EDITORIAL: Rugby cause for cheer, not delusion

(Mail & Guardian)

(Mail & Guardian)

Neverland is a fictional place made famous in the works of JM Barrie. It is a faraway place, where Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, the Lost Boys and other mythical creatures reside. Although not everyone who went to Neverland ceased to age, its most famous resident refused to grow up.
But, like so many other scenes of childhood lore, Neverland endures in the imaginations of those of us who wondered about its promise but did relent to age. It is a place of wonder, a place we once lived in without having been there at all — much like the idea of the “rainbow nation”.

And yet, in the euphoria of our Rugby World Cup victory last weekend it is exactly this notion that has been trotted out again. The rainbow nation, made famous in the works of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, bless his heart, has never existed outside of the nomenclature of the industrial nation-building complex. It has always been an ambition, not a reality lived by the 60-odd million people living in this country. The most famous resident credited to this Neverland is Nelson Mandela, but it is rugby that is this Neverland’s particular fascination.

It’s all rather ridiculous.

Of course a game of rugby has not magically transformed South Africa. Any suggestion that a gold-plated silver trophy, however beautiful it looks in the hands of Siya Kolisi, could wipe away the troubles of so many people is asinine. But that game of rugby did do something for us: for 80 glorious minutes, and in the hours and days afterwards, it allowed us to revel in the wonder of being the best in the world at something — with a trophy to prove it too.

The country did not cease to be any less problem-ridden in that time. It is still the same place. Eskom is still teetering on the brink of collapse. The Earth is still heating dangerously. Black women continue to be the most vulnerable people in this country. But, for a few moments, for those who chose to be swept away by it, there was something else to think about, to smile about together.

And yes, we have to admit that this particular World Cup victory does feel different to that other Neverland moment in 1995, when Francois Pienaar accepted the trophy from a beaming Mandela. For one, the fact that a black man held aloft that trophy on behalf of South Africa in Yokohama last week was quite special itself. But it was another moment that was especially poignant. Kolisi asked coach Rassie Erasmus to accept the trophy with him. The coach refused. This was, after all, Kolisi’s right. And in that small gesture, Erasmus showed us that if the act of Mandela’s wearing a Springbok jersey was significant, then Erasmus making space for Kolisi to be the captain is equally so — it shows that the work of building a nation cannot be done by black people alone. White people, too, need to be ready to make space for black people. And this team’s victory showed what happens when that is done well.

So, when the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Mbuyiseni Ndlozi congratulated Kolisi alone on Twitter, adding that the rest of the team could collect their congratulations from Prince Harry of Britain, he sounded off key, singing from the wrong hymn sheet. Of course a game of rugby has not changed the country. And yes, rugby often is the site of violent, racist misogyny in South Africa. But it is also just a game, a game that has given us something to cheer about.

And that’s okay, too. More than okay, in fact. Thank you, Siya Kolisi. Thank you, Rassie Erasmus. Thank you, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, who bowed out of the international game this week. Thank you, to the victorious Springbok team of 2019 who gave us something to cheer about.

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