Bud Mbelle (Credit: Wits University)
Horatio Isaiah Budlwana (Bud) Mbelle was the first Organising Secretary of the South African Coloured Rugby Board and the brother-in-law of Sol Plaatje. Mbelle was born in Burgersdorp, Cape Colony on 24 June 1870. He grew up in the Herschel district in the Eastern Cape and was educated at the Wesleyan Methodist Primary School and the Healdtown Institution, near Fort Beaufort from 1886 to 1888, where he qualified as a teacher. During his early teaching career at Herschel and Colesberg he continued studying for the Cape Civil Service Examination. In 1892 he became the first African to pass the examination, excelling in languages (Afrikaans, English, Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa and Zulu). In line with his linguistic ability, Mbelle then became a court interpreter, first at the Supreme Court at Grahamstown and from 1894 at Kimberley where he spent more than 20 years.
An able administrator and dedicated community activist, Mbelle became an integral part of the social and political life of Black Kimberley and involved himself in various social upliftment initiatives and organisations such as the South Africans’ Improvement Society (SAIS), the Philharmonic Society of the North-Western Cape together with Sol Plaatje, H.R. Ngcayiya, and Will Thompson[i] and the Kimberley branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Mbelle also became an active campaigner for the establishment of a university college for Africans – an initiative that culminated in the establishment of the University of Fort Hare.[ii] Contemporaries therefore had no hesitation in describing him and Robert Grendon (the first President of the SA Coloured RFB) as the ‘progressive of the progressives’ and men of “ability and flair [that] knew how to play the colonial system astutely”.[iii]
A talented and versatile sportsman, Mbelle played rugby for the Native Rovers RFC and the Eccentrics Cricket Club in Kimberley.[iv] The first-mentioned club was a member of the Griqualand West Colonial Rugby Board, established during 1894 as the home of black rugby players in the face of racial exclusion by its white counterparts, the Griqualand West Rugby Football Union. [A member of this club, Herbert Colbourne Msikinya, was amongst the first black South African rugby players to study at an American university and to play American football.[v]] As a non-racial activist, Mbelle played a central role in the establishment of the SACRFB with its policy of non-discrimination, as a home for all Non-White rugby players.
At the founding meeting of the SA Coloured Rugby Football Board at the Savona Café in Kimberley on 19 August 1897, Mbelle represented Transvaal. It further recorded that on this historic occasion, he seconded the proposal for the formation of the new organisation.
As Secretary, Mbelle on the instruction of the organisation’s executive committee, successfully lobbied Cecil John Rhodes to donate a trophy to the fledgling new rugby body. He further became the key player in the SACRFB’s drive to establish an inter-provincial rugby tournament that would rival the Currie Cup competition of its white counterpart, the South African Rugby Football Board. Having secured a trophy suitable for a national rugby competition, the Rhodes Trophy Tournament over the space of eight decades (1898 – 1980) provided a critical platform for its participants to display prowess and skill to the sporting world. The tournament kicked-off on 20 August 1898 at the Kimberley Grounds, or more precisely, the Corporation Athletic Ground in Beaconsfield, close to what was then known as Green Point Location. It concluded a week later, on 27 August.
[i] Veit Erlmann, “’A feeling of prejudice’. Orpheus M. McAdoo and the Virginia Jubilee singers in South Africa 1890–1898.” Journal of Southern African Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 346.
[ii]E. W. Verwey, and Nelly E. Sonderling. New dictionary of South African biography. Vol. 1. HSRC Press, 1995.
[iii] Grant Christison; “African Jerusalem: the vision of Robert Grendon.” PhD dissertation, University of Kwazulu Natal., 2007.p. 261
[iv] André Odendaal, The story of an African game. New Africa Books, 2003.
[v] André Odendaal, C. E. Merrett, J. Winch, and K. Reddy. Cricket and conquest: the history of South African cricket Retold 1795-1914. (2017), p. 237.