The immortal image of Francois Pienaar handing over the Webb Ellis Cup to Nelson Mandela represented everything the new Rainbow Nation prayed for in 1995: inclusivity, prosperity and reconciliation. The years that followed, both on the pitch and in everyday life, showed that it would take more than symbolic gestures to realise those ideals.
Twenty-four years later we’re still not there. Yet, we might argue, we’re gradually getting closer.
Picture the scene. Siya Kolisi, the first black Bok captain, raised in Zwide township outside of Port Elizabeth, lifting the World Cup in front of nearly 80 000 people in Yokohama. In the context of our democracy, that image, decades down the line, could come to be seen as just as significant and seminal as the Ellis Park new beginning.
On the other side of the equation, Kolisi leads a team that is still grossly disproportionate to the demographics of the population. The SA Rugby Union’s (Saru) previous goal of achieving a 50% ratio of black players is far from being achieved. To many, the pure numbers make it impossible to shake off the perception that this is, and always has been, a white sport.
Yet, it’s the apparent recent increase in opportunity that makes supporting this team far more palatable than past years.
Much of that has to do with the frankness of coach Rassie Erasmus. Doubling as director of rugby, he has been remarkably straightforward with both the public and his players. As a result, few have felt the need to scrutinise his 31-man selection that has travelled to Japan. That applies to all sections of society: no one with even a casual rugby inclination would think to label anyone in the strong black contingent as a “quota player” — a tag that has weighed down many of our sports stars in the past.
Judging by their public utterances, Saru, along with Cricket SA, have cottoned on to the reality that representation issues are not solved by setting lofty targets but rather by repairing the foundational inequality that exists at the grassroots level.
Madiba understood the power of symbols. He fought against calls to get rid of the Springbok — a badge that was the pride and joy of a hateful regime. He envisioned that the country could transform its meaning into a banner that united a nation. We’re not quite there but, at the very least, our rugby team is starting to resemble a side that fights for all of us.