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union’s (WPSSSU) inter-schools athletics meetings.
These meetings comprised of 101 high schools in the Cape Peninsula which were divided into sections of about eight schools each per meeting, with the number of pupils ranging from about 800-1000 per school (all principals, pupils, and teaching staff were present). Most schools entered from 100 to 135 athletes each.
Blows had a team of highly efficient and dedicated sports administrators who assisted in making sport available to thousands of high school athletes in the Cape Peninsula.
“The inter-schools athletics meetings attracted athletes from all social backgrounds and gave them the opportunity to compete in an organised event,” he recalls.
After the inter-schools athletics meetings, also known as the sectional meetings, the top qualifying athletes would compete in the WPSSSU Champion of Champions for a place in the Western Province side to compete in the interprovincial athletics meeting, which usually took place on the Easter Saturday. This athletics meeting became known as the SASSSA Champs (South African Senior Schools Sports Association’s athletics meeting).
Birth of a sports union
The genesis of the WPSSSU was in Kimberley in 1954 when a former athlete, sports administrator and academic Harry Hendricks was at the forefront of the formation of an independent senior schools body and the decision had been taken to separate the primary schools from the high schools. (Hendricks was the last serving South African Amateur Athletics Board president which was essentially the senior body of club athletics.)
The Kimberley decision was implemented in 1956. For the next eight years, schools participated against each other at inter-school and inter-union level and in other forms of competition (such as biangular and triangular meetings).
However, there was no strength-versus-strength structure in place yet to determine who would be the top school and which athletes would qualify for inter-provincial athletics meetings at the SASSSA champs.
Between 1956 and 1964, the primary schools were allocated the Green Point Track, simply because of the sheer difference in numbers between the high schools and primary schools.
The high schools used the agricultural grounds of Goodwood, Cape Town.
First inter-house meeting
Alexander Sinton High School’s Dennis Mackay introduced the first inter-house meeting of its kind at the Cape Town school in 1954. (Mackay was a physical training graduate from Wesley Training College.)
The inter-house meeting comprised of groups of boys and girls pupils between the ages of 14 to 18 (and sometimes older), together with the teaching staff. With the help of Alexander Sinton’s first principal Franklin Joshua, the groups (houses) were named after the student residences of Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape, essentially a black university where the late South African President Nelson Mandela studied law before moving to Wits University.
At Alexander Sinton the houses were called Beda (red), Iona (blue), Moffat (green) and Wesley (yellow) – this made up the competition for the inter-house athletics meeting. It was to be the forerunner of the process of eliminations of athletes for bigger and more challenging athletics meetings.
Eliminations were held on different days: sprints on one day, the field events on another, and the long-distance races on the third day (although not all schools made use of three days – some used fewer, others slightly more).
In between, schools had triangular meetings as preparation for the inter-school proper meetings.
Many schools followed this process of sorting out the athletes before the next level of inter-school meetings. But there had been no inter-school meetings in the manner it had been organised from 1964 to 1994 – the year of 1994 being the birth of democracy in South Africa.
Convenor of Athletics
Enter writer and academic Richard Rive, who, at the time, was a school teacher at South Peninsula High School where Attie de Villiers was the principal. Rive, a person of strong character and intellect, and a former athlete himself said to the athletics fraternity (the newly-formed WPSSSU) that “we must have an athletics organiser”.
Rive summarily appointed Cecil Blows to be the organiser which was to become known as the convenor of the athletics. Still a top athlete in 1964, Blows hand-picked his athletics committee.
At the time, in 1964, there were three sections: Sections A, B, and C (the sectional meetings). Gerald Hendricks of Salt River High School (not Harry Hendricks), Cecil Blows and Richard Rive were the first convenors of inter-school athletics; an event that would eventually become the largest assembly of athletes in the world during apartheid.
Harry Hendricks, integral to the Kimberley decision in 1954, was also the athletics correspondent for The Sun newspaper.
On Friday, January 28, 1955, Hendricks wrote in the newspaper about selection issues and the performance of athletes: “Selectors are however not, in addition, meant to be prophets.”
Several exchanges followed between Hendricks, Rive, and sports administrator Norman Stoffberg which were serious and funny at the same time.
“I agree with Mr Hendricks that selectors are not expected to be clairvoyant, but we expect them to be competent,” writes Rive in the February 4, 1955 edition of The Sun.
Stoffberg replies on Friday, February 11, 1955: “Quite evidently the selectors must have been divided into prizes, surprises and consolation prizes.”
Hendricks was a member of the Bellville South Athletics Club (BSA), Stoffberg of Achilles (not Paarl Achilles) and Rive of South Peninsula. Stoffberg’s Achilles Athletics club was a top athletics club and won the Andrewena Cup since 1944 to 1955, except for two seasons (1945-1946 and 1946-1947).
First Champ of Champs
Inter-schools athletics meetings, as described above, were in force for the next 30 years (1964-1994). Previously (before 1964), schools had to draw their names from a hat to determine in which section they belonged. Before 1964, only an A and B Section existed.
The first Champion of Champions meeting was held at the Green Point Track in 1964. The top eight schools, based on the number of points won on the day, would form the A Section the next year, the next eight schools would be in the B-Section and so on.
These athletics meetings functioned on advanced and meticulous planning. Athletics programmes for each sectional meeting were drawn up professionally and handed out on the day of competition. Officials were on time and on duty from track referee to field referee.
The WPSSSU had become a powerful political-orientated organisation where the thinking of the disenfranchised school pupils was conscientised – particularly since 1972 when the newly-built Athlone Stadium was put into use for schools’ athletics.
Many of its leaders, such as Peter Meyer, Phillip Tobias and Gert Bam, addressed the schools on the political situation in South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. The speeches were peppered with words such as “sell outs”, “commodities”, “cosmetic changes”, “discrimination”, “lackeys”, and “nebulous and spurious attempts to level the playing fields”.
Says Blows: “The senior schools, the disenfranchised and oppressed people, opposed a common enemy, fighting discrimination in order to get the same opportunities and fields as the establishment.” (The establishment was the white National Party Government who had legislated and consolidated apartheid between 1948 and 1994.)
Over time, the WPSSSU had become so powerful that it could tell the education department officials that teachers would not apply for leave on school days when these meetings were held. (The Department of Education expected teachers to take leave on these days, as they did not associate athletics meetings with academic time.)
“It was a school day as far as we were concerned,” remembers Blows. “The inter-school meetings were not open to the public. Only the Champion of Champions meetings were open to the public as these were held on a Saturday.”
The athletics meetings during the summer months galvanised the pupils and helped to showcase their talents while also providing solid entertainment during sports isolation, which ended in 1991/92 with an all-white cricket tour to India.
* Blows has been honoured on three occasions for his contribution to schools sports; from the Sports Science Department of Stellenbosch University on 30 August 2014, the Western Province Sports Organisation on 25 November 2011 (Life Time Sports Achiever) and the Western Cape School Sports Awards in 2011 (Lifetime Achiever).
(Cecil Blows was interviewed by Clement du Plessis, October 2015)