Since I was a kid, I wanted to play rugby at the highest level. Growing up in Zimbabwe, I was a mad Springboks fan.
I remember crying when Australia knocked South Africa out of the 1999 Rugby World Cup. A few years later my parents told me we were moving to Australia – and immediately my thoughts turned to playing for the Wallabies, a team I had loved to hate.
By the time we arrived in Brisbane that feeling had only grown: I wanted, more than anything, to represent Australia, a country that had given my family and me an opportunity, a second chance.
We arrived with 10 suitcases and nothing else. I was determined to succeed. I was obsessed with being the best.
My break came when it was announced that the Western Force would be added to the Super Rugby competition the year after I finished high school, in 2006. They had to recruit an entire squad and I got a call in Year 12 asking if I would head west and join the team in Perth once I’d finished school.
They weren’t offering much by way of money – not enough to live on – but they were giving me the chance to train full-time with the squad. I had a few thousand dollars from selling some sheep when we left Zimbabwe and figured I’d make do.
I went on to make my Super 14 debut in the Force’s inaugural year, and two years later played my first game for the Wallabies – six years after arriving in Australia. I was living my dream. But it was never enough – the drive to get better and push myself to the limit consumed me.
While rugby filled my head, I had always wanted to make a difference in other areas, too. In a strange way, this was a big driving force behind the focus and discipline I brought to training. The desire to use rugby to bring about change led me to think more deeply about what that change might look like. What were the things that mattered most to me and where could I contribute?
In time, I figured I should act. I started small, linking with a church that worked to help Perth’s homeless, and then a couple of years later starting a community development organisation in Zimbabwe, working with some of the country’s poorest people. In 2010 my partner, Emma, and I decided not to get officially married at our wedding out of respect for LGBTQ people who, at that stage, did not have the legal right to wed. This made no sense to me at a time when I was beginning to learn about the common experience of gay athletes – the barriers they faced not only to involvement in sport but also to feeling safe and like they could be themselves.
I was also growing increasingly concerned about the lack of action on climate change.
I love this amazing home planet of ours, from the mopane scrub and msasa woodland of my childhood to the eucalypt forest I got to know in Australia. As a kid, I’d been fascinated by birds. In the area where I grew up, we’d had only one species of parrot; in Australia, I was amazed at the array of parrots and cockatoos. All this and so much more – all the people and places we love – were in jeopardy, so I tried to use whatever platform I had to get the conversation going around decisive action on climate change.
“A sucker for punishment? Maybe. But this is energising and meaningful”
I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do this. I didn’t want to be someone who bashed other people over the head with my views, who shouted the loudest or who had no room for people who disagreed with me. When you believe strongly in something it can be hard to talk about it in a way that is engaging rather than alienating. Emma was a huge help on that score. She has a way of making space for all kinds of different views and a curiosity about what motivates people.
I didn’t always get it right, but I loved being involved in things outside of rugby and this became a motivator to perform on the field. You know that if you talk about things outside of footy while you’re not performing, you’ll get smashed by punters and the press.
After the Wallabies’ devastating early exit from the 2019 World Cup in Japan, I knew my time in rugby was winding up. They say about timing your retirement, “You’ll know when you know”. Well, I knew it was time to move on. I’d put my body through enough. I hadn’t fulfilled my childhood dream of being part of a World Cup-winning team, but I’d enjoyed one hell of a ride. I knew the boy who’d dreamed of playing for his country would have been chuffed.
So, with much trepidation, I hung up my boots, cracked on with my studies in agriculture that had been going at a ridiculously slow pace while I’d been juggling them with footy, and started putting a team together to work on an agriculture-and-conservation project in Zimbabwe that I’d been dreaming about.
It was just the thing I needed to sink my teeth into – a complex problem, a lot of uncertainty and a massive challenge with no guarantee of success. I spent most of last year in Zimbabwe with my youngest brother, Steve, and a small team building Rangelands Regeneration from scratch. During that period, I had a few people in Canberra hassling me about whether I’d consider running for the Senate in the ACT. They said there was a pathway to victory for someone like me.
I was quite fed up with politics and the way the big issues weren’t being dealt with. But figuring I could get more done from outside of the political system, I told them I wouldn’t be putting my hand up.
Then I went to COP26 in Glasgow last November. It’s the big United Nations climate conference where leaders are supposed to negotiate global agreements to limit carbon emissions – but I wasn’t there for that. I was there to meet potential partners for the project in Zimbabwe. We’d been bootstrapping and funding was very tight, so we were hoping to find the right people to back the conservation work we were doing.
My time at COP26 was an eye-opener. I knew Australia was lagging when it came to climate action, but it really sunk in seeing just how out of touch we were with so many of our allies and trading partners, and what a big opportunity we were missing both to deal with an existential threat and to build an economy for the future. There’s an economic boom, and a gold rush for tradies, if we get the vision and ambition right at a political level. It got me thinking about what difference I could make representing a community I love in Canberra.
So, last December, after my brother had reassured me that he could run Rangelands Regeneration without me, I made the jump into the political arena as an Independent Senate candidate for the ACT. After a slight hold-up due to COVID, I returned to Canberra to throw myself into another opportunity that may or may not come off.
I’ve always said that we need more people in politics who don’t want or need to be there. I figured it was time for me to have a crack – to contribute to the public good and try to make politics in Australia about people again.
Know your why
A sucker for punishment? Maybe. But this – meeting people, learning more about the most pressing issues we face and how we can deal with them – feels energising and meaningful. It’s been crazy-busy and a steep learning curve, but the domains of professional sport, agriculture and conservation have given me the tools I need.
Like so many things in life, politics seems to come down to an inexhaustible work ethic, being eager to learn and, perhaps most crucially, knowing why you’re diving in. When you know your why, you can push through almost anything that life throws at you.