Cecil Afrika is currently South Africa’s top points scorer on the Sevens World Series circuit, and third highest try scorer with 156 tries. “It is not about personal achievements. It is important that we follow the processes in order to reach our end goal as a team.”
On 21 May 2017, the Blitzboks was officially crowned as the 2016/17 HSBC World Sevens Series Champions. “It is an honour to be part of the number one team in the world.” Afrika believes that the Blitzboks’ success is due to their team culture. The boys are a tight brotherhood who place a high value on the principles of family, loyalty, integrity, respect and honesty. “It is about doing the right thing when no one is watching. You first develop the person and then the player. A better person is a better player.”
There is always a bit of jealousy when I hear of all the exciting places that the Blitzboks travel to, however, Cecil quickly reminded me that they are there to work. “We don’t travel in luxury and I, personally don’t do much sightseeing. The tournaments are hard, and the training is intense. It is best to rest and recover on off days.” Nonetheless, he holds a special liking to each city. The atmosphere at Hong Kong is electrifying and his favourite pitch to play on is in London. Dubai is top of the food list second only to Cape Town. When possible, the team tries to visit the best coffee shops in the city they reside in. Unfortunately, Paris left a bad taste in his mouth. “Daai koffie is te sterk vir my.”
The highlight of his career thus far was to represent his country at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio and to bring back the bronze medal. “It is difficult to put the experience in words. You have to be there yourself. All the world’s top athletes are under one roof. Usain Bolt, Rafael Nadal, Michael Phelps… they were all just walking around in the village. Ek het gevoel soos n klein kind, en oopmond gestaan en staar na die mense.”
Afrika grew up in Missionvale, Port Elizabeth (PE), where he use to play rugby in the street with his friends. He and Dabean Draghoender, affectionately known as Dabba, still reminisce about those days. Those were also the days when he learned to make decisions for himself and not just follow a group of friends when they were being mischievous. He stood strong on his personal principles. “Ek het ook n paar stout vrinne gehad in PE, paar van hulle tronk in en tronk uit. Oor die jare het ek bande gebreek met sommiges as gevolg van die besluite wat hulle gemaak het, maar die res sal altyd my vriende bly alhoewel ons mekaar min sien.”
Cecil attended Missionvale Primary and represented Eastern Province u/12. He then went to Hillside High until grade 9. His childhood years wasn’t always easy. “Sometimes I went to bed without eating.” Cecil moved to Free State to continue high school at Hentie Cilliers in Virginia. Dabba received a bursary to play for Virginia Sports Academy and helped to open the door for Afrika to follow.
“Leaving my mother’s house at the age of 16 was a big step for me. When the opportunity came, I told myself, ‘Cecil, you need to make it work. There are no guarantees to any opportunity.” The move was not without challenges. As a young boy, he missed his mother a lot. “Soms moet mens maar vasbyt en lus lyk.” He then explained how at times he would come from school, receive four slices of buttered bread to eat, with a glass of milk. He would then leave for rugby practice. Supper was at 5 pm, but around 6h30 pm he would be hungry again.
Afrika represented Griffons at the 2005 & 2006 Craven Week – a prestigious school boy rugby tournament. His stellar performance at the 2006 tournament led to his selection in the National Schools Team, as well as the Emerging SA Sevens squad. Afrika showed his class and was named player of that Sevens tournament. Consequently, he was promoted to the Griffons first division Currie Cup team. The following year, 2007, he again played for the Emerging SA Sevens team, and in 2008 he was included in the SA u/20 team.
A defining moment in his career happened in an impetuous manner. December 2008, while in the bus, on his way home to PE from Welkom. Cecil received a phone call, asking him to participate in a social Sevens tournament in PE. He got off the bus, changed his clothes, took a taxi, arrived at the tournament, and played for the Vipers. Afrika once again impressed everyone with his impeccable skill and was named player of the tournament. Afterwards, Paul Treu, then Blitzbok coach, called him aside and asked him to attend the Springbok Sevens training camp in Stellenbosch. It was the Saturday afternoon and the training camp started the Monday morning. Cecil went back home greeted his mother, packed his bag and got onto the next bus to Stellenbosch to train with the team for a week.
I met Cecil the following year, 2009. His good friend Dabean Draghoender (Tuks u/21 head coach) played for Maties together with Cameron Peverett (assistant operations manager for Varsity Cup). We use to have regular weekend braais (good old campus days). Cecil came to a few of these braais. He told me about his dream to pursue a career in rugby. His chances of being selected for the next tournament seemed to be very good. A week later, just as I wanted to wish him well on his first tournament, he told me that he broke his nose and is no longer eligible to play. He was out for six weeks and there were only two tournaments left for that season. That was the first of many other setbacks. Africa, officially made his debut for the Springbok Sevens in Dubai, at the start of the 2009/10 season.
In 2011 he broke his jaw during a match (SA vs Wales in George) but still continued to play until the end of the game. Moreover, 2011 will be remembered for his IRB International Sevens Player of the Year award. At the top of his career, during the Hong Kong tournament in 2012, he encountered his biggest disappointment and almost a career ender. Afrika injured his knee and had a meniscus tear. He was out for about seven months. Shortly after his return, he again tore his meniscus. The specialist told him that he would only be able to play rugby for at least another year. “I stayed positive and kept to the rehabilitation plan. The dream of going to the Olympics was still beating in my heart.”
Fighting through injuries was not the biggest battle Afrika had to face. “Throughout the journey, I was scared to fail my family. They never put any pressure on me but I knew that rugby was the only way to give them a better life, so I worked hard and grabbed every opportunity that came my way.”
His dad passed away in 2009, just before his first Springbok Sevens game. Cecil is named after his dad, however, he was determined to leave a different legacy. As a six-year-old, he decided to never consume alcohol, after witnessing the devastation it caused his family. His dad used to frequently be intoxicated which led to abuse and neglect of family responsibilities. For some or other reason his dad never lifted a finger towards him as the only son and youngest sibling. He learned from his dad’s mistakes. Until now, he has not consumed any alcohol. “Sometimes you need to go against the stream. If your why is big enough then you will get through the storm.”
Cecil’s mother on the other hand is a quiet reserved person and enjoys being in the comfort of her own house, so much so, that she has only seen Cecil play for the national team when they played in PE. She sacrificed a lot for him. “I will never be able to repay her. The person I am today is because of her.”
From a young age, Cecil Afrika was determined to work hard and be a man of principle. “I chose to walk a different path. It was challenging, to say the least. At the end, it is what makes the journey so enjoyable.”
Apart from the injuries, and the fear of not being able to excel beyond his circumstances, just like the great King David…
“Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again–my Saviour and my God” (Psalm 43:5 NLT)
…Cecil had to continuously encourage himself as he was haunted by self-doubt in his own abilities. “It is a continuous challenge. So many people believe in you but then you struggle to believe in yourself, this was particularly difficult coming back from my knee injury.”
There is lots to learn from Cecil’s story. His message for the youth echoed that of Cornal Hendricks’, “If you have a dream, protect it. Do not let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve it.” Similarly, Katlego Maboe shared, “Work hard, be disciplined, and stay focussed.” Cecil, however, added another fundamental aspect to take note of, “Success if not guaranteed. Focus on being a principled person.” Those principles are applicable on and off the field and far beyond professional sport. “If you do not make it as a professional sportsperson, you can still take the principles with you; family, loyalty, integrity, respect and honesty.
Thanks for fighting the ‘good fight’, Cecil, and for inspiring our youth to dream big, and make good life decisions. You and the rest of the Blitzboks make up proud, whether you are winning or not.