Michael Trapido
Michael Trapido

An hour with Gavin Varejes

Daily we are confronted with traumatic events that redefine our lives and bring home the sombre realisation that many things are beyond our control: 9/11, tsunamis and the unavoidable encountering of Sharks supporters.

When the genius concerned lists the day the Sharks won the Currie Cup for the first time at Loftus Versfeld among his lifetime highlights, then the penalties for murder become vastly overrated.

It’s bad enough listening to him waffling on about how the Sharks are going to win everything from the Currie Cup to the Super 14 without having to be shown every sporting memorabilia ever manufactured by the Sharks and, far worse, Manchester United. This wenner collects them!

But in his defence Gavin Varejes is also the president and founder of the South African Rugby Legends Association, and the work it is trying to achieve, while not excusing the above, is certainly worthy of our attention.

I popped along to his Sandton office, staggering under the effect of the antihistamines (which seem to work when he mentioned the Sharks but not Man U(re); there you need Valoid and a series of electro-convulsive therapy shocks) to find out what makes him tick.

It’s not pretty :

Traps (T): Before we start, Gav, you have an incredible collection of sporting and other memorabilia on the walls here.

Gavin (G): It is not only my hobby; it’s a passion. It’s the largest collection of its kind in the southern hemisphere. I even have the pen with which Madiba signed the interim Constitution in 1993 and two personalised copies of the first edition of his Long Walk to Freedom.

(T): Yes, but you also have tonnes of stuff from Man U(re) and the Sharks.

(G): Of course, I’m a huge fan.

(T) How do these people feel about working in a building which the health inspectors will condemn as soon as they see all that garbage hanging on the walls? I mean, what is the point of people hiring buildings in Sandton if they’re going to lower the rentals by conducting themselves like this?! Anyhow, tell me about the early years.

(G): I was born in Durban in 1957. My mom was a teacher and my dad a pharmacist. I’ve got two brothers, Kenny and Clive. I went to school in Durban.

(T): Did you play any sport?

(G): Mainly rugby and water polo. From an early age I also did a lot of surf lifesaving, which was not only a sport but became something of a lifestyle. We used to live on the beach, learning about all the different types of crafts, and Sundays there were competitions.

(T): After school?

(G): I went to the army where I majored in water polo and lifesaving. Straight after the army I was back on to the beach until my father told me I’d better go and study something.

(T): What did you do?

(G): I started with teaching but ended up doing a marketing diploma at Durban University. Did I tell you I started karate at age 15?

(T): Why? Because I keep telling you how crap your teams are?

(G): No, because it’s a great stress release. Teaches you self-discipline.

(T): What did you do with your diploma?

(G): I started in Durban with selling photographic equipment, but the grey market killed us. Then, when I was about 24, I moved to Johannesburg and within a week it snowed there.

(T): How do you feel about climate change?

(G): It’s very important to be aware of the factors affecting the envir …

(T): No, I mean since you’ve arrived in Jo’burg we’ve been getting snow and the weather’s been miserable. What else did you do with that diploma?

(G): I met Jo Ann, my wonderful wife, and we’ve had two great kids: Cayli, my daughter, aged 15, and Trent, who is now nine years old.

(T): Where’d you guys meet?

(G): In Hyde Park at a coffee shop. She’s been amazing — we got married in 1990 and she’s turned our house into a very busy home. Friday nights we have about 25 people over, and the kids love it — we have a games room, which is like an arcade.

(T): Business-wise?

(G): I went into the home shopping market then later moved into IT development, air time, property, annuity-based revenue and a variety of other areas, many of which are geared towards the GSM industry.

(T): Tell me about the South African Rugby Legends Association (Sarla).

(G): After winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations, we became aware that if anything will unite people it’s sport. So we decided to launch a body that ties charity and sport together, mindful of the part it has to play in social awareness.

(T): How do you see our country’s future?

(G): What an amazing place we live in. I love South Africa, and even though I’ve had many offers to go live abroad, I never even contemplated leaving. I believe it is vital that we build on what the new democracy has afforded us and just as important share our wealth with other African countries. The region as a whole needs our input, in the interests of all.

(T): And Sarla?

(G): Sarla started out as a type of Harlem Globetrotters, playing benefits and aiding charities. I believe in heroes — not only the guy with the money, [but also] the guys who give of their time, of themselves to make a difference. The response has been incredible.

(T): But this has evolved.

(G): Yes, we became aware of a project called the São Paolo Street Kids Project. Something like 800 000 street kids have been through the Brazilian model. It entails bringing the children into contact with the authorities while learning about sports and life. We are putting our programme together with government bodies and the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

(T): How will it work?

(G): It will see the creation of what we call Legacy Parks, the first of which we believe will be Joubert Park. At these parks kids will be coached, learn about things like Aids awareness and be given a meal. They will see that authority is not only there to enforce rules but also to provide benefits. It will involve legends from all sporting codes, not just rugby.

(T): You do a huge amount of charity work.

(G): This is not about me. The project is looking to unite a privileged school with two or three underprivileged schools whereby books and equipment can be passed down. In other words, to assist these schools in both sporting and academic areas.

(T): How are you funding this?

(G): It’s a combination of players giving of their time, government aid, charities and sponsors like Elan, @tlantic Internet, Southern Suns, Budget, Mitre, McCarthy Toyota and SA Breweries. But everyone can participate — just give of your time.

(T): Who is involved with you on the executive?

(G): People like Rex Tomlinson, Gary Teichman, Keith Andrews and Professor Andy Andrews. We also have former Scottish and Springbok hooker John Allan who is a driving force behing Sarla – provided we can keep him away from French fullbacks during Sarla games!

(T): Do you have a hero?

(G): I have a couple — Madiba is definitely number one, and in business Vodacom’s Alan Knott-Craig. He made “Shake my hand, it’s a deal” mean something.

(T): If you could be anywhere tonight, where would that be?

(G): Home with my family. I spend as much time as I can there.

(T): Hopefully none of them have had hypothermia what with all the snow that seems to follow you. Your favourite drink?

(G): Tequila — the Mexican drink.

(T): Fewer Mexicans have been drinking it since Adrian Gore’s been crashing into them while running up and down the fire escapes in America. Movies?

(G): Shawshank Redemption, and I love Boston Legal. My staff call me Denny Crane.

(T): That’s to your face since they found out you support the Sharks; they’ve found others, you just haven’t been made aware of those yet. Restaurant and food?

(G): Seafood at Harrisons on 12th.

(T): Thank you for taking the time to see me.

(G): My pleasure.

Sarla is a very worthwhile endeavour and part of what we need to support if we are to build on the success of RWC 2007.

As I left the building in dark sunglasses (millions of Man U(re) and Sharks memorabilia to negotiate), I realised that this time the government, business and rugby are serious about reaping the benefit of our successful campaign.

Get your hands dirty — play your part in sport in building the bridges that this country desperately needs: if not in Sarla, whatever small part you can play.

The rewards will astound you.