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Ulster ace Louis Ludik on making home here after falling in love with Northern Ireland


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Louis and wife Chame with son Leo

Louis and wife Chame with son Leo

Louis and wife Chame with son Leo

Dinner at the Ludik household must be quite an event.

Politics, history, religion... everything you're told not to discuss, is on the table for Ulster star Louis and wife Chame, who met in South Africa as teenagers and now plan to make Belfast their long-term home.

With little rugby to discuss, our conversation over more than an hour in Belfast's Grand Central hotel covers similarly dangerous ground.

"My wife's faith is not as strong as me, she questions a lot," he smiled. "She'd ask, 'Why do these bad things happen, and how can God allow it'?

"We have very interesting chats, I don't have all the answers... but I'm holding on to my faith."

Like many a South African before him at Ulster, Ludik is deeply religious - a 'God follower' as his social media profile puts it.

He's found little love for religion in his adopted home, something that surprises him a little, having studied the local history and learned how central religion was to the island's many conflicts.

"To be honest, since I've been here, I've been a lot more challenged because in South Africa, most people are religious. So it's easy, it's easy to say I'm a Christian, to say that I believe, but over here, the majority don't believe," he said.

"In the team, in general, most people don't believe."

Northern Ireland's religious influence has waned in tandem with the end of violence, and the Belfast the Ludiks arrived to is unrecognisable from previous generations.

For the South African, it's yet another irony. One of the main reasons the couple - and four-year-old son Leo - plan to stay here is because it's so much safer than home.

Last November, less than a fortnight after South Africa had lifted the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan, Chame took to Twitter, and shared a video that went viral in her homeland.

In the grainy security camera footage, a 56-year-old woman named Isabel van Coller was stopped at a crossroads and shot dead in her car.

The four assailants pulled her body out of the driving seat and left her dead on the road, as other traffic rolled by.

"Personally, I'd swap a victory over crime than the result of an 80-minute rugby match," read a comment that accompanied the gruesome video.

I watch it with Louis, who shows little emotion as the clip plays out.

"It's no shock, really, no," he said. "That happens, probably every day. Somewhere. There's so many murders, and things like that happening. It's scary...

"The scary thing is that's the norm in South Africa. Because violence is everywhere, you get used to it. So when you step out of that environment, you realise how unnatural it actually is."

That sentence might once have fitted where he now lives, but no more. The violence back home is a level above anything seen in this country, and while they've left it far behind, its effects have travelled with Chame.

"Even now, my wife is still a little scared to walk on her own, even if we go to the beach," he said.

"Not in South Africa, here. It's in her head, you're just so used to being scared, being wary. Everyone says, 'Don't walk outside on your own, be careful driving around, always be vigilant, if you're stopped at traffic lights, look around you'.

"She's been involved in a smash and grab a couple of times, my sister too, and my wife's dad was hijacked when she was 15.

"She was in the house, and he was driving home. He stopped at the gates and they stopped them from closing and went in - with a gun - to take the car from him. She saw it from inside the house, and that leaves you with some PTSD. Fortunately, nothing like that has happened to me, but my wife is adamant she wants to stay here because she feels safe."

Little differences stand out on a daily basis, from driving without looking over your shoulder, to just relaxing at home, anxiety free.

"It's such a small thing, but it's so nice to be able to go home to your house and know you're safe," he said. "You don't have to worry. You get very comfortable.

"In South Africa, you have to have gates, locks, you have to protect yourself.

"It's so uncomfortable and that's why so many people emigrate."

Ludik smiles ironically when we note how close the Europa Hotel is. A spiral kick away, it was labelled 'the most bombed hotel in the world' during the Troubles.

But the murder rate in South Africa puts even those dark days in the shade. There were 21,002 murders recorded between April 2018 and March 2019, an average of 58 every day.

To put those numbers into context, it would take just 10 days for South Africa to eclipse the number of murders in Northern Ireland in 1972 - the most lethal year of the Troubles.

"We know the history fairly well, we both love history, so we've done tours, seen the peace wall, done the taxi tours, down the Falls and Shankill Roads," Ludik said. "It's crazy to think what happened not that long ago, but even since we arrived, it has developed more and more and you see a lot more investment these days.

"We watched The Irish Revolution (a War of Independence documentary) on RTÉ and that was really interesting, it was such an eye opener. It sounds weird, but for us there shouldn't be any difference between the Irish and British... in South Africa, there's huge differences between cultures, but here the similarities are what stand out, and yet there was still so much friction."

Could Belfast and Ireland offer hope that things could yet change in South Africa? Ludik is not convinced.

"There'll always be a little bit of hope, but the biggest problem there is corruption, it's a massive problem, that's the start of the rot," he said.

"People are starving, the minimum wage is nothing... people work the whole day for something like five quid, so they can barely feed their family.

"They work ridiculously hard but then you either do that for nothing or you rob people.

"There are so many ministers who have gone to court, but nothing really happens. It's just so corrupt.

"Then you contrast that with the people who are starving, so you kind of understand why they do what they do. It's desperation. They just need to survive."

A world away, the Ludiks are more than surviving; the only conflicts occur over a main course.

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