SA rugby still looking for happy ending

It certainly has a Hollywood ending. South Africans celebrate from townships to townhouses, white policemen hold a black boy aloft, and president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) blesses the triumphant captain of the Springboks rugby team (Matt Damon).

Freeman will be in Johannesburg for the premiere of Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-tipped movie telling how Mandela used the power of sport to heal the scars of apartheid and bring black and white South Africans together.

The film shows Mandela embracing the Afrikaners’ cherished sport, rugby, as South Africa hosts the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Whereas previously he and other black people had cheered for the Springboks’ opponents, by the end he is wearing their green and gold jersey and rallying black people to the national side.

Audiences could be forgiven for leaving the cinema with the impression that Mandela’s political masterstroke was the rainbow nation made flesh, the beginning of the end of South Africa’s sporting apartheid. The truth of the past 14 years, however, is more complicated.

”Not much has changed,” said Frans Cronje, deputy chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations. ”The team still looks like it did in 1994. Is that a problem? I don’t know.”

Cronje said rugby is still mainly watched, and played, by whites. ”You drive around South Africa and have you ever seen rugby posts in a township, or children playing with a rugby ball? There’s been very little penetration for the sport in black schools, while the number of black children going to traditional rugby schools is moderate.”

He added: ”For 48 hours around that match you could see it uniting the country. I’ve never sensed it again. Fortunately South Africa has been mature enough to handle the fact its rugby team is white and its football team is black.”

In that now near mythical 1995 final against New Zealand, one of South Africa’s 15 players, Chester Williams, was black. By the 2007 final the number had risen, but only to two. Whites make up about 9% of the South African population.

Williams said on Monday: ”Look at the numbers and you can see a division between rugby and soccer. Our biggest concern now is development at the lower level of the game. Some black children just don’t get the right opportunity.”

There are historical and cultural reasons for the divide. The game came to South Africa from England in the 19th century and was adopted by Afrikaners, becoming part of the Afrikaans culture. Black people in townships and settlements adopted another English import, football, though rugby gained a foothold in provinces such as Eastern Cape.

Rugby is also a test of economic inequalities. Many of the best rugby-playing schools remain far beyond the reach of poor black people. Efforts to bring rugby to schools and the grassroots in mainly black areas have been criticised as ill-conceived and under-resourced.

Bora Ngqolombe (23) was almost unique among his football-playing peers growing up in a township in Port Elizabeth. ”They thought I was strange playing rugby, because they only play soccer,” he said. ”But I love rugby and I joined a black club.”

He added: ”I hope the Springboks will have more black players. I wish more blacks wanted to play rugby. But they think it’s a white sport and that they’re not big enough to play it.”

Officials within the sport point out that many black people now do play at junior grades and lower levels. But still relatively few break through to the elite. Among those who did is Springboks wing Bryan Habana, who went to a prestigious, formerly all-white school.

His father and agent, Bernie, denied that the old barriers still exist. ”Bryan doesn’t see any of it in terms of race,” he said. ”People love him because of the way he plays, not because he’s black.

”Stop harping on the past. I sit in the stands, not in the boxes, and I can say the progress over the past 14 years has been nothing short of miraculous.”

There have, however, been calls from the African National Congress for transformation in rugby to be accelerated. Former president Thabo Mbeki asserted that if boosting black representation meant losing games, that would be a price worth paying. South Africa’s diehard fans seem unlikely to agree.

The race issue remains as sensitive as ever. Asked about white predominance in the sport, South African rugby journalist Paul Dobson replied: ”If you suggest that again I’ll get annoyed and put the phone down. You must get it into your mind that rugby is not a predominantly white sport. It’s a sport.”

Cinemagoers watching Invictus, based on British journalist John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy, will be inclined to agree. The closing credits include footage, captured by chance, of black children playing rugby in an impoverished township.

Eastwood told the Sunday Times magazine: ”My host pointed them out and remarked that if Madiba [Mandela’s clan name] had not pushed for the Springboks, or if they had not won the world cup, those kids would not have been playing rugby. But there they were, barefoot, in cut-off jeans and torn T-shirts, and I said: ‘I have got to get a shot of this.”’

The signs of optimism are there for those who seek them. The 2007 world cup winners returned to celebrations led by black people toyi-toying (a dance used during apartheid demonstrations). The current Springboks coach, Peter de Villiers, is black and has won over sceptics. Habana was yesterday named favourite sports star in a nationwide poll.

The faultlines of post-apartheid South Africa run deep, but Cronje remains hopeful. ”I wouldn’t be cynical about the movie,” he said. ”There might not have been much progress in the Hollywood sense, but there has been gradual progress in the South African sense. South Africa is now a racially stable country, which is remarkable when you consider its history. Sport has played some part in that.” –

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