Joost van der Westhuizen — farewell

Joost van der Westhuizen — farewell

History has a strange way of intertwining every man’s life-story with those of other human individuals; merging the tales of two sworn enemies in a plot that perorates in an amicable resolution, or, even more profoundly, having the same two arch rivals working for a common goal that is in all ways honourable.

We cannot choose our neighbours, and experience has taught, we cannot choose who we meet on the road of life, for what often begins as a separate road for one may one day cross the paths of others they previously thought they would never have to deal with toe to toe or shoulder to shoulder.

Looking at the history of the continent of Africa and the sadness/es contained therein, one would never have thought that those who were once sworn enemies would never on a single day share the same quarters, but we do end having to share the same basic spaces either as colleague or friend; this is the way of the fate of the world: your enemy is your potential friend, and your friend your potential enemy.

We are born, grow to maturity, and in all the years of maturing some will become good wines that the whole world can share over a good meal, others will become vinegar sour to the palates of anyone that comes across them.

Those figures we deem as our heroes often have life-stories that are in many aspects similar to ours, but what separates their tales from the tales of the rest of the congregation is the amount of faith they put into their set goals, the amount of obstacles they had to overcome, and their moments of glory when they ascended the podiums of the world to receive their laurels.
Heroes are part of history, and all of them are born to mothers as we all are.

Joost Heystek van der Westhuizen was born on the 20th of February 1971 and passed away on the 6th of February 2017. He was a South African rugby union player who made 89 appearances in test matches for the national team, scoring 38 tries.

He mostly played as a scrum-half and participated in three Rugby World Cups, most notably in the 1995 tournament which was won by South Africa against the formidable black and white machine; New Zealand.

He served as captain to the national side (Amabokoko/Die Bokke) on ten occasions and was part of the team that won South Africa’s first Tri-Nations title in 1998.
Domestically, he played for the provincial side the Blue Bulls from 1993 to 2003, with whom he won two domestic Currie Cup trophies in 1998 and 2002.
He was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2007 and later into the World Rugby Hall of Fame. In 2011, it was announced that van der Westhuizen had motor neurone disease (the same condition the scientist Stephen Hawkins suffers from).

He eventually became confined to a wheelchair and experienced speech problems, yet still raised awareness of the disease through his charity, the J9 Foundation.
This brief biography is too brief to define the achievements of this giant, and though many may deem his story irrelevant, Joost is a man who was known for finding and penetrating the tiniest gaps in opposition defences, and had willingness to move forward and join the attack, which brought him as an exception in his defensive duty on and off the field.

It is said he played with savage aggression and a fearlessness that aided his team greatly, often producing heroic and result-defining tackles. The pictures of his latter days failed to erase this memory of 1995 Rugby World Cup Final.

Rugby is rough, rugby is not meant for sissies, it is a sport where testosterone flows in torrents and, for the longest time, has maintained the myriad-identity of a game where blood and gluts, brute strength and finesse, violence and camaraderie can all be melded into one brew as the six steel studs tear the constantly manicured grass of the rugby green field, because the bullnecked boys are ‘playing’ a little game of “touch”.

Name it what you will; a savage sport, a gory mess, a rough and tumble disguised as a game: rugby is the definitive when it comes to understanding how the world can make a sport out of the violence born of nature.

That there will be scrums and tackles is guaranteed, that the players have to carry the oval ostrich egg from one try line across the other through a forest of steel studded boots, tonnes of steely muscles, eye gouges, torn ligaments and injured sinews is a reality that has the audience of fanatics sitting in the aisles of the various stadiums, amphitheatres and sports arenas across the world roaring in sheer demented chants of bliss at the spectacle in front of their eyes: is a reality some of us unhinged ones have come to love as entertainment.
One cannot help love rugby, and 1995 Rugby World Cup Final taught us that even Nelson Mandela thought rugby is a beautiful game.

Jonah Lomu was a steamroller, a gigantic menace of flesh that could tear through the defences of the opposing teams as a panga would through the thickest jungle. The man just picked up the oval and ran straight scrum-halves, locks and defences as Gulliver did through ranks of Lilliputians and Blefuscudians.

But, coming to the final of the world, it was Joost who tamed the New Zealand goliath, preventing him from scoring any try, whilst in the same process setting up Joel Stransky’s solo 15 goals that got South Africa their victory.

Joost was the man of the moment for me, so were the 15 others that included the 16th man, Nelson Mandela in his number 6 jersey.
That the one-year old South African nation could celebrate as one in that moment of glory was the result of the efforts of Joost van der Westhuizen and company; and their glory was shared in neighbouring nations as we too began to understand the power of the Springbok’s groen en goud (green and gold) Madiba Magic. The picture of the moment of victory has the revered old man in his green and gold jersey and cap smiling that sunshine smile with Francois Pienaar and team-mates waving at the filled-to-capacity Ellis Park spectators.

That smile was not just meant for the crowd, it was a smile to the whole new nation and the entire world, because for a while; we could all share one moment of glory, and the presence of such figures as Nelson Mandela as the number one fan and Chester Williams being the only black player in the squad proved to all of us that rugby was not just a whites only sport. Sport is non-racial; we only choose which one to play and which one not to play.

We choose who to interact with and who not to meddle with, but the real truth of the world is that far often than less, one is bound to interact with those people they thought they would never share the same basic spaces with.

Joost’s diagnosis in 2011 revealed that he had MND (Motor Neurone Disease) a condition where the nerves of the body disintegrate to the state where paralysis takes over. The body is left defenceless as current medical research has found no cure.
This lack of cure means that sufferers can only wait for the final day, and under these given conditions many would soon give up and wait for the hour when the bell tolls and the grim reaper advances with his crooked scythe.

For Joost, this was an opportunity to spread the word about the disease and try and establish centres where the victims could get proper care; and so he established the J9 Foundation as a valiant attempt to deal with the disease.
He maintained his calm demeanour, and was always smiling through all the years he had to deal with the disease and in his own words said:
“There are two things people take for granted everyday:
time and health. When you lose that. Then you wake up.”

What we do with our time determines the outcomes in our lives, and taking care of our health guarantees that we can deal with the everyday at optimum levels of performance.
The old adage that you never know it is good until the good is gone, runs in tandem with this pragmatic view of the man that served as one of the first binders of a nation torn apart by long decades of racism and apartheid.

Through all the moments of the battle against the debilitating disease, Joost never gave in to self-pity and denial of the state and condition he was in, and he was bold enough to share the inner fears with the makers of Glory Game, a biopic made on his life:
“In the beginning you go through all the emotions and you ask, ‘Why me?’ It’s quite simple, ‘Why not me?’ If I have to go through this to help future generations, why not me?” he says.
His acceptance of his symptoms is equally pragmatic. “One day you can’t move your arm, another day you don’t have speech. Every day you are reborn and you take the day as it comes.”
How many of us would actually stare death in the face on an everyday basis and still find the strength to encourage those helping us deal with our condition?

Too few to count I guess, for many are born, but not many are born with that amount of inner strength to encourage the nurses in our time of pain and hopelessness.
The true mark of the hero is not being fearless, but it is knowing how to deal with the fear and learning how to use it to make the most of the available limited time.
That Joost’s story intertwines with that of Nelson Mandela, the figure who pulled a nelson on the hatred bred and fed by years of separation and exclusion is not an accident: both were heroes that came to teach us that we can vanquish the pain and the hate.

Our makeup as human beings does not allow for hate, we are stronger when we share the pain and the mirth, the failure and the victory, the joy and the pain.
I just could not ignore the piteous figure in the wheelchair watching the recordings of the valiant appearances Joost van der Westhuizen made in the years before his passing this year on February the 6th. It just would not make sense to ignore the hero who had made us all happy those many years ago on the rugby field.

The constant view that runs through my mind is that all of us are at birth granted a platform with which to express ourselves; it is only what we do with that platform in the best years of our lives that determines the impact we can make on the world and its history.

That a thousand names were as heroic or that their owners were more valorous on the varied battlefields of the world is not a sleight of hand, it is history revealing itself through the deeds of women and men it gave birth to.

Who we choose to honour directions our mind to achieve as they did and to surpass it if fate allows it; our current conditions and available resources are enough to help us achieve the best we can be; we just have to believe in doing the right thing at the right time.

It is said Joost withstood the pain of his condition only because he wanted to be there for his children; I believe that he was just playing the David who beat the Goliath in 1995: he wanted all of us to believe that we can beat even the most seemingly insurmountable odds.

And as the pallbearers that were once his team-mates in that year of glory held the rope handles of his pine coffin, I knew that a chapter was being closed, and a new book of heroes was being opened. Uttered was a silent “Mooi loop Bokke!”

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