South Africa’s triumph in the 2019 World Cup final in Japan was a fairytale – but, sadly, also the extension of a lie.
The Springboks became champions with a team that will always be remembered for having achieved a significant ‘first’ and, perhaps, a couple of ‘seconds’ – for, at its helm was Siya Kolisi, who grew up dirt poor in the township of Zwide, in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, and who remembered a childhood in which the need for a decent meal far outstripped any thoughts of fame on the sports fields of the country.
In the backline, on the wings, taking full advantage of the team’s traditional forward power, were two players, also formerly disadvantaged, of immense speed, trickery and finishing nous: Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslyn Kolbe.
Mapimpi won the hearts of tens of thousands of South Africans and came into the national team the hard way – via the dusty fields of Mdantsane in East London. But his exploits should not be seen as the norm. His experience is a sad example of what township players need to do to get to the top.
In the 25 years since the collapse of apartheid, the national side – which even before the formation of its first controlling body, the SA Rugby Board in 1889 were the staunchest supporters of segregation and apartheid – not only had its first black captain, but also a World Cup-winning one to boot.
Speaking to the national and international media afterwards, Kolisi was modest in victory, fulsome in his praise of his teammates and coaching staff, and generous in thanking South Africans for the support they gave his team. One of the messages he highlighted repeatedly after his team’s victory, and during their tour through major cities in South Africa was charming, but naïve.
“We have so many problems in our country, but to have a team like this… You know, we come from different backgrounds, different races, and we came together with one goal, and we wanted to achieve it,” he said. “I really hope that we have done that for South Africa, to show that we can pull together if we want to achieve something.”
Of course, the dark reality is that in 1995 South Africans were given what many people thought would be their biggest ever fillip towards national reconciliation by Nelson Mandela when he donned Francois Pienaar’s spare Number 6 jersey after South Africa had defeated New Zealand in their first World Cup final at Ellis Park.
But the feelgood factor was like the high point of a boozy weekend. The next week, the hangover started. A week, maybe two weeks later, normality set in. The old problems of skewed race relationships started up again, like a recurring nightmare.
The same thing happened in 2007, when South Africa won their second World Cup, and the controlling body, and many who should have known better, promised that this time victory would pull South Africans together.
Again, it didn’t.
In the seasons that followed, every defeat for South Africa against international opponents was greeted with disparaging shouts of a new K-word: ‘kwota’ – or to give it its English language equivalent – quota. What these ‘traditional Springbok’ supporters meant was that black players were not in ‘their’ team on ‘merit’.
In this past World Cup, the catchphrase was ‘stronger together’, which was meant for the team, obviously, but even more so for ordinary South Africans.
These were words that sounded good, but mean nothing.
Although the rugby brains trust is not entirely to blame, they are culpable in that they have collaborated repeatedly with national and provincial governments throughout the country in pretending that all South Africans have equal opportunities on the country’s sports fields. Today more than ever, entry into the game for black players is still a carefully managed and white-controlled process.
Players from the townships with aspirations of playing at the highest level have to squeeze their way through a narrow pipeline of elite rugby-playing schools like Kolisi did. To put it bluntly, if they don’t get into a Bishops, a SACS, a Paul Roos, a Grey College, or a few other top schools, they will not play top-grade rugby.
What have the various arms of government done to improve life in the townships? What has the South African Rugby Union done to develop the game in these townships?
The answer is, in capital letters: NOTHING.
School sport is dead. And once-thriving clubs in black townships throughout the country have been squeezed out of existence by the new, ‘united’ controllers of the game. To speak of transformation is stretching the truth. Rugby in South Africa has NOT been transformed. What has happened is that the small groups of black players who have made it to the highest levels of the game, for which they should be praised for their talent and tenacity, have been ASSIMILATED in what has been described by officials, without a hint of irony, into a ‘Springbok culture’. And this ‘Springbok culture’ is essentially a white Afrikaner, and suspiciously, a pre-1994 culture, give or take a tweak or two.
This question has never been forcefully asked or adequately explained: ‘Why would anyone – black or white – want to be part of this culture? For to be part of it would mean having to revere apartheid rugby heroes of the past, or to celebrate the anniversaries of ‘great victories’ over old rivals in the era of apartheid and segregation.
Consider this: Apartheid sport was brought to its knees by brave South Africans who risked their lives by working to isolate those sporting codes that connived with the SA government and its allies overseas in order to keep international doors open. These anti-apartheid activists were helped by committed men and women overseas who put pressure on their own governments to shut the doors to South Africa’s international participation. Today, nothing gets mentioned about the efforts of, for example, the Halt All Racist Tours (Hart) organisation who fought hard, long and innovatively to keep racist rugby teams out of New Zealand.
If Kolisi wishes to make a meaningful contribution to opening doors for the participation of all in the townships, it should be as an activist. A member of the Western Cape-based Stormers, he should be highlighting the dire conditions of sport in the townships. It’s all very well speaking about unity of purpose by a group of players living out of suitcases in hotel rooms in Japan.
But much more than that is needed. Perhaps he should consider the words of Megan Rapinoe, the captain of the United States’ women’s football team.
“As I’ve grown older, I’ve really got to understand how powerful one voice can be, my voice can be, or the team’s voice can be,’ Rapinoe said. “So, to hold that back or not to use that just seems selfish in a way.”
And what about the example set by Colin Kaepernick, the American Football star, who took a stand against police brutality against black people by kneeling during the playing of the US national anthem before a game?
“This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people who don’t have a voice, people who don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and affect change,” he said. “So, I’m in the position where I can do that, and I’m going to do that for people who can’t.”
As a World Cup-winning captain, Kolisi has become greatly influential. There’s a lot he can do. For a start, he should be naming and shaming the three arms of governments, who by persisting with policies that continue to nourish apartheid spatial planning, are denying thousands of township boys and girls the opportunity to reach their full potential in sport. And then, there’s the question about the status of the Springboks. This is the type of activism that is needed from South Africa’s sporting heroes.