South Africa is still passing the bok

Historian André Odendaal says South Africa has lost several opportunities to make the springbok a unifying national symbol, partly as a result of 'mean-spiritedness'. (David Rogers, Getty)

Historian André Odendaal says South Africa has lost several opportunities to make the springbok a unifying national symbol, partly as a result of 'mean-spiritedness'. (David Rogers, Getty)

Last weekend’s Springbok loss to Japan’s Cherry Blossoms saw a reimaging of the springbok emblem that is likely to remain in the minds of the team’s supporters until its next victory.

A meme of a limp bok, with all its “spring” removed from it and scaled down to the size of a piece of sushi, clutched by the neck with a pair of chopsticks, has been shared endlessly on social media by disgruntled fans. The image, perhaps unwittingly, could have alluded to some of the furore surrounding the size and position of the emblem on the national team’s World Cup jerseys. 

Whether pronking on top of a protea, springing up beneath one or pushed off to the side, it seems that, even after 109 years as the emblem of the white rugby establishment in South Africa, the springbok is going nowhere. 

But with coach Heyneke Meyer’s much-maligned selection attitude, a growing variation of “blackbok” lists and the odd call to boycott the World Cup team, the springbok may be re-emerging as a symbol of a growing laager mentality in the rugby fraternity and South African society.

“There were several opportunities lost for the springbok to become a unifying national symbol,” says Professor André Odendaal, a historian and former chief executive of the Western Province Cricket Association. “Unity came about without the old establishment having to take a fundamental look at themselves in the early 1990s. At the founding dinner of a united South African Rugby Union (Saru), rugby administrator Danie Craven said the springbok would never be shared with other people. He made a long speech about the history of the Springboks and then sort of tagged on a little footnote about black rugby history.”

Second, Odendaal says, after the progressive National Sports Council had agreed that the springbok emblem should remain for the sake of national unity, there was “Louis Luyt taking Madiba to the Constitutional Court [when Luyt opposed a presidential inquiry into racism and nepotism in rugby], showing again the conservative mean-spiritedness that had basically been a dominant factor in this unity”.

Today, Odendaal says, the springbok is almost untouchable as a symbol, although the most prominent symbol on a South African rugby jersey is the protea.

“Because we have gone into the era of sports globalisation and massive commercialisation, the springbok as a brand has increased its exposure and value massively since the World Cup in 1995. All these three factors have almost held rugby back from fundamentally looking at itself and developing a new mentality that is in line with the transformational imperatives of the new Constitution and the needs of South Africa in 2015.”

Philosopher Charles Villet, who has written about rugby as an attempt by Afrikaners to insulate themselves from post-apartheid South Africa, says, although the racial composition of the team has remained almost the same since Pieter de Villiers’s coaching days, there is definitely a greater component of Afrikaner players. He argues that the Springbok team as a symbol of national unity is “very fleeting, because it happens just around the World Cup, or in short episodes when the team has won something big. To a large extent, the team is still made up of largely Afrikaans players, so it reflects something back to them in a way.”

Villet, however, believes that no symbol is untouchable, despite the emblem’s commercial value and the loss of profit that an emblem change might bring.

The emblem is the property of Saru and was registered as a trademark in 1996 in the days of Luyt’s rampant presidency.

Asked whether the springbok emblem represented some form of a national heritage, South Africa’s poet laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile, says there was never a stage when the game of rugby was ever transformed enough to represent “a future possibility of anything”.

If anything, Kgositsile says, it approached abstract possibilities of hope because of what Madiba represented when he seemed to be giving it the green light as a result of collective wishes.

“Then we transferred that [hope] to it but did not change the reality. I strongly believe that in the creation of artistic symbols and images, for instance, they have to be rooted or steeped in social reality, in terms of how people act and interact. Symbols should be a result [of something], not what people aspire to.”

Fellow poet and writer Mandla Langa questions the validity of isolating symbols as the prism through which the discourse of transforming South African society takes place.

“At a recent book fair in Cape Town, we talked about questions of silence and people engaging,” he says. “South Africa is a very loud country but, when you drill down, that noise is covered by a huge and stammering silence. Symbols are part of a wide menu of issues that need to be put on the table for South Africa to have a full-blown discussion about.

“When something spectacular like ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and Stellenbosch happens, we rush around it but we don’t seem to say, ‘how do we deal with it in a programmatic way?’ The way we have been going about it is piecemeal.”

Langa says the country’s “rhapsodising” over a rugby loss to Japan is to focus on the wrong thing because the big issues remain “the economy, unemployment and poverty. When we have shack fires, it is not fires that are killing people but poverty. As South Africans, we do need to have a general conversation about where the country is going.”

Although Villet may see the country’s fixation with the symbolism of the springbok as “cyclical”, there are others who still see it as an enduring national unifier. Pam Serra, from the Tshwane University of Technology’s department of marketing, logistics and sports management, says: “When the team does well, everything is positive, and when they fail, we become introspective and pull away. It is important to remember that, on the jersey, you have a springbok with the protea on top of it. So the majority still accept it.”

Former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi says he supports the Springboks, but it doesn’t mean issues of transformation should not be raised. “The flag they are carrying and the anthem they are singing breaks common ground with me and I believe with millions of other South Africans.”

In raising the issue of transformation, Vavi says he was not talking about “Irish coffee” transformation. “I’m asking whether the children of the working class, after 21 years of democracy, have now, as a result of Saru investment, better opportunities to compete with their white compatriots in the former model C schools and private schools. I don’t think that is the case.”

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo


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