The dark side of victory

In many senses, win or lose come Saturday, the Springboks can never quite match that monumental 1995 World Cup victory. Twelve years later, with all the complexities of the professionalism that ensued after that day, the meaning of winning the Cup is entirely different.

There are elements within South African rugby that would have us believe that the Springboks are fighting not only for the right to be called global champions, but also for the right to resist transformation, which is often mistakenly viewed as “politicising” sport.

The Springboks of 1995 carried this mantle and the Springboks of 2007 carry a destiny of their own as they prepare for Saturday’s final.

There is a growing mood among many of South Africa’s zealous rugby supporters that all could soon be lost and the noble tradition of the Springbok sacrificed to political expediency.

Jake White said last week that the players feel they are fighting for the future of the Springboks. Transformation targets have not been met and it seems fallout is on the way.
But this is only one aspect of the fearful mood. The impending fallout is said to include the installation of Pieter de Villiers as coach, who will select no fewer than 10 players of colour for all future Springbok fixtures.

Will a World Cup victory force the powers that be to adjust their stance and perhaps even retain White as coach?

The only players of colour in World Cup teams have always played on the wing.

There was one in 1995 (Chester Williams), one in 1999 (Breyton Paulse), one again in 2003 (Ashwin Willemse) and now two (JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana) will play on Saturday.

Most South Africans are black, yet 13 of 15 in the national side are white. England, the opposition in the final, has a very different racial balance, yet the demographic profile of the English side is identical to South Africa’s.

White has used this to illustrate the many problems in South African rugby. Transformation has always been fraught with ethical, moral and political dangers.

In a society that aims for equality, is it ethically sound to use quotas to speed transformation? Is affirmative action ever morally justified? Added to this is the fact that these questions must be answered in the brutal cauldron of professional sport, where serious money is at stake. These issues have surfaced in the selection of the national squad.

Players such as Gcobani Bobo, Hanyani Shimange, Solly Tyibilika, Jongi Nokwe and Lawrence Sephaka regularly found favour at Springbok level, but have subsequently not been picked at provincial level.

Disenchantment and negativity have taken root because of the lack of opportunity to stake a permanent claim at a national level. In a sport where team culture is paramount, being in and out of teams severely affects the spirit of belonging and has often led to a spiralling fall in standards.

The result is that all too often the small pool of players of colour, from which the national selectors must draw, enjoy the briefest moment of inclusion, only to be thrust out a moment later. Transformation perhaps needs a less political and more humane face.

Players of colour are often labelled quota players. When the next quota player comes along, the previous one is too easily discarded.

The thinking seems to be that as long as the Springboks are successful, politics can be kept on the periphery as an awkward sideshow. But this only shows that the intent and heart of transformation has been lost.

Transformation means making something new and better. And the intent must surely be to eliminate racism of all kinds, to be inclusive of all people who love the game and to allow as many people as possible to enjoy it.

The fear of “10 black players and a black coach” should simply not be there. Numbers and colours have no place in sport.

“Give me a go” is surely the clarion call of sport and transformation. But the struggle to create that kind of platform for transformation resonates with all the struggles of South Africa. The creation of a just and egalitarian country is, sadly, more difficult to attain than winning any World Cup.

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