The Boks: SA’s Flying Dutchman


Legends and folklore are deeply fascinating, because of where they come from and what they say about the fears of the people who repeat them. The truth behind them can be even more fascinating, however.

Consider the Flying Dutchman, for instance. Traditionally, this ghost ship can never reach port, but must forever sail the seas – or, more accurately, skim just above the water. The Flying Dutchman is never seen close up; it always hovers on the horizon.

But science tells us that there’s a logical explanation for the phenomenon. When rays of light are bent as they pass through air layers of different temperatures in a steep thermal inversion where an atmospheric duct has formed, they create an optical phenomenon that may cause ships sailing on the horizon to appear to float above the water. This Fata Morgana – mirage – is the likely origin of the Flying Dutchman.

South Africa’s Fata Morgana sailed by once again this past Sunday, in the pages of the Sunday Times. Absa has decided not to renew its contract with the South African Rugby Union (Saru) as the shirt sponsor of the Springbok national rugby squad.

“The slow pace of transformation is one of the reasons for the decision,” the paper said. Hmmm.

Considering the downgrading of the Springboks’ stock in recent years, not to forget the disappointing World Cup campaign, and the fact that the sponsorship was apparently worth R100-million a year, was this not a financial decision? I suspect the bank’s marketing mavens realised the Boks aren’t worth it anymore.

But the Boks are never just another decent international rugby side. They are either a fantasy of our unity, as they were in Ellis Park in 1995, or the agonising pangs of the clash between black-driven transformation and white conservatism, as they have been every day since then. We can never see the Boks directly, but only as a projection of inner emotion.

And so Absa pounced – conjuring an excuse that became true the minute we heard it. The financial became the political as the Boks are never just the Boks.

If you were to assess the Bokke soberly, would you say that they – at this point in time – adequately reflect the black-and-white nature of the game in South Africa? Has Saru balanced the political imperatives of transformation with the need to field the best available squad at all times? There will never be a satisfactory answer. We will never see the Boks for what they are. They are the Fata Morgana of our nation’s guilty conscience: grim and ghostly white, doomed to sail forever and ever without ever giving us peace.

Sipho Hlongwane is a Cape Town-based writer

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