Siya Kolisi acknowledges the fans after defeat to Ireland during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between South Africa and Ireland at Stade de France on September 23, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Football is South Africa’s biggest sport. There’s never been a question ever since it was introduced by British and Scottish soldiers in the late 19th century.
But there’s an argument to be made that rugby, represented by the Springboks, is the country’s most symbolic, just as baseball is to Americans.
Rugby has a sordid and divided history. Likewise, baseball. Its biggest legends in the game, such as “Babe Ruth’’, played in an era when black players weren’t allowed on the same pitch. Major League Baseball was segregated from 1888 to 1947, encompassing Ruth’s entire career.
Much of the legendary playing career of flyhalf Naas Botha was played in a time of segregated rugby structures. Like Ruth, there’s a bit of an asterisk with his career, through no fault of his own; it is what it is.
All South African sport has been scarred by our racial divisions — except maybe for the new suburban thrill of paddle tennis or whatever it is called. There’s no sporting code that hasn’t been affected by the strange race theories of Verwoerd and his brethren.
Football was as — if not more — segregated than the game of rugby. In the early 1900s there was a black, white, Indian and coloured football league. In building the concept of a national identity, sport and the arts play an integral role. Rugby, through chance or by fate, was adopted as part of the Afrikaner national identity, with the game, and the Boks, coming to represent all that is wrong with South Africa and all that must change. International isolation may have stung the men in Union Buildings, but what stung worse was the fact that their “manne” couldn’t bludgeon the English Roses in remembrance of the Anglo-Boer War.
The game of rugby continued being played in its segregated manner, the leaders of the game stubbornly ignoring the fact that football had become multiracial in the late 1970s with Lucky Stylianou being the first white player at Kaizer Chiefs.
But here we are as a nation now embracing the idea of supporting Springboks as they head into yet another World Cup final this weekend. Through the first two of the team’s world cup victories since readmission, there was palpable apprehension about supporting the side. But, since 2007 — as the country’s economy slowed, the difficulties of our transformation became more stark, and a new materialistic political class emerged — our confidence as a nation has been dented. We’ve craved an idea to rally around.
The appointment of Siya Kolisi as captain of the symbolic Springboks and ultimately the World Cup win a year later turned a chapter in this sport and its relations with the country. Whatever the outcome this weekend, Kolisi may prove the most valuable sportsperson of all time for South Africa, through all of its sports. Our own “Babe Ruth”.