Pride and politics after World Cup final

Pride and politics mixed on Sunday as South Africans celebrated their Rugby World Cup final win over England.

Festivities reminiscent of the team’s previous World Cup victory in 1995 continued through the night as South Africans packed fan parks and restaurants and filled the streets with honking cars draped with the national flag.

The country’s sports minister, however, said the victory must mark the end of an era of white-dominated sport.

“Glory Boys,” read the headline of the Sunday Times above a picture of President Thabo Mbeki wearing the team’s green and gold colors celebrating in front of captain John Smit hoisting the gold trophy.

“Guts and grit in green and gold,” the paper said.

“C’est magnifique, Bokke,” said the Sunday Independent, in a play on the team’s Springboks name.

Police said the partying passed peacefully, providing much needed ammunition to 2010 World Cup organisers charged with dispelling fears about South Africa’s notoriously high violent crime.

Around the country, local authorities erected huge screens in fan parks in what was dubbed a trial run for coping with the masses of South African and foreign soccer fans expected for the 2010 tournament.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela joined thousands at the Boktown fan park in Johannesburg. Mandela famously donned the green-and-gold number six jersey of captain Francois Pienaar at the World Cup in 1995 in a gesture of racial reconciliation one year after the end of racist rule.

In the Johannesburg suburb of Melville, revellers danced on the top of police cars. In other parts of the city, whole streets were impassable because of the crowds.

Shrugging off the racial division that still runs through the nation, black and white South Africans stood together and sang the national anthem at the start of the match and celebrated together after the 15-6 win.

However, as the partying died down, the politics picked up.

New era

Sport and Recreation Minister Makhenkesi Stofile praised the team for showing “distinction and commitment” before turning to politics.

“This victory should herald a new era—an era in which we all embrace change and tackle the challenges still being faced by our rugby and sport in general,” he said in a statement.

For decades, sport in South Africa was used to showcase white power and instill a sense of inferiority in the black majority. Afrikaners jealously guarded rugby in particular.

The rugby team’s Springbok emblem became seen as an elitist emblem of the old order and there have been frequent calls to scrap it.

At the World Cup in 1995, South Africa fielded one player of colour.

There were two players of colour—JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana—on the field on Saturday, although a total of six were included in the squad which went to France.

“Our victory during the 1995 World Cup offered us a window to see what South Africa can be. We did not build on that,” Stofile said. “May we not commit the same error after this second chance.”

South Africa coach Jake White, who took the job four years ago vowing to win the World Cup, insisted on merit rather than skin colour as the deciding factor. He was repeatedly criticised for doing too little to nurture black players but withstood pressure to meddle with the composition of the team.

The head of the sports parliamentary committee earlier this year said that players should be stripped of passports to prevent them from travelling to France.

White is now expected to stand down—management hasn’t offered to renew his contract despite the team’s unbeaten record. South African media have speculated that a black coach will fill his shoes.

Although rugby has a strong black following in the Eastern Cape and strong roots in the coloured community in the Western Cape, players and fans in the rest of the country are overwhelmingly white.

Critics accuse provincial rugby union bosses of deliberately not selecting black players and grooming them to be national material.

There is also a cultural divide -‒ soccer remains the game of choice for the black majority whereas many white South Africans are more enthusiastic about the English Premier League than domestic soccer clubs.

There are hopes that the dazzling sprints and tries of Habana may help change this and inspire a new generation of rugby enthusiasts.

Another big problem is that the majority of black South Africans are poorer than the white minority. A sport like rugby is an expensive luxury.

In a provocative piece for the Sunday Times, columnist Clinton van der Berg predicted that political interference would deprive the Springboks of victory for at least 25 years.

“They stand on their soapboxes and [whine] because rugby is a convenient target. But they don’t develop fields in townships, underwrite coaching classes or supply the nutrition needed to turn 75kg weaklings into 115kg tight-head props,” he wrote.

Binding together

Meanwhile, White told a news conference that winning the World Cup was an “unbelievable experience”.

“It hasn’t even sunk in yet but to see the president of our country sitting on the players shoulders holding the World Cup ... is something to be really proud of. It doesn’t get bigger than that for us.

“A country like South Africa realised in 1995 how much winning World Cups actually means to us as a nation.

“People ask why we take the World Cup so seriously. It’s much bigger than any other event, what it did to us as a nation.

“We’ve now won a World Cup away from home. We had our president sitting in the changing room. He was saying how proud he was of being a South African.”

South African rugby has been troubled but skipper John Smit also believes his team’s victory will have a lasting effect on South Africans.

“You can’t put it into words. We have had the responsibility of carrying the hopes of a nation on our shoulders and now we have a team that is taking the trophy back home to the nation,” he said.

“I certainly hope that being able to lift this cup and take it back home can create a scenario that everyone binds together and we start forgetting about counting numbers and colours.”

‘Worthy champions’

Congratulations streamed in just minutes after the final whistle blew—among the first that of Britain’s High Commissioner to South Africa, Paul Boateng.

“Well done South Africa, worthy champions,” said Boateng as the South Africans received their gold medals at the Stade de France in St Denis, on the outskirts of Paris.

The match was won with three penalties by Percy Montgomery and one by Francois Steyn to England’s two by Wilkinson.

The team had shown professionalism, patriotism and hunger to win since the beginning of the tournament, said the South African Football Players’ Union.

The Springboks had set a benchmark for all national teams, it said. They had done the country proud.

South Africa last won the World Cup in 1995 under the captaincy of Francois Pienaar. England was defending the title.

The 2007 win was even more prestigious than that of 1995 because White and his team had not only had to contend with the pressure of the sport, but political pressure and interference, said Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder.

“The succeeded in this exceptionally and proved all their critics wrong,” he said.

“The Springbok team further proved with their win that a merit Springbok team, with [Bryan] Habana as hero, was worth more for nation-building and good relations that all the talk about quota sides which could lose as long as they were representative.

“Hopefully it will now be acknowledged that international sport is not the place for political agendas and experiments,” he said in congratulating the team.

Meanwhile, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) said the country was proud of its rugby boys.

“You have once more put us back on the world map, boys. Congratulations. We salute you, our heroes, for bringing us the much needed glory, as well as respect ... ” said IFP chairperson Zanele KaMagwaza-Msibi.

“As the IFP we are of the opinion that sport is a major tool that, if well managed and well promoted, can be used to unify and build our nation.

“We also believe that if players are well groomed at an early age they can become professionals and earn a living on sport like many players in the Bok squad,” she said. - Guardian Unlimited, Sapa, Sapa-AP



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