/ 13 September 2023

South Africa can be like its rugby team

The accusation of a 'quota squad'

Rugby World Cup fever has hit the country and South Africans love their national rugby team. Many point to Nelson Mandela wearing Francois Pienaar’s rugby jersey at the 1995 World Cup final as the central reason for the Springboks being so loved, but it is deeper than that.

Gain Line, a data analysis company founded by former Australian rugby prop Ben Darwin, consults for a number of sporting clubs, particularly rugby teams. It has developed a concept called cohesive analytics, which argues that for a team to do well it must be cohesive and for that to occur the players must play regularly with each other and so develop trust and belief in each other. Gain Line’s data backs this up. 

Teams that may have greater resources are not as successful because they do not share a common bond. The New Zealand All Blacks, for instance, draw their players from a host of Pacific islands such as Samoa and Tonga. So, although they are diverse, they play regularly with each other at school, club and provincial levels. They do not use their different cultures to stop them from authentically interacting with each other on a regular basis.  

Mandela introduced us to the concept of reconciliation. The English word does his understanding an injustice, because it suggests a balancing of the books as in accounting, where you cannot really see the effect of profit on the one side and losses on the other.  The Afrikaans equivalent of the word reconciliation is toenadering or coming nearer to each other. It provides a different imagery, one of people walking towards each other as opposed to waiting to see what the other will do.

In the movie Invictus, about South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995, there is a scene where a white cop is parked outside Ellis Park stadium, where the final is being held. The cop is listening on the radio. A black street urchin comes closer so that he can also listen but the cop chases him away.  As the match progresses, the boy inches closer and by the end of the match the cop and the boy are hugging and celebrating together.

That scene is reconciliation, not toenadering. For it to have been toenadering, the cop would have called the boy over and they would have listened to the match together.  Sadly, since 1994 very few white people have tried to embrace the new South Africa and walk towards black South Africans with outstretched arms.

The most-hated sporting symbol of apartheid was the springbok, and it came to the fore during the 1980 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand, where anti-apartheid protestors invaded the pitch and a light aircraft dropped flour bombs onto the field. 

Many of us were unhappy with Mandela for refusing to drop the springbok as rugby’s national symbol. But we understood that as a part of the politics of our country, not as a part of rugby. Black South Africans have always been able to distinguish rugby the sport from the politics of the country. Their support for the team and the sport has never been conditional. The South African rugby team will always be the Boks, regardless of what Mandela decided about the springbok.  

In most of the world, rugby is a middle class sport, but in South Africa it is working class — even during the darkest days of apartheid. Yes, it is ostensibly a major feature of Afrikaner culture, but it draws its players and disciples from the working class. And we need to also recognise that class, like time, is relative, as Einstein proved.

Hence, even in areas where black people predominantly live, rugby is followed and played. It’s similar to the Afrikaans language. Yes, it may be the medium of instruction in expensive schools and universities in the country, but it is the lingua franca in the poorest so-called coloured people in the Cape Flats and is a big part of tsotsitaal in the black African townships.  

But rugby has more to offer South Africa than just sporting excellence. It offers South Africa an opportunity to glimpse what the country could actually be like.  

I love Rassie Erasmus, the current director of rugby and former coach of the Springboks.  He encapsulates what South Africans should and could be like. Rassie is not from the mansions of Waterkloof in Pretoria or Stellenbosch but from the Afrikaner working class area of Despatch just outside Gqberha.  

The M-Net documentary, Chasing the Sun, which tracks the Springboks in their successful efforts to win the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, provides a brilliant insight of Rassie’s philosophy. As the team prepares for the world cup, Rassie seemingly decides to tackle the matter of racial diversity.

Like previous coaches he tackles it head on, but does not deflect responsibility to the administrators of the South African Rugby Union (Saru) or to politicians.  

He gets black players to elaborate on where they come from — like Makazole Mapimpi, who was raised by his grandmother in a single-roomed hut in the former Transkei area of the Eastern Cape. The white players, who may not have endured the financial and economic hardships of their black counterparts, also sacrificed. Their parents worked two or three jobs, so they could go to certain schools.   

Through this process, the players begin to understand and empathise with each other’s backgrounds and the sacrifices they each made. This not only builds healthy respect, but also genuine friendship and loyalty.

But Rassie did not just stop there. He then related them to the whole country — and spoke of where we have come from and what we currently endure. Therefore, whatever happens on the field cannot be worse than what we have all experienced in our lives. He effectively uses the trauma we have lived through as testimony of our remarkableness, not as a weakness. There is no space for victims, just victors.

Rassie is able to get this group of players to drop their differences and become one team centred on being South African. 

South Africans have to come together, otherwise we will not be able to tackle the problems in this country. It requires us to walk that extra mile towards each other, as opposed to waiting to see what the other will do. The Springboks showed us what is possible in 2019. Many of us believe that they can repeat that feat in this year’s Rugby World Cup. We believe that because we know the players and coaches are one single unit.  

We need to relinquish our own misconceptions about each other and be one team. We need leaders like Rassie Erasmus, who are unafraid to admit that there is a crisis, and then to take a risk on us and believe that we can and will pull together. If we do that we can win our own world cup against poverty, inequality and unemployment. 

Donovan E Williams, is a social commentator.