The build-up to the World Cup by the South African team was nothing short of dramatic, mired in political U-turns, allegations of racial bias, the rearing of affirmative action bordering on race quotas and a controversial redesign of the revered green and gold jersey.
To put it bluntly, South African rugby has always been steeped in the politics of race, thanks to the legacy of decades of apartheid segregation.
When the Springboks sing the stirring rendition of the tri-lingual national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelele Afrika,” the new-found passion of sporting reconciliation is always clearly visible in the emotion on the faces of both white and black players alike.
South Africa of course is not only playing for itself, but for the pride of Africa. Together with Namibia, they are the only two countries representing the rising continent, albeit that in past tournaments Zimbabwe, Kenya and Tunisia have also qualified for some of the finals.
But over the last few months the racial politics of South African rugby has been undergoing potentially seismic changes. Perhaps it is a good omen that this year’s World Cup coincides with the 20th anniversary of the momentous Springbok victory over the New Zealand All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, when the then newly-elected president Nelson Mandela, the country’s first democratically-elected black president, reached out to millions of South Africans, famously donning the cap and the No. 6 shirt of the team’s captain – Francois Pienaar, a white Afrikaner – just before the start of the match.
To further commemorate the anniversary, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) even launched a “live Tweet” re-broadcast of the 1995 final which “generated a phenomenal” number of hits.
The political U-turn that the sport is witnessing in South Africa is over the ownership (some would say the reclaiming) of the Springbok logo and jersey for all South Africans irrespective of race. In the past, stalwarts of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) used to consider the Springbok emblem as anathema, because it erroneously considered it as the sporting symbol of white supremacy, of the much-loathed apartheid rule, ignoring the history of the parallel non-racial rugby movement whose roots go back to the 1870s.
In July, it was no less than Fikile Mbalula, the South African Minister of Sport, who kicked off the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup campaign, appealing to corporate South Africa to throw their weight behind it. He requested local employers – large and small – to join their workforce in supporting the campaign to wear their Springbok jerseys on ‘BokFridays’.
“It’s that time of year again where we have to wear our green and gold to support our national pride; the Springboks. Corporate South Africa, black, green or yellow, Rainbow Nation – unite behind the Springboks and show your support by wearing the green and gold like me; the Springboks’ No. 1 supporter,” said Mr Mbalula at the launch of the campaign. Such an utterance of reverence for the Springbok jersey would have been unheard of from a senior ANC official even three years ago, let alone earlier in the ANC’s time in power.
And to make what Jurie Roux, CEO of the South African Rugby Union (SARU), calls that “connection between the team and their supporters a little bit more real,” the Union has launched arguably the most sophisticated and user-friendly social media strategy for fans of any sport to date with its own Twitter identification #HomeGroundAdvantage and by enabling fans to upload selfies, which will appear as part of the number on the back of the shirt of Jean de Villiers (the captain) or Bryan Habana (the record try scorer) at World Cup matches in England.
This social media campaign, stressed Mr Roux, “feeds on the belief that passion for the Springboks and the importance of their success to this country runs so deep that wherever the team plays they can feel South Africa behind them. It is the ultimate bragging right.”
In the maelstrom of South African politics, even COSATU, the powerful ANC-linked trade union, whose former secretary general was Cyril Ramaphosa, the current Deputy to President Jacob Zuma, has weighed in to the Springbok debate.
In the build-up to the World Cup, following three successive defeats of the Springboks at the hands of New Zealand, Australia and Argentina in the Rugby Championship, the annual 4-nation southern hemisphere tournament, in August – the first time this has happened – Tony Ehrenreich, COSATU secretary general in the Western Cape, accused the Springbok Head Coach, Heyneke Meyer, a White Afrikaner, of racial bias in his team selection and lack of commitment to the transformation of rugby in the country and even called for his sacking.
Radicals including the COSATU hierarchy want to see more Black and Coloured (mixed-race) players picked on merit in the Springbok team, which is still dominated by white players.
“The point that also emerged in this whole SARU fiasco is that we do not have a commitment to development and transformation in rugby. The coach still thinks he can do as he pleases with no regard for the in-form black players. The coach should go, to make way for someone who is more committed to the values of South Africa. His choices clearly reflect a commitment to the rugby mafia and not to the players and rugby supporters. This is a national sport, not some club in Benoni (an Afrikaner heartland in Guateng), so it should consider national interest,” emphasised Ehrenreich in a statement.
It is as if COSATU has assumed the self-styled mantle of becoming the unofficial trade union of South African rugby as well, promising that it will be continuing “to act in the interest of the country and the nation by insisting on transformation. We want the boardroom to reflect the ambitions of all South Africa. Clearly the boardroom had changed the blacks, instead of the blacks changing the SARU boardroom.”
It has taken the intervention of Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula to calm things down, tweeting support for the team and the coach ahead of the World Cup and warning: “Full transformation in rugby is not going to emerge overnight because we are going to the World Cup.”
Under SARU’s Strategic Transformation Plan (STP) for rugby launched in March this year, the aim is to “increase black participation in the Springbok team to 50 per cent by 2019” and to increase black representation to 50 per cent at executive and board level provincially and nationally, and in team management and coaching.
Black players’ representation
While SARU refuses to acknowledge that political pressure to increase black representation in the Springbok team is tantamount to a quota system, the expectations of an increased number of Black players to be included in the final squad for the Rugby World Cup is in danger of becoming reality. In fact, the 31-member World Cup squad just announced by Heyneke Meyer will have nine non-white players. SARU seems to constantly tread that thin line of ever negotiating compromise and mitigating ambiguity in the face of huge pressure from all sides in the maelstrom of rugby politics in South Africa. When the announcement of the scaling down of the Springbok logo on the World Cup rugby jersey was made in June, SARU bent over backwards to explain that this placement is a temporary relocation and conforms to the contractual requirements of the tournament organisers.
“The Springbok logo,” explained SARU in a statement, “has been placed on the left sleeve of the playing jersey at all subsequent Rugby World Cup men’s, women’s, Sevens and Under-20 tournaments. Other nations – such as Australia – also relocate their team emblem to the jersey sleeve for World Cup events. The placement is not determined by the apparel sponsor; it is an inevitable consequence of the current regulations.”