ZIMBABWEAN sports and education are all far poorer following the passing on Boxing Day of Mike Whiley, a steadfast and dedicated servant to his country throughout his entire life.
In sporting terms, Mike Whiley was a lot of things at the peak of his health: in rugby he was for many decades Zimbabwe’s finest referee by a distance, a much-adored godfather of rugby refereeing in the country, enthusiastic junior coach and one-time executive committee member of the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU).
As a cricket man, Whiley – who died in Harare on Monday at the age of 84 – was a stalwart of development and junior cricket within and outside the structures of the national association.
A short seven-minute Australian-produced documentary from 1995 featuring a then 12-year-old prodigy from Harare’s black township of Highfield, Stuart Matsikenyeri, and mentor Whiley, bears full testimony to what the great man loved doing and lived for – coaching and imparting knowledge to all Zimbabweans regardless of their background.
The documentary, which still appears on You Tube, contains opening remarks from the iconic Australia spin wizard Shane Warne, Matsikenyeri (later to play eight Tests and 113 ODIs for Zimbabwe) getting tips from the former Aussie batsman David Boon in the Harare Sports Club nets and a visibly proud Whiley showering the little boy with praise in an interview with the reporter Adam Shand.
Also an educationist who served in different capacities with enormous distinction for 46 years, Whiley was headmaster of Ellis Robins Boys High and Plumtree School when both schools enjoyed their best years in history.
Known fondly by his nickname, Spike, I presume due to the tall and gangly features that stayed with him until old age, Whiley will always be remembered as a larger-than-life character.
In his schoolmaster days, it’s said he could charge like a bull when occasions called for it, yet still managing to draw from pupils not fear – but respect.
“When I got to Plumtree in `94, I was shocked by the prevailing culture,” says former national rugby player and a current ZRU vice-president Tapiwa Mangezi.
“It was hard as a new boy. Spike had left the year before, but his influence still existed through the senior boys I found there.
“I learnt that Spike encouraged an environment that that put students through trials. The system forced you to give your best. Excuses were not tolerated. Excellence was the norm.”Advertisement
A man of upright moral character who was remarkably blind to race for someone raised in racially-segregated Rhodesia, Whiley is perhaps best summed up by RMD Mapungwana, his deputy head at Ellis Robins in the early 80s.
Keen to know the history of my senior school upon arriving at Ellis Robins in 1996, I’d gleaned as much literature as I could and came across an old school magazine of 1983-84 in which Mapungwana paid glowing tribute to his boss, who was departing to head Plumtree in Matabeleland.
He wrote: “A headmaster with Mr. Whiley’s administrative experience and expertise in dealing with school and human problems will be very difficult, if not impossible, to find. As a personal tribute to this great man in the name M.B.E Whiley I must admit, as he too I assure would readily agree, that our first encounter in his office on that memorable morning of January 14th 1982, cast doubt in my mind, and I believe, in his mind also, as to whether the two of us were going to work harmoniously together; as it turned out that we did.
“I now believe that both of us had been grossly misinformed about the records of one another, which soured our first encounter. Today I am proud to say that never in my life have I admired, respected and esteemed such honesty and quality of character, the administrative competence and expertise of a man such as is found in Mr. Whiley.
“Those people who meet Mr. Whiley for the first time may go away with the mistaken impression that he is a racialist – because the man can be very impatient at times – but those of us who have had the opportunity of interacting with him know the man as completely free of racial prejudice but as one who has a deep understanding of human nature and the sources of human problems in general.
“Most of what happens at the school is Mr. Whiley’s brainchild and although he is due to depart this coming December, his shadow will remain present in this school for many years to come. He is a man who believes in the truth and rarely gossip, who loves pupils regardless of the colour of their skin; impeccable believer in the philosophy that education is the ultimate source of all human wisdom.”
In much later years, Mapungwana’s portrayal of Whiley would accurately suit the man I got to know when, as a sports reporter, I started interacting with him. It also helped that he’d heard that I was an Ellis Robins alumni and it meant plenty of good stories for me from him – regular phone calls and emails of story alerts and pleasantries.
Everyone is equal
The steely-faced first impression referred to by Mapungwana in his send-off article quoted above was one of Whiley’s ways with people and those who knew him well appreciated and speak fondly of it later after realising what really lay beneath the man’s heart.
His philosophy was simple, according to one of his former students; young black men, especially those under his wings, should not feel lesser than anyone; everyone was equal. Preferential treatment breeds inferiority complex.
In a period of racial sensitivity in the country during the transition era of the early 80s, when some whites in the same position of influence would think twice about making a decision with the remote likelihood of being deemed racial, Whiley would stick to his conviction, comfortable in the knowledge that he harboured no prejudice.
Be it reprimanding someone, dishing the cane to an errant student, he did without fear or favour. This has been echoed by Walter Njowa, one of the country’s leading rugby referees who learnt a great deal from Whiley when he was chairman of Mashonaland Rugby Referees Society.
“If he needed to shout at you, he just shouted, of course we knew he didn’t see race and it was in a constructive way. If he was assessing you, he could be brutally forthright. But he pushed for everyone to be treated fairly. He is a legend of Zimbabwean rugby refereeing. Spike will be greatly missed.”
Today, a lot of Whiley’s former students of all races are successful and respected members of society who have inherited their mentor’s devotion to the community.
And he was immensely proud of each and every one of them. One of Whiley’s best attributes was a razor-sharp memory. Even when he was clearly aging, he still had meticulous detail of most of his former students, and his exchanges with me were dominated by chronicles of their success.
He was delighted that under his headship, Ellis Robins had produced Zimbabwe national rugby stars like Antony Papenfus and Bedford Chimbima, a rarity at the fast-deteriorating Harare school in later years.
Also, the likes of Ezra Zigarwe, Barrington Ribatika and Field Mushaninga would constantly receive provincial colours in cricket and rugby.
Although cricket is said to be Whiley’s first love, his biggest achievement in his sporting career was handling rugby Currie Cup games in the 70s.
His dedication was not limited to cricket and rugby. He was also extremely proud of his “boys” who had done well in other sporting codes and walks of life.
For example, he would speak with great admiration of Darlington Mandivenga, a gifted Ellis Robins soccer player who grew up to become the first brand manager of Econet Wireless, Zimbabwe’s largest telecommunication services provider, and continues to enjoy senior managerial role in the organisation.
In 1983, Whiley had also appointed Caesar Nduna basketball captain and competent squash player, as the school’s first black ever black head-boy.
Famous Old Prunitian
With Ellis Robins reaching its peak with Whiley at the helm, so too would Plumtree, which he led between 1984 and 1993 after the then Education Minister Dzingai Mtumbuka granted his request to head the school he had left many years back as a schoolboy.
Alongside Prince Edward, Plumtree became one of a few government schools in the country that competed and matched the standards of the prestigious private schools.
In sports, it gave the country some of its finest athletes under Whiley’s stewardship. Brothers Victor and Henry Olonga are amongst those.
Henry Olonga, the first black person to play international cricket for Zimbabwe, had also excelled as a rugby player at Plumtree. Older brother Victor is simply one of the most naturally talented men to step onto a rugby field in Zimbabwe.
Ex-Springbok Adrian Garvey, who holds the usual distinction of playing at the Rugby World Cup for two different countries (Zimbabwe and South Africa), is also a famous Old Prunitian whose Plumtree school days crossed with Whiley’s headship.
A man with inimitable passion for his community and country, even those who came to Plumtree after his retirement made Whiley’s heart swell with pride; Cleopas Makotose, the youngest man to captain his country at rugby, then Terry Duffin and Anthony Ireland, who would go on to play cricket for Zimbabwe.
Whiley received his teaching degree from the University of Cape Town before proceeding to Oxford for his Diploma in Education.
He came back to the country in the 1950s and taught at Mutare Boys High (he’d previously played club rugby in the city of Mutare, then known as Umtali), Allan Wilson and Lord Malvern before heading Ellis Robins.
At the time of his death, he had retired to Dandaro Village in Borrowdale.
A big-hearted and charitable man too, Whiley has adopted a children’s home in Murewa, which, during his last days on earth, occupied a very special place in his heart. He had also previously held the position of president of the Harare Rotary Club.
Not many people are all-rounded individuals blessed with selflessness, dignity and charm. Whiley was clearly one of the very few.
In fewer instances does the old adage “heroes come and go but legends never die” fits better than in paying tribute to Michael Barnard Ellard Whiley – a great son of Zimbabwe who served sport, education and people with admirable passion and distinction.
Till we meet again, cheers Spike.