The narratives of South African rugby are complex and profoundly intertwined in the politics of race, ethnicity and identity. This is why there are competing and divisive storylines in the communal memory of the nation’s rugby history.
These evoke collective emotions of anger and humiliation for many, and deep pride for some. But, as with all deep-rooted conflict, rugby is not only about “identity politics” and participation. It is also about fierce competition for status, power and resources.
Since Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer and his team brought home the bronze medal from the recent Rugby World Cup, debates around the sport, and more particularly his future, have reached a new pitch.
South Africans were disappointed by the team’s performance. But they are also angry at continued economic and social injustices. These two emotions have created a tense environment.
Rugby as a site of struggle
South Africa’s rugby administrators are facing increased criticism for their failure to shed the sport’s white image. This is not a new issue. But the tone of the debate is different this time.
The reason for this is that the country is experiencing a paradigm shift in its political landscape, demonstrated by widespread student protests. Starting with the #RhodesMustFall campaign earlier in the year, the protests culminated in the recent victory of the #FeesMustFall movement.
The threat of escalated conflict is the worst since the country’s first democratic elections. With deepening inequalities, severe unemployment and poor economic growth, it may be impossible to assuage the anger that has erupted.
In this mix rugby, a highly prized national sport, is under intense scrutiny for its slow pace of institutional change.
This is why the impending negotiation for renewal of coach Meyer’s four-year contract with the South African Rugby Union has become part of a highly politicised national conversation.
A #MeyerMustFall Twitter campaign is in full swing. Instigated by ex-Springbok players who see Springbok rugby as in decline, it reflects the prevailing protest mood of the country.
And the country’s largest trade union federation, Cosatu, has demanded that Meyer be removed for poor performance and alleged racism in his team selections. It also wants half of the national rugby side to be made up of players of colour, rising to 60% of the majority black Africans come the 2019 World Cup. And it threatened to protest against the lucrative sponsorships that underpin the sport if the targets aren’t met.
What Mandela knew
From the onset of democracy South African rugby was destined to be contested terrain. Illustrative of the deep cleavages in South African society, it is the sport most identified with Afrikaner nationalism and colonial elitism.
Prior to apartheid in 1948, rugby was played by both black and white South Africans, albeit separately. After segregation was institutionalised, black South Africans could not play for, or against white teams, nor be selected for national sides. They were also denied access to rugby pitches and training fields.
Despite its divisive baggage, the sport has the ingredients to be the catalyst for deep transformation that speaks to unity and nation-building. The late Nelson Mandela knew this.
During his incarceration Mandela and the late Steve Tshwete, who would become the first sport minister under Mandela’s presidency, developed the idea of using rugby as a tool for reconciliation between the various political factions imprisoned on Robben Island. The Island Rugby Board was born in 1972 with organised refereed matches. Matches between black prisoners and white prison warders were also played.
And etched in the memories of all South Africans is Mandela in the green-and-gold number six Springbok jersey handing captain Francois Pienaar the winning World Cup trophy in 1995. Hosting and winning the Rugby World Cup that year was a pivotal and iconic event in the psyche of the country’s shiny new democracy.
What rugby has to change
Meyer, like all coaches, is the media face of South African rugby. The executive council, the Rugby Board, does not receive the same level of scrutiny. As a household name, Meyer alone bears the brunt of scathing criticism, and as such, is the receptacle for the nation’s anger and disappointment.
Given the prevailing mood in the country, Meyer is now the scapegoat for all the rugby woes besetting the country. The danger is that he is simply a repository for displaced anger and a distraction from the complexity of the real challenges facing the sport. Issues of change, or what is known in South Africa as transformation, are multi-faceted, systemic and intractable.
South African rugby is accused of racism, maladministration and a bloated bureaucracy not in keeping with modern, sophisticated, global rugby management. More importantly it has not been able to harness, mobilise and adequately develop grassroots support – schools and clubs in marginalised communities – where the potential for its growth lies.
Rugby in South Africa is potentially worth billions of rand and its importance to the nation’s economy, global branding and nation-building immense. But the country’s rugby audience and following is ageing. The sport’s success, possibly survival, depends on expanding its support base beyond the 20%, mostly white, of the population who say they are interested in the sport.
South African rugby is inextricably intertwined with larger debates of social justice, participation and identity currently trending in the country. It is clear that the future of the sport thus lies far beyond the #MeyerMustFall debates.