It’s hard to miss Buyisile Kilifele, in a crowd. Tall is an understatement – he’s huge, standing 2m tall in his socks.
The once burly lock, affectionately known as Ta Buyi, may be long past his playing days, but passion for the game has not wavered one bit.
Sure, he may not move as fast as he once did, but his massive hands still grips the rubber as easily as it did when fetching the ball in mid-air during line-outs or wrapped around his teammates’ waists when scrumming down.
By all accounts, the 61-year-old from Langa, is a rugby man through and through.
Although no longer directly involved with the game, Kilifele is quick to point out that it is comforting to know his friends and former rivals from the erstwhile Sacos-affilated South African Rugby Union (Saru), who had gone to take up influential positions in rugby, have not forgotten him.
Case in point, he says, is Peter Jooste, the former Tygerberg Rugby Union stalwart who now serves on the Western Province Rugby Football Union executive committee and as a national selector.
He speaks highly of Jooste, saying: “What a rugby player he was. In fact, he was my opponent on the field of play. And, hey, he gave me a tough time. He knows rugby very well, that is why I am not surprised he went on to be where he is today,” he said.
Jooste, says Ta Buyi, regularly invites him and other former players from the anti-apartheid era to special events at Newlands.
“He told me that when WP move to Cape Town Stadium, we’re taking you with,” he said.
Like most youngsters, Ta Buyi started out playing soccer while at primary school but later switched to rugby while at Fezeka High in Gugulethu during the 70s, a decade earmarked by student protests.
And, like most of his peers, the then taller-than-average young man also got caught up in the events of the time but managed to keep on playing the game he loves during those troubled times.
“We grew up tough,” he says.
“We had to play hard and fight even harder against an oppressive government,” he said, recalling a time when he was unexpectedly called to lead a march from Gugs to Langa.
“Away from rugby, we were also involved with politics, underground at the time,” he said.
Still an activist at heart, he never backed away from a fight for the cause, even when it was dangerous to do so.
“Maybe it’s because I was the tallest guy but I was always at the front of a march. That made me a target because the authorities thought I was the one leading the march. And, as a result, no one really wanted to be seen walking with me in the streets, fearing they might be arrested just for being with me. And, we did get arrested on a number of occasions,” he said.
“We didn’t stop there and we were one of the first people to enter into the whites-only areas in town. Nothing was going to stop us in our fight for equality.”
Now a pensioner, Kilifele stopped playing after unity talks in 1992 establshed a new rugby order.
It was also around that time that Lagunya RFC was formed, he said.
“On the playing field, we were determined to show that rugby, even cricket, was not just for some people, but for everyone,” he said.
“In the two years that I was captain of the school side, we were almost unstoppable. In fact, we lost only one game in those two years, against PE’s Kwazakhele, in the national final of the Coke Shield.
That was after we were crowned Western Cape champions of the same competition,” he said.
After completing his schooling, Kilifele then joined Mother City RFC, which he described as one of the best sides at the time.
“That was a star-studded team. We had great players like Lefty Malopa, Eddie Mafu, Joe Pondo and the late Joe Schoeman. Our captain was Conference Sesi, one of the best scrum halves of his time,” he said.
“Those guys would impress with their moves to the point that I would stop and watch. With their forward play, they made rugby look easy. NY 49 Stadium was our happy hunting ground. We beat great sides like Tygerberg at that field.”
The side, he said, merged with Busy Bees and Harlequins to form Langa United. They were playing under Saru, which was affiliated to Sacos.
He describes those olden days as days when role models were sportspeople, not gangsters.
“We also wanted to plough back by identifying and nurturing talent at schools but that never took off because some teachers felt that there was no need to bring people from the outside.
“I think they felt threatened, they thought we were going to take their jobs. That’s the problem when money is involved. People look for incentives but, with us, it was not the case, we wanted to give back,” he said.
Looking back at his playing days, the former second rower says there is one moment he’ll never forget. He calls it a little piece of magic.
“There was this youngster Basil Malamba. He got the ball on top of our scoring line. He could have taken the easiest way out by marking it, which means allowing him to stop and restart the game.
“Instead, he looked up and ran the entire length of the field to score a great try. That was a moment of magic.”