Mr Oregan Hoskins, president of the South African Rugby Union (SARU), on Tuesday paid tribute to former African Springbok, Mr Simo Mzwandile Cyril Mjo, who passed away recently just short of his 78th birthday.
Mr Mjo was an outstanding scrumhalf of his era – and was selected in an all-time African XV for the book The Badge: A century of The Springbok Emblem – as well as a sports administrator as he championed non-racial rugby structures, tournaments and selection for Swallows FC in Mdantsane. He was also arrested and imprisoned for furthering the aims of the banned ANC.
“The South African Rugby Union was greatly saddened to learn of the death of Mr Mjo,” said Mr Hoskins. “He was a link with a golden age of African rugby and represented a noble era of players and administrators who maintained and developed the legacy of African rugby going back to the previous century.
“He is ranked as an African great – and played with many more – and his selfless dedication to the game and his club is an example we would all do well to follow.”
Mjo was born at KwaTsolo Township in East London on 2 July 1935. He attended the Presbyterian Church’s Upper Mission Primary School and developed a love of rugby and loyalty to the African National Congress (ANC) from an early age.
Mjo quickly rose through the ranks of the Welsh High School’s bare-foot junior team, The Rising Stars, where his talent was spotted by Stellenbosch-trained principal, Mr DS Grove.
It was from this background that Simo and half the backline of Border entered the University of Fort Hare, then captained by one of the all time legends of South African Rugby, loose forward Dumile Kondile, now a retired judge.
He appeared in the 1961 test match between the African Springboks and the South African Coloured Rugby Board – a match in which Danie Craven likened Eric Majola to Welsh and British Lions fly-half, Cliff Morgan, and former white Springbok Hansie Brewis.
Majola retired from high level competitive rugby, following Mjo’s arrest, because he felt no there was no other player who could offer him the safety that came from playing with Simo Mjo as his half-back partner.
Mjo scored the only try in the test.
Serving his sentence at Viljoen’s Drift Prison in Kroonstad, Simo started a vocal group named The Lords, which kept his fellow prisoners spirits up while they were fed cold porridge and walked barefoot on bitterly cold Free State mornings to the prison gardens.
On leaving jail, Mjo, like many other activists and ex-political prisoners found that the job market was closed as he sought employment for more than five years.
Facing these challenges, Simo set about organising sports teams and competitions in various codes in the townships around East London.
He started a choir, The East London Harmony Set, which performed compositions of African musical greats such as Tyamzashe, Mfamana, Myathaza and Ngxokolo, while also performing European classics by the likes of Handel, Hyden and Mendelson.
He also became the first black actor to feature in East London’s Guild Theatre, in a drama adapted form John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novel, Of Men and Mice, staged in 1975. He later moved to Port Elizabeth where he worked in the insurance industry and established the Port Elizabeth Classics.
He is survived his wife; one brother and two sisters; seven children, seven grand children and two great grand children.