Bookmark :

Sewsunker ‘Papwa’ Sewgolum

No history of non-white golf in South Africa would be complete without at least a brief biography of Papwa Sewgolum. Much has been written about him in recent years and the general details of his life and career are well documented and well known. Nevertheless telling his story yet again in this history would not be out of place and might even throw up some hitherto unknown facet of his amazing life. What follows is taken entirely from the pages of SA Golf magazine and the surviving newspaper records that were kept by its editor, RG Fall. As such it is essentially a history of Papwa's achievements on the golf courses of the world and it is not a biography of his private and family life. There are no doubt gaps in the story as told here and, possibly, inaccuracies that need to be corrected. In the final reckoning it is important that this history is scrutinised by members of the Sewgolum family and corrected and augmented as necessary.

The First Beginnings

Sewsunker Sewgolum, or Papwa as he was called meaning ‘small child’, was born in Durban to a blind mother in 1930. The family had very little money and it was a constant struggle to make ends meet. Papwa went to the Kulmareddy Indian School until Standard 2 but his father died when he was 13 years old and, left with the responsibility of looking after his mother and younger brother, he had to leave school and find work. He started caddying at the Beachwood Golf Club and, as it happened, continued to do so for 14 years. In his younger days there were times when he brought home as little as 7/6d (75c) per week and the family often went hungry. But he was becoming involved with and more and more interested in the game of golf. He practised when he could, improving his skills, and started to enter for minor local tournaments. He was soon winning. The first time he did so his prize was a crate of cold drinks.

Papwa had an obvious and natural talent for the game and this did not go unnoticed. Graeme Wulff, a member of Beachwood, recognised this talent and took him under his wing, giving him a permanent job in his cosmetics business. This was in 1957 when Papwa, now 27 years old, was no longer a youngster. He had already shown his potential by winning the Natal Non-European Open more than once. He was also married with a growing family to look after. In the face of apartheid in sport in South Africa Wulff was anxious to launch Papwa on the international scene and in 1958 applied for Papwa to play in Australia. The Australian authorities would not allow it. “The Australian colour bar is as effective as ours”, said Wulff with some bitterness.

Papwa Campaigning Abroad

Papwa’s first real break came in 1959 when his entry for the Open Championship to be played at Muirfield was accepted. He couldn’t sign his name on the entry form and was taught by Wulff with some difficulty how to do so, but he had arrived on the international stage, reverse grip and all, and from then on would never look back. His scores in the Open under the circumstances were none too bad. In the qualifying rounds he scored 147 to be on the cut mark for the championship proper and then scored 79 73 – 152, failing by four shots to make the cut for the final two rounds. This was not quite what he had hoped for but it was a start and the experience was important.

The Open was a stepping stone to other tournaments in the UK and on the Continent. And it was here that Papwa did not disappoint. He made history by winning the Dutch Open, the first time that a non-white golfer had won a major tournament in Europe. Playing at The Hague he scored  67 69 74 73 – 283 to beat local golfer Gerard de Wit by a single shot. Third was well-known Belgian golfer, Donald Swaelens on 287. Later in the German Open Papwa scored 285, including 68 in the last round. On his return to South Africa he was met by cheering crowds at both Johannesburg and Durban, garlanded and chaired from the tarmac.
Recognising that Papwa would have little or no opportunity to compete on the South African professional circuit, the British Professional Golf Association accepted his membership, thus opening the way for him to play in all tournaments in the UK and Europe in 1960 and beyond. For Papwa the problem was being able to afford to get there.

To this end a Papwa Trust Fund had been formed under the chairmanship of Mr Louis Nelson, by now Papwa’s manager, and money was raised by various means, the target being 1000 pounds (R2000). It was a bit of a battle but finally the target was reached and in 1960 Papwa was able to make his second trip to the UK and Europe. He played in a number of tournaments with varying success, his best finish being 5th in the Yorkshire Evening News Tournament on 281 (won by Peter Thomson on 268), and he also played in the Open Championship at St Andrews. It proved to be a repeat of the previous year. He got through the qualifying rounds to make the championship proper but did not make the cut for the final two rounds. But, again repeating the previous year, success came his way on the Continent when he successfully defended the Dutch Open Championship played at Eindhoven. With scores of 69 71 71 69 – 280 he beat Denis Hutchinson  (72 71 70 70 – 283) into second place.

Money was always a problem and the Papwa Trust Fund did not have enough in the kitty to send Papwa back to Europe in 1961 and he was not, therefore, able to defend his Dutch Open and win the title for a third time. It was not until 1963 that he was able to return to Europe, on this occasion with somewhat mixed success. The Dutch Open played at The Hague was won by Retief Waltman on 279. Papwa finished down the field on 289. Next came the German Open which saw Papwa being disqualified for being late on the tee. In truth he was not well and was only too happy to return home.

Later in the year the decision was taken to dissolve the Papwa Trust Fund. The thought was that it had served its purpose. There was, however, still a balance of R1000 in the Fund and the decision was taken that this should be used either to buy a plot of freehold land or to build Papwa a home. The record does not say which route was taken, if any.

But that was not the end of Papwa’s overseas campaigning. He was back in 1964, playing in a number of tournaments in Britain, including the Open Championship, and returning to Holland where, for the third time, he won the Dutch Open. This was again played at Eindhoven and his scores were 67 71 66 71 – 275. A number of South Africa’s leading professionals were in the field, including Harold Henning, Denis Hutchinson, Brian Wilkes, and others. Papwa often had problems with his health and, in spite of “enjoying the best of my four trips overseas”, this 1964 tour had to be curtailed when his struggle with jaundice proved too much.

There is nothing on record to show whether or not Papwa went abroad in 1965. It was a busy year for him in and around South Africa, with many successes coming his way, and perhaps there was no time to go away. He was, however, invited to the Carling World Golf Championship which was played at Royal Birkdale in 1966. He finished 8th in this event on 293 - the winner being Bruce Devlin on 286 - and by so doing qualified for the event again the following year.  On his return to South Africa some R2000 richer he moved into a new house in Mobeni with no definite plans for the future, ‘resting on his well-earned laurels’.

Through the summer of 1966/67 Papwa had continuing success on the non-white circuit in South Africa and then went back to the UK for the Open Championship in July 1967. The venue was Royal Liverpool (Hoylake) and he got through the qualifying stages quite comfortably on a score of 143 but what he scored in the championship proper is not recorded. While overseas he played in a number of other events in the UK and on the Continent. He lost the Dutch Open by a single shot to Donald Swaelens’s 273 and was 5th in the French Open on 281. Later in the year he went to Toronto in Canada to compete in the Carling event but with a score of 152 for the first two rounds he failed to make the cut.

There is no evidence of Papwa’s going abroad in 1968 or 1969 but in 1970, following his annual trip up north to compete on the three-tournament Rhodesian circuit, he was back in the UK for the Open Championship played at St Andrews. There were several South African non-white players in the field but only two got through the 36-hole qualifying stages, Papwa, including a record breaking 64, and Buthelezi. Buthelezi made history in that he was the first Zulu to play at St Andrews and the first Zulu to play in the Open Championship.   What he or Papwa scored is not recorded. Later in the year Papwa played for the Rest of the World against Britain, losing his match to Brian Barnes by one hole.

But Papwa was running short of money and he would have to fly home if he could not find further backing. An appeal was made to the Western Province Coloured Golf Union but it was turned down with regrets. Mr Lionel Theys, secretary of the Union, explained that the Athlone golf course was a terrific drain on their resources and that this made it impossible to help Papwa.    

A decision was taken that Papwa would not return to the UK and Europe in 1971 but that the possibility of his playing in New Zealand and Australia was being considered. This did happen towards the end of the year, in fact he travelled with Gary Player, but apparently with little success. Things were starting to happen on the professional circuit in South Africa and in 1971 the concept of ‘Open International Tournaments’, open on a non-racial basis, was introduced by the Government. One of these was the General Motors Classic at Wedgwood in Port Elizabeth and entries were received not only from Papwa but also from several other non-white golfers, including amateurs. As opposed to the later 1960’s when Papwa was denied entry to any of the ‘white’ tournaments on the South African circuit, there were now opportunities to compete in open events and the need to travel abroad was perhaps less urgent. He returned to the UK in 1976 and, amongst other events, appeared in the Kerrygold Tournament at Waterville in Ireland. This was probably the last trip he made overseas. He was not getting any younger nor was he always in the best of health. That he should have decided to remain at home comes as no real surprise.

Papwa Sewgolum and the South African Non-European Championship

The South African Non-European Open Championship was first played at Kimberley in 1949 after the formation of the South African Non-European Golf Association and the winners of the national championship are listed in the records from that year through to 1972. Papwa only appears for the first time in 1960 when he was already 30 years old. This is perhaps surprising. By then Papwa was well known in Natal where he had won the Natal N-E Championship numerous times and, more significantly, he was the 1959 Dutch Open champion. There must be some reason for his not winning the national championship sooner than he did.   The simple explanation is perhaps that he did not compete. It was not until 1961 that the championship was held in Natal for the first time and before that, with the exception of Milnerton in 1960, it seems that Papwa was not willing to travel.

Prior to 1960 the SA N-E Championship was played on the open veld courses that were built near the main towns and cities by the non-white golfers wherever space could be found. These courses were at best very rough and ready. Much good sport was enjoyed every year at the various venues but perhaps not enough to suggest to someone like Papwa, short of money as he was, that he should travel across the country to compete. This all changed in 1960 when, for the first time, the N-E Championship was played on a ‘white’ course. The Milnerton Golf Club made their course available to the SA Golf Association for their championship and, perhaps because of this, Papwa did make the trip to Cape Town and ended up winning his first South African title.  It was not to be the last.

Having broken the ice there was no stopping him and Papwa completely dominated the championship right through the 1960’s.  In the 11 years up to and including 1970 he won the title eight times and shared it once. This was with Vincent Tshabalala at Alexander GC in East London in 1965. In 1962 at Kimberley Papwa was not at his best  -  1962 was not a good year generally for Papwa  -  and he finished in 8th place behind Ishmael Chowglay. He did not play in the 1966 event held in Bloemfontein which was won by D Motati. Instead he was campaigning on the Sunshine Tour where he was ‘allowed’ to play in four events, the SA Open, the Dunlop Masters, the Natal Open and the SA PGA Championship. He also went north to Rhodesia where he won the Bata Bush Babes Tournament against all South Africa’s best professionals. This relatively busy, and one must add lucrative, schedule clashed with the SA N-E Championship, an event which, had he entered, he would surely have won yet again.

Following the lead taken by Milnerton, ‘white’ clubs in the other major centres were only too anxious to make their courses available to SAGA for their national championship and, with one rare exception as we shall see, playing the SA N-E Championship on a ‘white’ course became the norm. The one exception was in 1969 when the new course at Athlone in Cape Town was used.  This Grimsdell designed layout, built expressly for Coloured golfers, was an excellent test of golf and equal to many of the other local courses. Papwa won the event played at Athlone and, as it turned out, all his other national titles were won on courses that belonged to ‘white’ clubs.

Papwa had been held to a tie by Vincent Tshabalala in 1965 and finally it was to this same golfer that he eventually relinquished his stranglehold on the SA N-E Championship. This was in 1971 at the Benoni Country Club when Tshabalala came through to beat him by a single shot. Ishmael Chowglay was champion in 1972 at Kroonstad and the winner of the 1973 championship is not on record but Papwa was not yet finished and won the 1974 championship which was played at Glendower CC. The results of the 1975 and 1976 championships need to be researched but it is certain that the 1977 event was won by Vincent Tshabalala and it seems likely, therefore, that 1974 was Papwa’s last win, his 10th in all.

Papwa Sewgolum and the Provincial Non-European Championships

The important years for Papwa on the non-European golf scene in South Africa were the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. Previous to that he had won the Natal N-E Championship several times and it was in 1959 that he made his first visit to Europe where he played in the Open Championship and hit the world headlines by winning the Dutch Open. But it was in 1960 that he launched his remarkable career on the golf courses of South Africa, and it was perhaps his victory in the SA N-E Championship at Milnerton that marked the beginning. In the 11 years from 1960 to 1970 he won the SA N-E title no less than 9 times and it was during this same period that he played in and won provincial tournaments all over the country. In addition he made history at East London in 1961 by being the first non-white golfer to play in the ‘whites only’ South African Championship. But that is for another chapter.

At this time there were active golf associations in some of the smaller centres and it was not only in the major towns and cities that the non-white golf was flourishing. They all ran tournaments but not all these tournaments were attended by Papwa. Thus there is no record of his playing in the Greater Karroo Championship in Beaufort West, or of his playing in East London/Border or Oudtshoorn/South Western Districts. But, when his often busy schedule allowed, he did play in what might be considered the more important provincial championships and his record in these events in the years 1960 to 1970 speaks for itself. What follows is by no means the complete record. Inevitably there are gaps which hopefully in time can be filled.  

Eastern Province

Papwa’s first visit to Port Elizabeth for the EP N-E Championship was in 1963 where, in spite of a strong challenge in the final round, he was beaten by Ishmael Chowglay by a single shot. The tables were turned in 1964 when he beat Chowglay by a comfortable 10 shots.

Griqualand West

Kimberley was an important centre for non-white golfers in the 1960’s, not least because of the support they were given by the Kimberley GC, and Papwa was always ready to play in the Griqualand West N-E Championship. In fact he won five times in a row from 1961 to 1965 and then again in 1967. After that the trail goes cold but it seems likely that, if he had played, he would have won.


There is only one recorded instance of Papwa playing in the OFS N-E Championship and this was in Bloemfontein in 1968.  He finished second to J Mogoerane. His avoidance of the Free State would almost certainly have been due to the fact that a local provincial law prohibited Indians from remaining in the Province overnight. It must be presumed that by 1968 this law had been scrapped.


The Transvaal was a hive of non-white golfing activity over all the years and it was inevitable that sooner or later Papwa would make his first appearance there. He entered for the 1962 Transvaal N-E championship which, it was hoped, would be played at the Irene Country Club.  Sadly, the Government refused permission. Finally it was in 1964 at the Benoni Country Club that he appeared for the first time and went on to win the Transvaal N-E Championship in fine style, stamping his authority on the tournament with a fine 65 in the third round. Papwa returned the following year and won again at Glendower. From there the record jumps to 1972 when Papwa was beaten by two shots by Vincent Tshabalala for the title. Later that year in a tournament sponsored by Luyt Lager, Papwa tied with Cox Hlapo only to lose the sudden-death playoff.

Western Province

Papwa was not a regular visitor to the Cape but, when he did make the trip, he usually went home with the title. His first appearance in the Western Province N-E Championship was in 1964 at Royal Cape when, thanks to brilliant opening rounds of 68 and 65, he went on to win by no less than 27 shots. And this was with champion golfer Ishmael Chowglay in the field! He returned in 1967 but was not well and withdrew after two rounds when well placed to win the title. This was at King David CC.  On his third visit in 1969 the championship was played on the new Athlone course and, true to form, Papwa came out on top and then again in 1976 he won ‘in a canter’.


In his home province of Natal Papwa reigned supreme for many years. When he won the Natal N-E Championship in 1960, it was the fourth time in a row he had done so. But he was not finished there. In 1961 he won at Umbogintwini in a proverbial cakewalk, again at Kloof CC in 1962, and then at Circle CC in 1963. His winning streak ended in 1964 when he was runner-up by one shot to Raydmuth Rajdaw at Kloof CC but took off again with a win in 1965. The records also show wins for Papwa in 1967 and 1968 and, who knows, he probably won in 1966, 1969 and 1970 as well! The last results on file are those for 1971 when he did not win, losing the title to Vincent Tshabalala and then in December 1976 when he tied with Ishmael Chowglay only to lose in a three-hole sudden death play-off. It would perhaps be wrong to assume that Papwa, in the years from 1970 through to his death in 1978, did not ever again win the Natal N-E Open Championship. Further research is clearly necessary to get the record straight.

Papwa Sewgolum  -  In Memory of a Gentle Man  (1930 – 1978)

For some years Papwa had battled with his health and on more than one occasion he was forced to withdraw from tournaments or return home prematurely from overseas trips because of health problems. He died on 5th July 1978 at the relatively early age of 48. He was much mourned as the following tribute attests.

Many racial barriers in sport have been removed and the general atmosphere these days is far more relaxed than it used to be.   Agreeable though this may be (as far as it goes), it is salutary to remember that only a few years ago the attitude to multiracial sport was a curious mixture of patronage, bad manners and grudging enlightenment. The golfer who started it all, Sewsunker "Papwa" Sewgolum, died this week. Good player though he undoubtedly was, any consideration of his career must really concentrate on the man himself - on his tolerance, good humour and instinctively gentlemanly behaviour. Papwa was, in the best sense of the word, a simple man who saw himself neither as a symbol nor as a political flag-waver. He asked only for the chance to express his talents (upside down grip and all) on golf courses here and overseas.

As the first black man to play in a white tournament he competed in the 1961 national Open at East London trailing not clouds of glory, but red tape in the form of a group areas permit which excluded practice time, drinks at the bar or the opportunity to change his shoes in the locker room. Such was Papwa's introduction to first-class tournament golf and it says much for his character that he rose above the indignities and got on with the job of earning a living in the only way he knew. He was not an emotional man, at least outwardly, but it is not difficult to imagine his bitter-sweet feelings when he won the Natal Open, only to receive the.trophy outside in the rain because of permit limitations. His successes overseas included three victories in the Dutch Open and the consistency that was the hallmark of his game kept him regularly in the prize lists at home.

With the passing of the years Papwa became part of the scene, which was all he ever wanted, and the cruder humiliations were no longer the lot of his professional life. He was a golfer who spent too long on the sidelines to achieve his full potential and his early death emphasizes this sad fact. He has, however, a place in the game's history not for what he did, but how he did it, and colleagues will doff their caps in memory of a gentle, unassuming man - who achieved far more than ever he realized.