HAD it not been for cool heads, we would not have seen the best of a girl high jumper at school and club level under the umbrella of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos).
Tania Brown, a girl with a passion for ballet, was first discovered as a talented high jumper when she was 12 years old – the flexibility that she possessed as a young dancer translated into effortless high jump.
She started ballet at only eight years of age, at the Eoan Group in Athlone. A fast learner, she loved her classes and managed to complete more than one grade per year. Soon her mother decided to send her to the University of Cape Town’s Ballet School for more lessons.
Tania sailed through high school without a murmur that she had been doing ballet at UCT, and that she had been practising there while competing as an athlete under Sacos.
She and her single mother were blissfully unaware of all the sport and politics in Sacos.
Sacos did not tolerate sportspersons who used the facilities of the establishment – the establishment otherwise known as the whites and the white apartheid government. The act of using the sports facilities was seen to be collaborating with the whites; it was a taboo as far Sacos was concerned.
Sacos athletes/sportspersons could not be seen to be supporting the establishment as it would have been interpreted by the world that sport and the political situation were normal in South Africa when, in fact, the opposite was true.
You were, however, allowed to study at UCT, provided that you were successful in applying for a permit to study there.
Riots, ballet and athletics
But, what did a 12-year-old girl know about sport and politics? All she wanted to do was play. What did her single mother in Bonteheuwel know? All she knew was that she wanted to give her baby girl the best, as any other normal parent would have done.
Politics was out of their heads, there were no sport and political discussions around the supper table, only the next meal and her education. There were more important and pressing issues than sport, politics and Sacos.
There were the roving gangs, the 1985 riots and the state of emergency (June 1986) at a time when the young Tania had to travel, using public transport to Marian High from Bonteheuwel and to UCT.
Her rise to the top was remarkable as she had only trained twice a week. The rest of the week Tania was busy practising her other love – ballet at UCT.
While there, returning home became dangerous and she was taken in by a couple from Constantia where she was taught without returning, for intermittent periods, to Marian High and Bonteheuwel which had been covered in tear gas and rubber bullets, as was the case of many schools and townships in the coloured and black neighbourhoods in the period between 1985 and 1989, the golden years of Tania’s athletics career.
Call for suspension
You see, students were sick and tired of apartheid and fought for change – the aim being to topple the white regime and be treated as equal citizens in the country of their birth. It came at a price – in many cases, the ultimate price.
Competing for the whites or with the whites did not occur to Tania. She was essentially community-based, but she was not aware of the consequences of her interaction with the whites, but, more importantly, the use of the facilities at UCT.
By the time she joined the Spartans Amateur Athletics Club, based at Vygieskraal Stadium, Cape Town, Tania’s comings and goings spread like wild fire. She was popular, of course, well-liked, attractive and admired – the girl with the smiling eyes and the infectious laughter.
All of her admirable qualities nearly evaporated in one go when the bigwigs at Vygieskraal, also the headquarters of Western Province Amateur Athletics Union, called for her head – suspension and then expulsion from the athletics under Sacos. Wow!
Long story short, Tania was sat down and explained to as to why the situation under Sacos was as it was. Sanity prevailed and she stayed on, treating and entertaining the sport to no end.
Before all of her involvement with the whites and the expulsion issue, Tania wore a Tukkies tracksuit (University of Pretoria). To her and her mother, it was just a tracksuit, it kept her warm – and it was perfect for warm-ups during training.
But to others, the tracksuit was a symbol of white privilege and white supremacy, a symbol as divisive as the Springbok emblem is today (2015).
“I was ignorant and ill-informed,” she said.
Her mother had given her the tracksuit as her mother had worked at Judron, a popular sports goods manufacturer in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nothing more, nothing less.
High jump records
As a high jumper, Tania leapt over the crossbar scissors style before mastering the Dick Fosbury Flop.
She steadily set high jump records at Western Province Senior School Sports Union level and South African Senior Schools Sports Association level. She held the high jump record with the Western Province Amateur Athletics Union as well as the South African Amateur Athletics Board – all of 1,71m while still a teenager.
Tania Brown had become a hit, a talking point.
She was a precocious athlete. “I used to have the weirdest three-step run-up and twiddle before jumping,” Tania recalls. This coming from someone who, as a twelve-year-old girl, jumped under 14 in front of 8 000 screaming-mad spectators at the inter-schools level and 20 000 at the champ of champs at Athlone stadium in 1985, arguably the most turbulent years in apartheid South Africa.
Tania’s talent was too good to miss. Coach Mohammed Sheik of Rylands High, renowned for spotting high jump talent, took Tania under his wing. Under his tutelage, she mastered the Dick Fosbury Flop and the records started to tumble.
Her main competitors were Claudine Fisher of South Peninsula and Nariman Rylands of Spartans. Rylands was the one high jumper who had the talent to jump even higher than 1,71m. In fact, during the 1989/1990 season Rylands beat Brown in the women’s high jump event at a meeting organised by the Grassy Park Amateur Athletics Club.
This rare defeat did not detract from Tania’s brilliant career. In 1989, Tania was the SAAAB Prestige top junior female performer and in 1990 the SAAAB Prestige top senior female performer.
Once in a blue moon
Tania Brown was probably what Shaun Vester was like in the 100m – a generational talent, seen once in a blue moon. We were never to see the likes of her again, jumping with such nonchalant ease.
The only record to elude her was the girls’ open record at WP and SA schools level.
Tania matriculated aged 16 (under 17) and had left school by then, just like another generational athlete Terrence Smith (sprinter) who later qualified as a civil engineer at UCT.
As far as her ballet career was concerned, that stopped when she started full-time employment.
“What I remember most of that era, is having fun and a sense of belonging,” she says.
Tania belonged, all right.
- *Tania Brown is married to Mark Hess. They have two children.