Editorial: Rugby exposes SA’s resistance to transformation

André Markgraaff, the former coach of the Springboks, resigned in February 1997 following the publication of a recording in which he called black rugby officials and politicians “fucking kaffirs”.

When the outcry against his racist outburst became untenable, Markgraaff said he had quit in the interests of South African rugby and that mythical beast, national reconciliation. “I’m not making any excuses,” he said. “I was very emotional at the time. I apologise to the black people of this country and to the whites for causing them embarrassment.”

The publication of Markgraaff’s racist tirade, two years after Francois Pienaar held aloft the William Webb Ellis cup in Doornfontein, was the rudest disruption to the myth that Madiba in his Springbok jersey had somehow erased racism and united South Africa in purpose and spirit. It was the first time since 1995 that rugby in South Africa was forced to confront its own place at the centre of a white nationalist identity.

It would, however, not be the first time that South African rugby would be found wanting.

In many ways, rugby can be seen as symbolic of the pitfalls bedevilling the best-intentioned attempts at nation-building. When many among the black majority offered to give white-dominated rugby a chance to transform, it was an extension of the open hand offered to white South Africa to truly reconcile as a country and, critically, engage on a path towards true equality.

As with the Ashwin Willemse saga, the rebuffs were entangled in gobbledygook and hand-wringing that has left many of the new generation of black South Africans impatient, disillusioned and hard-hearted towards the white establishment. No matter, it seems, that the South African Rugby Union has enjoyed consecutive black presidents for more than a decade, or two black coaches. The pace of transformation is evidenced by the largely white line-up that gets rolled out at provincial, Super Rugby and national level.

Fast forward to 2018, and the national rugby team finally has a black captain. True to the script, Siya Kolisi has tried to downplay the significance of being the first black Springbok Test captain, diplomatically reciting the prepared “for all South Africans” line. Though it is an interim appointment, in itself the moment cannot be underestimated.

Reflecting on the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when Chester Williams was the only black player in the team, the former winger said he believed that, despite the blatant racism he encountered within the team, his performances had helped to break down prejudices and change mind-sets. Yet when he tried for a place in the 1999 edition of the World Cup, he was reportedly told by the Springbok coach at the time, Nick Mallett, that there were already enough black players on the team.

For legions of black South Africans who have for years desperately waited for a clear, assertive indication that rugby would be as welcoming to black people as it has been to white people, Kolisi’s appointment is an indication of the fraught attempts to transform this space.

But there is still a long, long road ahead before we can call the national team — and its supporting infrastructure — transformed. Kolisi’s appointment ought to be another moment of reckoning for South African rugby. It ought to be a moment to embrace the difficulty of truly transforming a resistant space.

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