In SA, rugby is not just a game

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the meaning of our latest RWC victory


The Springbok victory in the finals of last Saturday’s Rugby World Cup in Japan was to South Africa like cold, spring water to a parched throat. It was only when it arrived that we fully comprehended how badly we had needed it.

It’s beginning to feel like a pattern. Every 12 years we win the World Cup, just in time to restore desperately depleted spirits.

Much has been made of the first victory in 1995, the magical Madiba moment when Nelson Mandela donned the Springbok jersey — until then a widely loathed symbol of Afrikaner, white supremacy — and along with a blue-eyed, white Afrikaner, lofted the trophy above their heads. For a country that had been filled with trepidation and distrust, that had experienced decades of violence and death, and had for long been banned from world sport because of apartheid, it was a defining, healing moment.

Neither the subsequent cloying sentimentality nor our later disillusion, should detract from the psychological impact of that victory and that clever gesture by Mandela. John Carlin, South African correspondent for The Observer at the time, wrote lyrically  years afterwards: “On that day, that night, South Africa scaled the Martin Luther King mountain top. Such is the emotional power sport releases that the country not only glimpsed but savoured, felt with its hands, the 'non-racial' dream for which Mandela and so many others had sacrificed so much.”

Being only human — short-memoried and bloody-minded — we, of course, soon enough reverted to our petty jealousies and tawdry squabbles. In comparison, the 2007 victory was a welcome sporting triumph but hardly of any great political significance.

The glitter had already been flaking from the rainbow. President Thabo Mbeki, in every sense a smaller man than Madiba, tried to cash out a rugby dividend for himself on the winners’ podium, but his popularity was already approaching its nadir and less than a year later he was fired by his party.

Fast forward to 2019. The country is ambulatory but crippled, pounded senseless by almost a decade of Apocalypse Zuma. It is only now, two years after President Jacob Zuma’s exit, that we are fully realising how his administration eroded the basic tenets of our nationhood, as encapsulated in the Constitution’s preamble: “[We] believe South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”

Morale is perhaps at its lowest point since the State of Emergency years in the mid-1980s. The political tone is set not by a wise government in tandem with a principled opposition but by a relatively small group of neofascist rabble-rousers, who spew hate, abuse and threats of genocide.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s honeyed promises of external investment bonanzas and internal moral regeneration have so far proven illusory. Despite having been perched for two years in the driving seat, CR still seems to be struggling to figure out how to release the handbrake.

Against this backdrop of disaster and disillusionment, the ecstatic public response to RWC 2019 is hardly surprising. It is, however, more than sporting success being the opiate of the masses.

As with 1995, it is difficult to overstate the symbolic importance of this triumph to ordinary South Africans. It was a victory that fits into all our conceits about ourselves, about South African exceptionalism.

There is an awe-inspiring stubbornness to Springbok rugby, a refusal to give up despite being the underdogs and, almost universally, having been written off, that resonates with our national soul. Like the Springboks, we’ve been there before. Often.

But more importantly, and less touchy-feely, is that the win by Siya Kolisi’s team gives a concrete measure of how far we’ve come. In a country where race remains the most important and volatile component to every problem, it provides a lesson to both white and black racists.

To the white naysayers, it should be evidence that we can both transform and be excellent. Change is not an either/or equation.

To black nationalists, it should be evidence that we are stronger together. It also shows that transformation in every field need not be a mechanistic exercise in replicating exact demographic proportions — get the basics right and winning teams essentially pick themselves.

Last week, I wrote that while our despair about SA may be excessive, it is even more dangerous to allow our hopes and dreams blind us to the realities of our dilemmas. Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus pulled it all beautifully together during a post-match interview, when asked about the enormous pressure that the no-hoper Springboks had been under.

In South Africa, he said, pressure is not about a rugby game. It’s about not having a job or having a close relative murdered. Hope, he said, is not about words but deeds.

“Rugby should be something that creates hope. We have the privilege of giving hope [by playing well]. It’s not a burden.”

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