/ 1 November 2023

Racism, respect and war in rugby

The accusation that Bongi Mbonambi directed racist language at an England player reminds us that we should not cheapen the dangers of racism in sport. (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

The Springboks’ three one-pointer wins, in three weeks, before lifting the Rugby World Cup for an unprecedented fourth time, was freaky. Equally bizarre, although less successful, was England player Tom Curry’s accusation that Springbok Bongi Mbonambi had thrown a racial slur at him during the semi-final. 

The ugly head of the adder in the heart of sport was raised: “Is racass, is racass!” our unofficial world champion comedian, Trevor Noah, passionately insists when he impersonates commander-in-chief Julius Malema. Curry ever so politely addressed referee Ben O’Keeffe as “Sir” and asked what he should do “if their hooker calls me a white cunt”. In a tight semi-final a referee has a lot on his plate. O’Keeffe responded: “Nothing please.”

In a dignified short and sweet statement the South African Rugby Union condemned racism, recorded Bongi’s denial and said that no further comment would follow. World Rugby speedily investigated what they called “the alleged use of discriminatory language”. Discrimination is already a step below racism. Because of insufficient evidence, the matter was closed. No wonder. Currie’s use of the “if” word made it unclear whether he had been abused, or was just requesting advice in advance, in case it should happen. Which word of the two-word slur World Rugby might have found to be discriminatory, if proven, is also unclear. The colour of Curry’s skin, or of his England outfit, comes to mind, as also sex, gender and male chauvinism. England Rugby expressed its disappointment with the decision. They did not say whether they regarded the evidence as sufficient, or were able to find more, somehow, somewhere.

The debate and explanations that followed fuelled numerous jokes, mostly focusing on the possibility that Bongi, in rainbow team Afrikaans, referred to the wide, or white, side (“kant”) of the play at that point. It would be strange if he uttered a very personal insult in open play. Like lightning fast fist in the face, or finger in the eye, in the old days before many referees, cameras and cards, it should best be delivered close-up, in the private violent darkness of a scrum, ruck, or mall, or into the bloodied ear on the grass after a brutal tackle. We should not judge on insufficient evidence though.

Let us assume that Bongi, or another black South African player, indeed called a white English player exactly what was alleged.  Where would that take us? The mischievous among us would be tempted to raise the law of defamation defence of truth and public interest: stating a truth, which the public should know, does not attract liability. 

However, racism is no laughing matter, but an evil disease. In sport it is especially dangerous, because the mob mentality of an excited and emotional herd, with little else than the perceived superiority of their team or group to justify their existence, makes it very difficult to address it and punish culprits. Instigation by the herd’s heroes makes it much worse.

But is the alleged insult in this case indeed racism? A white Englishman accusing a black South African. In their book Pitch Battles former UK cabinet member Peter Hain and historian André Odendaal point out that race discrimination in South African sport was initiated by Cecil John Rhodes, together with a former England rugby captain who became South Africa’s cricket captain, in 1894. They prohibited a very promising fast bowler from the Bo-Kaap, Henry “Krom” Hendricks, from being included in the South African team’s tour to England.

What would the referee and World Rugby have done if Curry allegedly called Bongi a black pig, or an African ape?  One of the most disgusting ways in which racism has been expressed by soccer crowds is to make primate-like sounds when a player of African origin is near them within hearing distance. Historically many white people have regarded, or pretended to regard, black people as lower than them on the evolution ladder, indeed sub-human. 

What exactly is racism? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as others, it is the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race; the ideology or belief in the superiority of a particular race, mostly one’s own. The element of racial supremacy is thus central. Power over “the others” mostly partners with racism.

History has cruelly shown the belief in their racial supremacy of European colonisers, oppressors and slave traders and owners. Fuelled by racism, apartheid was not mere discrimination, but indeed the denial of the very human dignity of people perceived not to belong to the human race. Over the last few years our Springbok team has to a very admirable degree succeeded not only in breaking away from the past, but also in fostering some unity after centuries of division, humiliation, bitterness and hatred.

Can black people be racist towards white people? This question is often hotly debated. Of course members of any race, colour or creed can be racist. However, I have encountered very few, if any, African people believing in the supremacy of their race, over people of European or Asian origin.

One often sees perhaps understandable eruptions of racial grievances, resentment, hatred, or black rage. The “race card” is sometimes opportunistically used to get soft jobs, land lucrative contracts, disable opponents, or manipulate meetings. This is not the same as racism though, at least according to several dictionaries. 

Language is flexible. Terms and labels often assume meanings, much wider than the original. Any race-based negativity is bad. But the true evil of racism must not be cheapened by its perceived usefulness, including when a yellow card could win a tight game.

Did Curry try to soothe his deep personal pain, strive for justice and equality for all, or win the sympathy of the referee, or the media? How far would English Rugby be prepared to take a fight like this? The ancestors of Bongi, Siya, Ox, Trevor and other players of colour never traded in European slaves, or violently colonised England. 

The English lock of Nigerian origin, Maro Itoje, has praised Curry’s courage and attacked World Rugby for not allowing “the victim’s voice” to be heard. If Curry were honest, even though naïve, he indeed had courage. 

Itoje also announced that he would never ever again sing “Swing low, sweet chariot”, so popular and inspiring at England rugby matches. According to him, he only recently became aware of the song’s roots in slavery. After associating himself with his white team mate’s allegation that a black player is a racist, he positions himself on the “Black lives matter” side of history as well. Is he a very fair man, or an opportunist? Let us give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he stated that England supporters may continue to sing the slave song, even if they ignore the painful past attached to it.

Talking about equality, sensitivity and respect, is it not strange that the haka is still religiously performed by the All Blacks? Children are impressed and circus fans entertained, but is it not becoming boring? It allegedly displays a tribe’s pride, strength and unity. It is their “culcha”, like former president Zuma’s was to “get married every weekend” — according to Malema.  But they stick their tongues out and make a series of viciously violent gestures, like slitting their opponents’ throats, with murderous madness in their eyes. No wonder they see little wrong with captain Cane almost decapitating Jesse Kriel, his face contorted as if Mike Tyson in his heyday landed a full right on the jaw. 

Spectators watch the haka in silence. Opposing teams must stand still and observe the spectacle. When they ignore it, turn their backs, or laugh, they are severely criticised for “disrespecting” it. Yet, we are told that “the haka calls for a response”. Like what? For cultural diversity the Italian team could perform a short opera, the French bake croissants, the Irish do a leprechaun dance and the Namibians shoot a running kudu with a bow and arrow. 

Equality has not yet been achieved in our world.  Some nations do war dances before they participate in sport. Our future response could be that Trevor Nyakane becomes a permanent impact player, to lead the team with his widely circulated short victory dance after the final. Rather than thirsting for blood, he expresses joy and happiness.   

Johann van der Westhuizen, who assisted in drafting the Constitution, is a retired justice of the constitutional court, founding director of the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights and a former inspecting judge of Correctional Services. The views expressed are his own.