Not acknowledging crimes against humanity is the Springbok way

OPINION

South African rugby is being its old racist self again and, like our president who once owned McDonald’s, I’m loving it. It’s a fun return to the reality that rugby tourists don’t have the range to engage outside the lifting of a trophy, which many fans of the sport could have quite easily pointed out was the best symbol of a wild ass toxic culture of abuse and racism. We (former black participants of the sport) know what it took for Siya (Kolisi) to become the captain of the national team; the code switching required to get that captaincy and sustain it. How many times he had to stop himself from calling out the bullshit idea of what they now call meritocracy.

Speaking to the toxic nature of school culture and boys’ school behaviour is not why I’m here though. Although I’m sure there’s quite a bit of racism and sexual assault disguised as “tradition and initiation” going on over there that someone with nimble fingers could contact a publisher and get themselves an advance for right now. (Looks at Pan Macmillan). 

So racist assholes being racist assholes shouldn’t be surprising for any of us that know that the entire Springbok structure is a huge cancerous lower colon of racism. Y’all enjoying how much I’m using the words racist and racism in this piece? I’ll count the number of times I used the words when I finish writing this article. 

Where should we start then? The entire racist institution that is the South African Rugby Union (Saru)? So much so that, just like the stolen land, they did the same with the name, prising it out of the hands of the former black unions that played on the other side of apartheid. You gotta admit that’s kinda wild. Imagine meeting someone and being, like, “I like your name, it’s mine now. You should totally start using another one so people don’t get us confused.” South African rugby racism is a whole different brand of racism and here’s why. The people are apartheid. No matter how much they deny it, they have nothing to gain from any change in the structures of this whole mess. Who benefits from giving a majority black country recognition of their humanity? Where’s the business sense in it?

So why are we always feigning constant shock when SA Rugby does something racist? They’ve never hidden who they are and constantly — multiple times a year — come out with reasons breaking down why it is that the Springbok environment can’t and shouldn’t transform. 


Aside: Y’all remember Ashwin Willemse walking off set, lambasting two players who were the apples of their apartheid teams’ eyes? Nah? Okay. What about the fact that Springbok and Stormers starting lock Eben Etzebeth went to the Rugby World Cup last year despite having been accused of using racist insults, a matter that will go to the Equality Court? Did he still play? You bet. Were we stronger together? Obvs, we were stronger together with racism, even back then. Do y’all remember that time former businessman, politician and rugby administrator Louis Luyt tried to sue Nelson Mandela for wanting the organisation to transform and for setting up an investigation into the racism and nepotism at Saru? This is after the Francois Pienaar moment and World Cup win by the by. Do y’all remember celebrating Siya lifting the trophy last year? Or the fact that you dragged him for being clumsy about articulating nutrition and rugby?

From left to right: Scarra Nthubeni, Lwazi Mvovo and Siya Kolisi (Phumlani Pikoli)

I took this photo in 2015 when the Boks had an open practice session ahead of their Ellis Park clash against the All Blacks. Transformation was then, as it always is, high on the priority agenda and Saru had even introduced a complete transformation plan from 2015 set for the 2019 World Cup. One of which was to have a 65% “generic” (whatever that means) black team. That almost seems impressive, but when you look at the finalists, it’s quite easy to spot that six starting black players only make up 40%. The only other black player in the 22-man team sitting on the bench was Herschelle Jantjies. Now I’m not a mathematician but for some reason these numbers aren’t making the pots that were promised by then rugby head Oregon Hoskins. Let’s see what my dude said in his own words. 

“We started this new approach in October 2012 with a transformation indaba; since then we have worked very hard and with great determination to deliver a plan to guide our sport all the way to the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019. It has six focus areas — demographic representation, access to the game, skills and capacity development, performance, community development and social responsibility and corporate governance,” he said.

Sure.

Whether the plan succeeded or failed we might never know. No one seems to wanna give us any feedback on it. At this practice, I also remember being shocked by some shit I thought I’d never see again. I remember meeting Lwazi Mvovo, Siya and a then-uncapped Faf de Klerk and Scarra Nthubeni. While the brothers were chopping it up together, the other fans hung out with Victor Mathfield and Rassie Erasmus. This is pre-Allister Coetzee, and the fans had already been saying Rassie should be the next coach and not Allister. He was gracious and to this day, I don’t think the Boks have ever had a more diplomatic coach; even if under his reign he constantly started a captain who he never allowed to finish a game. I’ve never seen anything like it to be honest. In the 60th minute, without fail, Siya would come off and Duane would take over the captaincy for real this time.

Anyway the now famously-loved SA flag underwear-sporting bob of energy (De Klerk) took it upon himself to instruct senior players such as Siya and Lwazi to mingle with the fans and not just chill by themselves. He barked all of this in Afrikaans. An uncapped player speaking to senior players like that could only mean that he had probably been sanctioned by then-coach Heyneke Meyer to speak however he wanted to to the other “boys”. 

I wasn’t surprised that that’s probably the energy in the squad. I grew up playing rugby in Pretoria. It makes so much sense. But the confidence to bark at senior players in Afrikaans, pointing out some self-exclusionary and antisocial behaviour in front of fans. Well, that just kinda slaps different.

Every four years we’re guilted into standing behind an organisation that has never shown a sincere intention to change. White players are always revered over black players, not unlike Duane constantly taking over captaincy. Next time you watch a game, count the number of times Faf rolls his eyes when Siya speaks. Count how often the players even look to him for guidance or if Duane and other senior players instruct Siya what to do for the 60 minutes he’s given park time. For those of us who aren’t tourists to the sport, we know what stronger together means. It means braais at the Ruperts’ compound, where black players are invited but can’t make it for transport issues. It means Eben, who after allegedly calling them “hottentots” and “kaffirs”, is cleared by SA Rugby with zero sanctions imposed on him. It means that SA Rugby can use Mandela’s name on a whim to pipe down conversation on transformation. I’m loving the new trend to tear up Bok jerseys, though.

All over the world, Afrikaans Springbok fans are destroying their jerseys because Siya had the audacity to say black lives matter. (Laughing cry face emoji). It’s like the whole “burn your Nikes” thing that happened over the pond there. It’s amazing that people living in a majority black country are unable to understand that people affirming their existence would resonate with the majority of the country. Any time black people affirm themselves white people get shook and then try to play catch up. It makes no sense. These “farm murder” zealots only ever bring it up when they’re shitting themselves over black people seeing themselves as people, which just doesn’t synchronise with white pride. 

I had an interesting exchange with former Saru player Kobus Wiese the other day about farm murders. I asked whether farm labourers counted in these farm attacks and he replied with the good ol’ “All Lives Matter”. I cried laughing. So did some of the people following me on the Twitters. But the “all lives matter” schtick is about people feeling the need to assert their existence, even if they’ve never really had to fear that diminished in any way, shape or form.   The stats point out — not that the “all lives matter” crew care — that in South Africa the most vulnerable people to die by violent crime are black men. Which means that when people bend the knee for solidarity regarding a more politely named genocide (police brutality in the United States), in a predominantly black country like South Africa, you’re disagreeing that people matter. It means the guilt tripping to support the Springboks is still very much premised and dictated on their terms. 

This is not a storm in a teacup moment. Those World Cup winners who refused to acknowledge the mass murder of millions of black people around the world are allowed to do this because the same corrupt government that they still support — the one that refuses to acknowledge itself as a crime against humanity — is the Springbok way.

With a toothless minister of special condolences and a pinky fingernail’s worth of knowledge on small subjects like sports, arts and culture, nothing about racism in rugby is about to change.  Has anyone else noticed how Saru’s SA Rugby Magazine is essentially Fox News hosting a braai?

But what would I know, right? I’m just a kid who started grade one in 1994 and has been supporting “All Black” rugby ever since. 

Quick one. Do you know how many other countries have had black captains, never mind just players, before South Africa? Tana Umaga in New Zealand, Zambian-born George Gregan in Australia, Jason Robinson and Courtney Laws in England, Serge Besten and Thierry Dusatoir in France. Hell, even Colin Charvis for Wales. Don’t we find it strange that the only African country representing the sport in a meaningful way to the world has taken this long to have one of their own?

But, like I said, I’m an All Black, so I guess this no kneeling, stronger together, we love Nelson Mandela’s-wet-dream really has little to do with me. 

Phumali Pikoli used the terms race and racism 12 times in this article, the alternative title of which is “12”.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Phumlani Pikoli
Phumlani Pikoli is a multidisciplinary artist. He had his multi-sensory exhibition with the British Council in South Africa and Tmrw Mixed Reality Workshop, based on his acclaimed debut collection of short stories, The Fatuous State of Severity In January 2020. His debut novel Born Freeloaders was released in 2019 and published by Pan Macmillan.

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