Book review: Papwa - Golf's Lost Legend by Maxine Case

  • 1

Papwa_golfs_lost_legendPapwa: Golf's Lost Legend

Maxine Case
Kwela Books
ISBN: 9780795707117

This book is by the South African novelist Maxine Case, whose debut novel All we have left unsaid (Kwela, 2006) won the 2007 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book (Africa). She was the joint winner of the Herman Charles Bosman Prize of 2007. She furthered her writing career from November 2009 to February 2010, as a student on the International Writing Program of the City of Asylum, Pittsburgh / University of Iowa. Her short story “Homing pigeons” which appeared in African Compass: New Writing from Southern Africa, edited by JM Coetzee, was her first published work. It was followed by studies in creative writing at the New School in New York City, from which she obtained a master’s degree. The online magazine Sampsonia Way published “Homing pigeons” in both English and Japanese; it is a nostalgic story of the chasm left by apartheid in the human experience for South Africans who were not white.

The political undertones in Papwa - Golf's Lost Legend are strong and the central theme is the same theme as that of “Homing pigeons”, of fiction and history explaining race absolutism and the sad reality of how its restrictive laws prohibited millions of South Africans from experiencing their potential. While Jessica Crispin suggests that to write a great memoir “you must have travelled to the underground or the heavens and come back with fire or golden apples or at least a little wisdom”, Case’s characters are still trying their best, mostly against all odds, to do what they can, tied down by the harsh constitutional restrictions on them. Papwa twice won the Natal Open, as well as the Dutch Open three times, and Mr Petersen achieved his dream to visit London. But these experiences almost pale into insignificance as the county’s laws took their toll: Papwa was banned from participating in golf tournaments in South Africa, and his passport was withdrawn, and Mr Petersen lived in a community that suffered from the Group Areas Act.

Case’s Papwa is the story of Sewsunker “Papwa” Segolum, the South African child golf-prodigy of Indian descent, who was discriminated against during apartheid because of the colour of his skin. He did not have a long life: born in 1930; died in 1978. He was the first golfer of colour to win a provincial open in South Africa, and became a symbol of the sports boycott movement as he was not permitted to enter certain premises because of the Separate Amenities Act and other “petty apartheid” legislation.

The story starts off explaining the boy’s incredible eye for the ball, like his father who was a soccer player and soccer lover. But Papwa the boy could not be restrained from striking hole-in-ones! Golf, not soccer, was to be his game. The story starts off in the 1930s the aftermath of the Great Depression, from which South Africa did not escape. It was a time of economic chaos as the strong pound in a protected economy caused further woes, not assisted by terrible droughts. However, Papwa’s dad, Pa, kept his job despite the economic upheaval, probably because the wages he was receiving as a grass-cutter for the Durban Corporation were so incredibly low. He had three boys to raise: Mohan, Papwa and Harilal. The dad would go fishing with Papwa to escape the claustrophobia of the limited space that their house provided. Papwa loved this opportunity to escape as he could ask his father important questions as together they fished off the north pier of Durban.

It was here, fishing one day, that Papwa became acquainted with the story of Ramnath Boodhan Bambata, a coloured person from Durban who had participated in the British Open at Muirfield. Papwa there and then declared that one day he would surpass Bambata in greatness in the game of golf.

Great pearls of wisdom were passed Papwa’s way by a wise father who exhorted his boy to great heights. “Don’t take the easy shots and you’ll go far.” Yet the obstacles were real – Papwa would not qualify to play in the competitions of his choice because of the country’s colour bar. No one needed to remind Papwa’s father of how the family had become impoverished – the taxes imposed by the British ruling administration in Natal had been so severe that Papwa’s father had lost his property through having to pay so much. While indentured labour was anything but sweet it nevertheless left them with choices to earn their wages from the sweat of their brow to keep hunger pangs at bay. But Papwa’s father’s father at least had had the good sense to steer his boy away from the perils of working on the sugar cane plantations, rats, snakes, the sun. And now it was Pa’s turn to guide his son, Papwa, into greatness. Papwa, never a soccer fundi, nor a cricketer, was interested only in striking a rounded object with a golf-like stick, and he did this all day. But questions arose: How would Papwa make it on to a golf course – after all, his was the wrong skin colour? Would it be possible for him to achieve this in the iniquitous political South African racial system?

Even the wealthy Hindu lawyer MK Gandhi had experienced the harshness of the race laws. Indians in South Africa were termed “alien”, so, what kind of future was Papwa expected to have, his father thought. But he had to show others his boy could swing a club. He had to get him on to the course. At the time the anti-Indian laws of the ’30 and ‘40s were being promulgated.

The death of Papwa’s father came early and Papwa was left only with the memories of a wise man. Ironicallym soon after Pa’s death, Papwa was invited to become a caddie. Soon his limited English vocabulary would be extended to include words like “par” and “birdie”. His well-earned tickey (2,5 cents) from caddying he handed to his mother, his late father no longer being there to be the breadwinner.

Papwa had something to work toward in the future – caddies were allowed to play on Monday mornings as long as they evacuated the greens in time, and there were caddie competitions. Barely knowing the names of the clubs – a wood, an iron, a putter –  and barefooted (as he used to be on the beach), and his grip unorthodox, he struck a ball from a bunker and it ran on to the green and into the hole – probably a fluke, thought the onlookers.

The enthusiasm for playing, however, was not affected by the restrictions of playing only on Mondays. It was soon clear that Papwa was a prodigy on the course. At 11 he was winning competitions, a true genius at the game. He wished his father was there to see. But like his father he needed to get a proper job as one day he, too, would have a family. He wondered, and it plagued him: What would he do? Eventually he found work as a thread-cutter in a garment factory in Prince Edward Street in Durban. But three years later once again he was earning money caddying, and his golfing prowess was good enough for him to win the highest competitions in the non-white golfing world.

Case’s narrative keeps the tension of the story. She weaves the politics into the story of Papwa, for example the effect on society at the time of the 1949 Indian and African riots, which was when Papwa got married. Marred by the memory of being chased by African hordes his bride, Suminthra, was not unaware of the socio-political landscape. She had needed a groom, and Papwa was it, one who might not have been financially secure but nevertheless was prepared to do his best for the family. Suminthra looked like a princess in her pink sari threaded with silver. The marriage scene in all its splendour is covered in chapter 17. It makes for good movie-making, Bollywood style. Papwa was smart in his patent-leather Crocket & Jones.



The following chapter describes the “seven steps” considered the most important in a Hindu wedding. The couple took up residence in a house in the politically active Seven Tanks, nothing more than a shack. Case creates vignettes, such as descriptions of Hindu traditions; the bride is not expected to perform housework …

Romilla was born to them, and the newly elected National Party’s brutal race laws were reinforced.

Papwa continued to be successful at golf, winning titles in the 1950s, and the tabloids reported on his successes. Caddying was the family’s bread and butter, and it was vital to keep a steady income flowing in, and a growing family increased with the birth of Beepraj.

The year 1956 saw the removal of coloureds from the voting roll; it was the year after the writing up of the Freedom Charter, followed by the Treason Trial. JG Strijdom, followed by HF Verwoerd, saw the NP enshrine its policy of race absolutism. Not even the close relationship with the influential Graham Wulff would see Papwa participating and competing in white tournaments yet. The times were reminiscent of the Ghetto Act which reduced Indians to menial labour. Now there were added to this the Separate Amenities Act, the Group Areas Act, and so many more heinous laws that took away opportunities for blacks. Maybe the thought of Bambata playing in the British Open brought on the idea that Papwa should venture abroad to play there. There he would meet Gary Player, South Africa’s best known of all golfers, but at huge expense, as he had to leave behind his mother, wife and children.

He went on to gain much success, winning the Dutch Open in 1959, 1960 and 1964. Back home Verwoerdian ideology excluded blacks in every sector of society, not least sport. While in Europe Papwa was playing alongside the greats such as Bobby Locke, playing with them in tournaments in Britain, France and Germany, and with fans from all over following his career, including whites from South Africa, the race laws in South Africa were being tightened up even more. He was earning a reasonable living from advertising money, as well as from wins in tournaments. He was now a member of the British PGA.

Then he decided to return home, and there he met with further success, winning the Natal Midlands Non-European Championship and succeeding Basil D’Oliviera as the Golden City Post’s sportsman of the year. But he might have been seen in the way that the Nazi Government saw Jesse Owens, a successful athlete who took the honours in four events, winning gold medals in them all, at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. This is not what the white hegemony wanted to see, neither at the time in Germany, nor in the NP racist-led government in South Africa. His country’s political landscape was not a pretty one for blacks. Especially not after Harold Macmillan’s warning about change to come in Africa (1960) followed by the events at Sharpeville (1960). Except for Papwa, it seemed that things were looking up, as later, in the ‘60s he was the first non-white player to play in the South African Open. The contrasts are graphically sketched in the Case novel.

At this time, South Africa’s racial profile abroad had been severely tarnished. A sequence of demonstrations in Australia and New Zealand had ensued, and the issue around cricketer Basil D’Oliviera, playing cricket for the Middleton Cricket Club, formerly denied the opportunity to play without restriction in the county of his birth, gained great publicity. It was a time of severe pressure on the National Party government. The White Football Association was suspended from FIFA in 1961. Now playing on golf courses reserved for whites, Papwa’s magnificent game escalated and gained white support – not the kind of thing the apartheid government enjoyed. And his success at the game was a fine way to generate income. It was Papwa’s work – after all, he was a professional golfer. Case provides the statistics: who Papwa played, where, when, what the score was, all a sign of meticulous archival research. Also explained is why certain elements have been omitted and certain characters left out and their faces changed, for privacy.

The year 1962 was a disappointing one as the tide started turning against Papwa as far as participation in tournaments in South Africa were concerned. Limiting his chances to play restricted the family’s income. Not even the support from the top ranks in the golfing world could persuade the authorities to allow Papwa to enter national tournaments, yet his performance in the non-European tournaments was riveting.

And then the breakthrough came: he played in the 1963 Natal Open, convincingly winning the event and beaming with pride to receive the trophy and cheque. But he had to receive the trophy in the rain because he did not have a permit from the Group Areas Board as a black man to play in a white man’s tournament and be allowed inside the premises – hence the headlines in the local newspaper: “The Glory and the Shame”. This is the story of South Africans such as Papwa forced to be second-class citizens in their country of birth.

And playing abroad was no longer as successful, and the Papwa Trust Fund was drying up. Remarkably, however, Papwa’s success on the South African circuit continued, taking the Natal Open in 1965, ahead of Gary Player, the second time he won this prestigious tournament. It is sheer irony that but for apartheid South Africa could have had two persons of the likes of Gary Player. And then later in the same year he came within a few strokes behind Retief Waltman of winning the South African Open. Then followed the severest of all blows, a banning on him in 1966 – irony: the year of Verwoerd’s assassination – from playing in all white local tournaments. Having his passport withdrawn essentially took away his earning a living. With his soul amputated he began declining. The politics of sport entered the South African sporting arena more forcibly and on a much larger scale than ever before, nomenclature-dominated: multiracial versus multinational. Case makes these clear distinctions; she has done the research!

So while it might have been OK for blacks to play on sport turfs in the open or stand in the rain receiving trophies, no way would they be allowed by the NP government to socialise alongside whites or have a beer together at the bar after the game. 

Sadly, Papwa was not yet 50 when he died in 1978 from a heart attack.

Case’s story carefully examines a life that was lived “in triumph and in loss”. It should be read alongside the 2005 biography written by Christopher Nicholson and published by Wits University Press: Papwa Sewgolum: From Pariah to Legend; and there is a documentary film about his life: Papwa: The Lost Dream of a South African Golfing Legend. In addition there is a memorial plaque in honour of Sewgolum that was erected at the Durban Country Club in 2005.

But ultimately no memorial, no biography, no written account or account of any other nature will be able to reflect the ignominy, hurt and shame that the crippling racial laws inflicted on the emotions of the majority of South Africans restricted from participating in the broadest possible opportunities – such as to play golf when they wanted to, loved it and were good at it. Case has at least achieved giving one a glimpse of the reality of their triumph and their loss. The story of Papwa is a glowing example.

  • 1


  • Avatar
    rajend mesthrie

    Great book; well written. I'd really like to talk to Maxine Case about the research and writing of the work ...

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.