The Poms whinge on

Andrew Donaldson on the ongoing English fury over Bongi Mbonambi's use of the k-word


MAYBE we should just hand the Webb Ellis trophy over to England and offer a grovelling apology for speaking in Afrikaans without permission. Dash an email off to the Rugby Football Union and explain that the whining’s now intolerable. So here, take the bloody thing, we’re done with it, and can we please, please, please finally put an end to this business and get on with the rest of our lives in peace and quiet? 

Granted, it may stick in the craw. The Springboks did, after all, beat the All Blacks in the RWC final. That’s what in fact went down in Paris on Saturday, 28 October, 2023. We all saw the game. It was close. We have the gnawed fingers as proof of that. But a win nonetheless.

That’s not how it is with this lot. They know down to the very core of their oaky pith that it was England who should have been at Stade de France that evening giving New Zealand carrots. And it surely would have been had hooker Bongi Nbonambi not addressed the England flanker Tom Curry in an allegedly unparliamentary manner during the quarter-final clash the week before. 

Hard to believe, but the alleged disparagement was so sapping of the stout stuff that it threw Curry and his teammates off their game completely with the result that the better team lost the match by a single point, their dream of glory dashed by a colonial type underhandedly mouthing off in the breakdown. 

Controversy raged in the days before the RWC final. It raged in the days after the final. And then, just when the fuss appeared to have died down, it flared up again at the weekend thanks to a gesture by the Cape Town mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis, during the Springboks’ trophy parade in the Mother City on Friday: the presentation to Mbonambi of a shirt with the word “wenkant” (“winning side”) across the front. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

This was too much for the UK’s stuffier newspapers and they were at it again, like a bad vindaloo repeating after a rash decision at the take-aways the night before. 

The Daily Telegraph headlined its report on this latest incident of Bok-naai: “Bongi Mbonambi reignites racism row with ‘Wenkant’ shirt”. Its lead paragraph read, “South Africa have continued to mock England flanker Tom Curry’s claim that he was racially abused by Bongi Mbonambi during the team’s trophy parade in Cape Town.”

It was no better at The Times, which headlined its account, “Mbonambi mocks Curry racism claim with ‘wenkant’ shirt,” and reported, “Bongi Mbonambi has been presented with a shirt bearing ‘wenkant’ (“winning side”) across the front, as South Africa continue to poke fun at Tom Curry’s racism claim against their hooker.”

The newspaper added that, in the build-up to the final, the Springbok camp had posted a video in which players and coaching staff repeatedly used the k-word during a training session; it was “kant” this and “kant” that, dus kant and daai kant; the implication that salt was being rubbed vigorously into the wounds of old Albion.

Mbonambi finally broke his silence on the row on Tuesday. “I think it is a very sad thing when you live in a first world country [England], you think the rest of the world speaks English,” he told BBC Sport Africa

“It was unprofessional on their part. They could have gone on a website and looked for an English dictionary and looked for the word in Afrikaans. People understood [in South Africa], but obviously their side was misunderstood. I’m glad it was well taken care of [by World Rugby] and that is all in the past now. But I have never racially swore at him.”

The fact that World Rugby had investigated Curry’s claim and concluded there was “insufficient evidence” to suggest Mbonambi had racially abused the flanker was neither here nor there. Falling back on previous reports on the matter, The Times once again noted that the “usually placid” England head coach, Steve Borthwick, was “incensed by the speed and result” of the inquiry.

“Let’s be clear,” Borthwick had said, “Tom Curry has done nothing wrong. We have got a victim of a situation who has not been able to have his voice heard. That’s where the disappointment really comes in. Somebody has said something to Tom Curry, Tom’s reported it, he’s been in a situation where World Rugby made a decision not to allow the opportunity for the victim’s voice to be heard. I think everything we have done, and everything Tom has done, has been in the right way. World Rugby have come to this decision, which is incredibly disappointing.”

The weird thing about all of this is that if anyone had reignited a “racism row” it certainly wasn’t Mbonambi or even Hill-Lewis, but rather these shabby newspapers. Judging by the reader comments that appeared below The Times online reports on this matter, it appears that the newspaper knows its dog-whistle stuff. This confected nonsense was red meat tossed to a ravening pack. The Springboks, it seems, are uncouth, racist, graceless, bullying, foreign, uncultured. Here are a few sample comments: 

“South Africa yet again prove classless in the sport. There is no team I detest more than this bunch of cheating and disillusioned Boks. Starts at the top with Rassie [Erasmus] and works it’s way down to those on the field.” (sic

“I’m alarmed that South Africans can mock racism.”

“The only kant here is clearly Mbonambi.”

On an on it went. But Saffers rose up in defence of Mbonambi and the team. And herewith a special shout-out — perhaps even a “Wenkant” shirt — to former journalist Justin Pearce, now a senior history lecturer at Stellenbosch University, for his sober responses to the trolling bullshit. Here is one example where he hits the nail on the head: 

“Tom Curry’s allegation was found to be unsupported by any evidence … The English media was on this issue for seven consecutive days, notwithstanding the absence of corroborating evidence. Now a further seven days later, the English media have resuscitated this dead matter.

“It appears the majority of the English following this now non-story including Borthwick and the RFU have decided to accept as gospel the word of a White Englishman (who has no knowledge of Afrikaans) over the denial (and plausible explanation) of a Black South African.

“Now let’s see who are the racists, not forgetting of course, that racism has been found to be ‘rife’ in English rugby. Yet another example, perhaps?”

Many Bok detractors have, of course, suggested that it would have been “different” had the boot been on the other foot, and that it was Mbonambi who had been the target of an allegedly racist taunt by a white player. 

“Just imagine,” ran a typical comment, “what would have happened if Curry had used a similar, rather crude term with the opposite connotation? His world would have fallen in, he’d never play again and his career would be over……”

One person who had imagined just that is David Walsh, the chief sportswriter for the London Sunday Times. Immediately after the RWC final, he wrote:

“From beginning to end, I looked to the heavens and wondered would people ever learn. The question asked by the RFU and more widely by many England followers seemed straightforward: what would have happened if the roles had been reversed and a white England player had called a black South Africa player ‘a black c***?’

“The response would have been very different, they said in answer to their own question. Of course it would. Because they are different. Have you ever seen a banana thrown at a white footballer? Or heard monkey noises directed at him? Have you ever been followed by a security officer when shopping at your local Sainsbury’s? If you have, you are almost certainly black.

“If it is true that Mbonambi called Curry a ‘white c***’ it was, at the very least, tasteless and offensive. If Curry felt genuinely demeaned as a white man; well, let me put this diplomatically, I’d be somewhat surprised.”

His readers did not like that. No sir. Not one bit. If I may put it diplomatically, there was vexed consensus that Walsh was a virtue-signalling person whose woke opinions disgusted, possibly due to his Irish roots. “Regardless of how arrogant you might be,” one commentator responded, “you don’t get to decide how a person feels when they are racially abused, Mr Walsh. You are reprehensible.”

Another journalist who appears not to have read the memo from Whinge Central HQ is the Guardian’s Jonathan Liew. His report on the RWC final is well worth revisiting. It begins on an oesophageal note, in which Liew leads his readers deep down Siya Kolisi’s throat, getting to the guts of the man, as it were, as he sang the national anthem: 

“The head rocks back, the chin jags out, and as his mouth opens you can see every tooth in it, the tongue and the tonsils and the remains of the energy gel he polished off during the warm-up. For South Africa’s captain, this can never simply be a perfunctory discharge of pre-match formalities. It’s an opportunity, a decisive moment, a chance to gain an edge…”

And just what did that “edge” look like? Liew offers the following:

“Perhaps you see it in the 76th minute … when Jordie Barrett is racing through clean air with two runners outside him, and you, Pieter‑Steph du Toit, you know that if you don’t wrap him up in the next couple of seconds — and properly wrap him up, arms and wriggling hips and all — then New Zealand will probably eat up half the field. Yes, the lungs are screaming. Yes, this is your 26th tackle of the night. But it needs to happen, and it needs to be you, and it needs to be now, and it needs to be perfect.

“Or in the 78th minute, when Dalton Papali’i is accelerating up the touchline, a blur of black disappearing into the distance, and you, Faf du Klerk, have only just enough time to dive in and lay one hand on him before he’s gone. What are you going to do with that one hand? Which part of the ankle is going to get you the most leverage? Aim too high on the calf and the leg will probably hold firm. Aim too low on the boot and you risk grasping at fresh air. The clock is ticking. It needs to be you, and it needs to be now, and it needs to be perfect…”

And it was all perfect. And then there was this final, telling observation from Liew:

“There are times when South Africa’s rugby team can feel — illusorily, but persuasively — like the only thing really holding together this divided country, with its 12 official languages and infinite planes of ethnicity and history and privilege, with its endemic instability and its useless politicians. In reality it is a kind of utopian cosplay, a rolling 80-minute fantasy of what South Africa might be like if it truly were content and united. But it is an origin story as powerful as any the sport has to offer, and so perhaps when you are this convinced of the sanctity of your mission, you will stop at nothing in its pursuit. Whether it’s a crucial tap-tackle or a little shimmy to try to fool the referee that you were accidentally offside. Whether it’s a clutch kick or claiming with an entirely straight face that bringing off your crippled hooker is actually a tactical substitution.”

Or, if I may, speaking Afrikaans, the lingua franca of Springbok rugby.

Fashion buzz

Speaking of useless politicians, we were not too surprised, here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), that several government members and ANC top knobs should have turned up at the Stade de France for the final. There was glory to be grabbed and, my word, they were dead keen to get a big chunk of it. 

Consider the lunge for the cup by Cyril Ramaphosa at the trophy presentation. This was a display of rare scrummaging skill, and it left us wondering how matters may have turned out had Squirrel chosen a career as a loose forward rather than enter politics.

What does puzzle us, however, is why Fikile Mbalula, the ANC’s short and shouty secretary-general, elected to attend the final dressed as a bumble bee. 

Many of his comrades managed to slip into something green and gold for the occasion as if they were all long-standing supporters of the national team. But not our Mbaks. He instead turned out in an oversized and fuzzy shell-suit ensemble in yellow and black. Emblazoned on his chest was a large “DG” logo. This, we are told, is the branding for swanky fashion house Dolce & Gabbana. Not, as we supposed, Dire and Ghastly.