By Basil Gosman

When I was invited by Irma Klue, to attend the meeting of Western Cape Racing Pigeon Initiative, hosted by Prof Christo De Coning and Celestine Donough, to give a motivational talk – I was at first very reluctant. My first impulse was to decline but after considering the importance of the event and the implications for pigeon fanciers in the Western Cape; with some trepidation, I accepted the invitation. The reasons for my reluctance will become abundantly clear as this article unfolds.

I attended the meeting on the Saturday, gave my ‘motivational’ talk and returned home. On the Sunday, I received an email from Christo De Coning asking if I could write an article giving my impressions on what transpired the previous day. I thought hard and long before I replied. If I have to confine my thoughts only to that one day – it is like giving the reader the last page of an article or book. It would be like watching the credits at the end of a film without having seen the movie. I had to start at the beginning but where was the beginning? Allow me to take you back some 30 years to an event that happened in Belgium that would cause an upheaval in the Western Cape. Little did I know at the time that I would set in motion a series of events that would have far reaching repercussions for pigeon racing.

It is an important part of our history that needs to be recorded if only to remind ourselves of what could have been. If we had the courage 30 years ago and the will to advance pigeon racing in the Western Cape, our lives could have been so different. This is a personal account of what happened. It not hearsay but the true story of what transpired. By writing this story, I can only hope that those who read it will never, ever, allow history to repeat itself again. It will also give the reader an insight as to why I attended the Western Cape Racing Pigeon Initiative with a feeling of Déjà vu hanging over me.

One of my great friends was the late Herman Sanders of Gistel, Belgium. Whenever I could not travel to Belgium myself, Herman was the one who selected the pigeons I wished to import. He was a quiet spoken man who knew where to obtain the best pigeons and very often from fanciers the world knew nothing about. It was during the 1980’s; on one of my many trips to Belgium that he took me to the loft of the late Andre Dereere. I knew nothing of this fancier but Herman insisted that we visit his old friend because he knew I was not keen on Red or Mealy pigeons and according to him, Andre had the best red pigeons in Belgium. They were the old Van der Espt strain. It was one of those cold, wet and miserable days when I wished I was back home and not suffering the lousy European weather. I was not really interested in the pigeons in the loft, the conversation between Herman and Andre because I was freezing to death. That all changed when I saw this Mealy cock standing in his box. While the other birds were going about their business – he was staring at me all of the time. I approached his box and tapped my fingers right at his feet – he would not move – I gently pushed him with my index finger and still he did not budge. This unusual behaviour prompted me to gently take him in my hands and that was the moment this story began.

That Mealy cock had the most amazing feather quality I had ever come across. It was like taking a handful of down feathers in my hands so soft and smooth he was. Herman saw the expression on my face and without me saying anything he tried to buy the pigeon for me. Andre was not keen on selling the bird as it was his best Barcelona pigeon. Two years in a row it won in the first 100 National and high up in the International from the Catalonian race point. Eventually Andre relented and he surprised us by gifting me a Red hen as a mate for the cock. It was a very expensive afternoon. When the birds were released from quarantine, one of my friends, the late Mr. Ismail of Kensington, fell in love with the Red Pair and wanted desperately to buy them. He gave me no peace until I finally relented and sold the pair to him; even though I never bred a baby off them for myself.

The year after the Red Pair arrived in Cape Town, Stellenbosch Farmers Winery sponsored a pigeon race to be flown from Kimberley. The race was open to every single fancier regardless of race, religion or whatever. It was to be known as – “The Bols Brandy Classic”. The birds would be liberated later on the Saturday morning thereby preventing the pigeons from reaching the country lofts by night fall. The forced ‘night-out’ gave the longer flying fanciers a fair chance against the country lofts. I did not send an entry but my friend Mr. Ismail sent a direct yearling daughter of the Mealy cock and the Red hen. I planned to go down to his loft and wait with him for the birds to arrive but I got delayed. When I arrived, I found him sitting on his old bench and asked what he thought the ETA was and he replied – “I timed the Mealy hen half an hour ago” – I would not believe it and went to the loft to look at her. She showed no signs of having flown a difficult 500 miles. Mr. Ismail won the race with ease and I was particularly delighted because I imported the winner’s parents.

My delight was however short lived because soon after Mr. Ismail was declared the winner – the mudslinging began. Remember this was in the 1980’s when Apartheid was alive and well and pigeon racing in the Western Cape was split right down the middle. The problem was that the result of the race was deemed to be a foregone conclusion. It was taken for granted that one of the famous white fanciers would win the race. When an old ‘unknown’ Moslem man won ‘The Bols Brandy Classic’ it was a bitter pill for some of the white fanciers to swallow. With their dignity in ruins, the insinuations about the validity of the result soon surfaced. The bigots amongst the coloured fanciers were no better. They in turn seized upon the opportunity to rub salt into the wounds of the white fanciers. They unfairly scoffed at and belittled them. The behavior by fanciers from both communities was disgraceful; all they did was to create a divide between the white and coloured Unions that has existed to this very day.

For me, it all came to a head the night of the prize giving. Together with Mr. Ismail and another friend, we went to the SFW complex in Stellenbosch for the event. I will never forget what happened that night. It was held in a very large room and even though there were enough strong drinks to warm the coldest heart – the atmosphere was icy and unfriendly. We stood in one corner of the room while everyone else gathered in another. Not a single white fancier came over to talk to us. I felt isolated and unwelcomed but worse was to come. When the spokesman for SFW made his presentation he said something that sealed the fate of ‘The Bols Brandy Classic’. He said and I quote – “SFW is pleased that a fancier from the disadvantaged community won the first ‘Bols Brandy Classic’. He dropped a political bombshell that stunned and silenced everyone in the room. It took a brave man to make such a statement in the 1980’s. When he handed my old friend his prize money and trophy, the applause was muted and polite. Only one fancier came over to shake his hand. That night I witnessed a conduct unbecoming sportsmen and realized just how wide the gulf between white and coloured fanciers were.

The political fallout and mudslinging after the race did not go unnoticed by SFW and I think they must have sensed the ‘atmosphere’ the night of the prize giving. They withdrew their sponsorship for any future pigeon race. The ‘Bols Brandy Classic’ was never flown again. Today, that pigeon race is still spoken about by some of us older fanciers. It is remembered for all the wrong reasons. No one recalls the name of the winner and it is only fitting that I write his name into the history books as the winner of the only true ‘Classic’ ever raced in the Western Cape – the late Mr. Ismail aka “Boeta Balla” of Kensington.

During the ensuing years, our sportsmen and women, tired of their worldwide isolation, forced the government into relaxing the laws outlawing the mixing of the races on the sports field. Slowly sport became ‘normalized’ yet pigeon racing in the Western Cape remained divided. The various Federations, as well as the FBHU, raced in total isolation of each other. This absurd Cape culture of “Separatism” is even forced upon our pigeons. We will not release our pigeons together even when we are at the same liberation site. The fear that one organization will beat the other, overrides common sense. It is the old ‘Bols Brandy Classic’ ghost that still haunts the Western Cape. There is no excuse that can justify this ludicrous situation – but why? Why is it that in the 21st century with Apartheid dead and buried – we still refuse to talk to each other? What are the reasons for this impasse? Allow me to give you the reasons as I know it and in the process we must face the truth no matter how much it hurts. Unless we deal with the truths head-on, there can be no reconciliation. The time has come for those who are in a perpetual state of denial to realize that the present state of pigeon racing in the Western Cape is in serious need of an overhaul.

This year will be the 50th anniversary of the day I first began racing in the old CPHU. I have served as chairman of that Federation and in the NSHU. I am also a past secretary of the FBHU. At present I am a member of the Kraaifontein Racing Union. So really, as they say, I have been there and done that. Nowadays I don’t attend any pigeon meetings and don’t get involved with pigeon politics. I prefer my privacy and the seclusion of my garden. I have grown tired of the self-same debates and arguments I first heard 50 years ago. Nothing has changed. And those three words sums it up perfectly – nothing has changed.

When I look back, there is something missing or rather – there is someone missing. I cannot find a visionary and a leader of men – a pigeon messiah if you will. There is not one single person that comes to mind. The lack of leadership is why pigeon racing in the Western Cape has remained in the doldrums. It is the reason why there has been no ‘coming together’ of the various Unions. On the contrary, it is deemed as sacrilegious to even ‘talk’ to another pigeon organization. I recall attending a meeting under the Wynberg Bridge, some years ago, where the ‘coming together’ of the Cape Unions were discussed. When I tried to raise the subject in one of our meetings, I was chastised and criticized for attending that meeting, even though I went as an individual and not as a representative of any organization. It was then that I realized that officialdom was raging a personal vendetta against each other. It was not about pigeon racing at all and pigeon fanciers were caught in the middle of a feud. That was the last time I attended a meeting. Disheartened and disillusioned, I simply gave up trying to make my voice heard.

When we look at the Western Cape pigeon racing scene, it becomes abundantly clear that the culture of ‘Separatism’ is not driven by the will and want of the fanciers at large. It was and still is, propagated by individuals, who from their elected posts, created the present pigeon societies of “US AND THEM”. They flatly refused any contact with other pigeon organizations and because of their persuasive abilities, the concept of US and THEM became ingrained in the mind-sets of fanciers who knew no better. The electorate was not doing the will of the people but thrusting its own agenda and will upon the people. They were acting in self-interest and not in the interest of the sport in the Western Cape. Sometimes one person’s open dislike of another had a knock-on effect as others took sides without any justification. There was and still is, a total disconnect between the electorate and the masses. While the rest of the pigeon world forged ahead, we in the Western Cape were stuck in our revolving doors and there seemed to be no way out. Officialdom is suspended in time and they cannot pull themselves free from their old concepts and outdated dogma. Nothing stays the same and everything changes but the ‘changes’ that we have today did not come about through contact between the Unions. No – it was achieved by the fanciers themselves.

It is hard to say when the exodus started and the dismantling of ‘Separatism’ began. Pigeon fanciers realized that there was such a thing as freedom of association and did the unthinkable. They crossed and erased the boundaries of race and colour, and joined the NRHU and the WPHU. To their credit, the latter two Unions opened their doors and said – “Welcome” to the coloured fanciers who sought membership. Soon the opposite took place – fanciers from the NRHU and the WPHU amongst others, became members of the FBHU. We must pay tribute to the fanciers, who began the movement and broke down the barriers that imprisoned them for so long. Pigeon racing in the Western Cape at long last became multiracial and it happened without fuss or fan fair. The leaders of the movement did not come from officialdom; it was initiated by the pigeon fanciers themselves. They were the visionaries and the leaders – they changed history. I tip my hat to them – well done!

When I entered the hall to attend the meeting organized by Christo De Coning and Celeste Donough, I came prepared for another disappointment. With the exception of one or two, most of the Unions across the Western Cape were present. This in its self was quite an event because up to then, it has never happened before. It was the very first time in history that all the Unions sat together in one room to discuss the future of pigeon racing in the Western Cape. The atmosphere was relaxed and pleasant but I was still sceptical and waited for the negativity to begin. As each speaker rose to address the meeting, I was taken by the positive messages they had and the optimistic body language of the listeners. Everyone came with one purpose in mind – to break down the barriers that have kept us apart for so long. To me, it was something I thought I would never see in my lifetime. It was amazing and uplifting to listen to the words of those who were supposed to be the ‘enemy’. The misconceptions and the myths that other Unions were the ‘enemy’ simply melted away. What the masses were led to believe was a fallacy. The decades of spoon-feeding erroneous beliefs to the fanciers out there, by those with hidden agendas, finally came to an end. Here before me was the truth
– the real truth, that fanciers are tired of the impasse and that they were crying out for change. I listened as Mr. Piet Klue of the NRHU spoke of his association with coloured fanciers around the country and it was quite revealing. Then he talked about the ‘Bols Brandy Classic’. He remembered, like I did, the fallout after the race and the chances we missed to make a difference. Here he was, like I was – perhaps now we can do the right thing – perhaps now we can correct the failures of the past that still haunt us.

Whenever I am asked to speak to fanciers in other countries, I never have a prepared speech. I try to gauge the mood and feel of those present and then say it like it is. This time it was no different and perhaps the time had come to say it like it was. My generation and the present one have failed to listen to the voices of the people. We have done very little to better the lives of the very people who elected us to serve. By and large the electorate serve themselves and their own agendas. Some have not done a single thing to lay the Foundation to build a better future for their members. It is sad that today I cannot point to a single brick and say with pride – my generation laid this Foundation for the generations still to come.

History will judge us harshly. History will recall us as the generations that failed. This was my message to that meeting and it is my message to everyone who reads this. How do we wish to be remembered? How much longer can we disregard the want and the voices of the people? How much longer must this disconnect between the electorate and the masses continue? It is inconceivable to me, that the WE and THEY concept has any future. The gathering of fanciers at the Western Cape Initiative proved beyond all doubt that the concept of ‘Separatism’ is dead. Now is the time to ensure that we, the fanciers of the Western Cape, shrug off past failed history and move together to lay the Foundation for our future generations. Do not let us remain on the wrong side of history, let it judge us kindly. Let us be remembered as the people who crossed the divide and built the bridges.

The Initiative must be supported by all of us as it is the first step to greater things. There will be difficult times ahead as there are those who would want to see it fail. There are individuals who will regard the Initiative as a threat to their ability to be in control of pigeon racing. The need to remain in control and power are the driving forces behind the agendas of many people and organizations. The power is in the hands of the pigeon fanciers and the time has come for the masses to take back the control that is rightfully theirs. The days of silencing the voices that question – the days of banning articles that speak the truth are over. Freedom of expression, speech and association will always triumph over those who wish to suppress them. History is littered with the demise of individuals, governments and organizations that undermined and suppressed the will of the people. And in the Western Cape a brand new sun is about to be born and the darkness that has held us all captive is beginning to wane. There is no turning back. It would be an unspeakable crime against the pigeon fanciers of the Cape if we allow others to derail the “Initiative” – do not permit it to happen.

I have seen many things come to pass in our country that I thought I would never see in my lifetime. Yet, there is one more thing that every single fancier I have spoken to is crying out for. The return of the “Western Cape Classic” and the reliving of a pigeon race that still hangs like a dark cloud over us. It could be the last chance for old folks like me to rectify the terrible mistakes of the past – an opportunity for us all to become one. There are many people who feel like I do – it is the pigeon race we all want. Surely, there are capable people amongst you who can get this off the ground. Let us have one annual pigeon race wherein every single fancier living in the Western Cape can partake in. It will be our rebirth as a pigeon racing community. It shall be our “Coming Together” – our chance to finally lie to rest our mistakes, all of our misgivings and the ghosts that still bedevil us. It is not to see who the better fanciers are – it is not really about a pigeon race – it is about us. It is about us reaching out to each other across the divide that has separated us for decades. What say you pigeon fanciers of the Western Cape – let us lay the first cornerstone of our new Foundation our New Beginning? I challenge all of those at the helm of pigeon racing in the Western Cape to step up to the plate and to be counted. The time has come to tear down our own Berlin Wall and unite our pigeon nation that is divided and fragmented. For one time each year let us rejoice in each other’s company and celebrate the one single thing that binds us together – the racing pigeon. Let history recall us as the generation who created the Western Cape Racing Pigeon Confederation.