All that was missing was the Number Six on the back. The Green Bok jersey has gone full circle. Thanks to Pieter van Zyl it is now back where it was before Nelson Mandela stooped, gathered it from the gutter of world political opinion, and proudly wore it in the minutes before and after the Rugby World Cup final in 1995.
Springbok fanatics, especially the young, may find this a hard notion to accept, but the Bok jersey was as much a symbol of apartheid racism as any single other object. Certainly that was how we viewed it from London. Many black South Africans still do and there is absolutely no point pretending otherwise.
Although what I am about to describe is familiar territory to many, I will risk doing so nonetheless. When the British Lions toured here in 1997 I found myself away for the weekend in a cottage in the hills above Tulbagh in the Western Cape. There was no television and as half time in the second Test approached I could bear it no longer. I drove into town and surveyed the two bars.
In one I discovered a small group of very large white farmers (at least, they looked like farmers; I decided against asking them, and no one invited me to join the group). In the other, were gathered at least 30 “coloured” men and women.
I sat and bought a beer; someone introduced himself to me. Within seconds a British Lion, Jeremy Guscott, kicked a penalty and the place exploded in uproarious approval.
On World Cup final day two years before, I had seen coloured Capetonians gather at Don Pedro’s in Woodstock with faces painted with the All Black colours, yet I still found myself surprised by the reaction in Tulbagh.
At the final whistle — completing a series-winning second victory for the Lions — I questioned some of the celebrating patrons. “Agh, I don’t like the way the Boks are playing rugby at the moment,” said one man, “It’s just not my style.” He hardly looked convinced by his own argument and a couple of beers later we were discussing Breyton Paulse’s omission from the team. (Was it really Paulse’s omission, or am I dreaming that: if so, plus ça change!)
One of my best friends in the African National Congress, who still supports any team that is playing the Boks, admits that Mandela’s gesture at Ellis Park presented a serious challenge to him. Here was the leader of the ANC exhibiting his political genius in the quest for “national reconciliation” as it was then known.
In one fell stroke he offered the hand of friendship to the group of South Africans most likely to be resistant to what they would call “black rule”, with an act of such extraordinary simplicity, yet such compelling imagery and symbolism. No words could have spoken so powerfully. And yet …
As the great West Indian cricket writer and Marxist CLR James so memorably recorded, sport’s capacity is not just to mirror in metaphorical fashion the tragedies and victories of life, but to illuminate the class and other fissures that define society.
Thus, sadly, South African sport captures the excesses — both good and bad — of its society. Its boldness and ambition, its desire for exceptionalism, for perfection, is reflected in the hyperbole that infuses its supporters and media. As with governance and policy, so, if you set your sights so high then you soar when you succeed, and plummet when you fail.
But sadly, too, it exposes the endemic racism that still contaminates this society. Mandela held out the hand of friendship, and rugby greedily accepted it then slowly, but no less greedily, rejected it. Louis Luyt, then the Godfather of the South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu), had the arrogant gall to challenge Mandela’s decision to order an inquiry into rugby. Happily, thanks to the magnificent advocacy of the government’s counsel, Wim Trengove, Luyt lost in the Constitutional Court — on all 18 grounds argued.
Luyt, somehow, was partly forgiven, and is now a figure of almost popular fun in Parliament. He even sits, with the ANC’s acquiescence, on the parliamentary ethics committee, nogal.
But back to racism. In an inter-view with me to be published in the November issue of GQ South Africa, Springbok media director Mark Keohane puts it bluntly: “The majority of selectors and coaches come from a conservative background in SA sport and the thing that has struck me the most in the past two years working for Sarfu is that racism is prevalent and inherent.”
This from their own Spin Doctor! What an admission: “The mindset in SA sport is still a very long way from where we can look at individuals and judge them on the basis of their ability and performance. We still look at colour and it’s still perceived that the black player weakens a sports team.”
We were discussing quotas, which are an entirely necessary and appropriate mechanism to ensure that in a context where institutional racism still prevails, young black players get a fair chance. In March, through rose-tinted spectacles apparently, I celebrated in this column the ostensible transformation of cricket in South Africa. I recognise that I was premature. The United Cricket Board’s decision to end quotas is as ill-judged as their communications strategy is weak. Given half a chance, those with power claw back all they can, when they can, to protect their own. The quota system needs to be extended beyond the playing field to those who run and own rugby and cricket. If necessary, the government must legislate it, or nationalise it. Sport is not a private interest, but a public good, and should be owned accordingly, in an open, democratic and accountable way.
This is where the country’s race relations have got to seven years after Mandela’s magnificent gesture. Frankly, nowhere. What I see and what I fear is a retreat behind the walls of closed-minded bigotry.
Regrettably, Mr van Zyl’s action last weekend is a potent symbol of regression. Not because race motivated his assault, but because of what it tells us about the level of societal anger. Racism derives from anger. When Margaret Thatcher declared that hooliganism was British football’s problem she misunderstood the cause — a divided and dysfunctional society.
In this context, how can you expect a media to report on transformation in sport, if it is prepared as some papers did, to forgive and condone Van Zyl’s violence? The highly thoughtful Keohane puts it crisply: “I’m sick of hearing that we should go back to the traditional strengths of SA rugby — what are they? Are they apartheid strengths?”
If Van Zyl’s mission was to perpetuate the stereotype of the vicious, ignorant Afrikaner, then he could not have done better. Oh, wait a minute: why did he neglect to paint the Orange Flag of the Old South Africa on to the yardage of beer belly that filled TV screens across the world? His is a betrayal of all decent, progressive South Africans, and Afrikaners especially. String him up! It’s the only language they understand, you know.
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