A view on the Rugby World Cup and South African national unity

A Springbok fan cheers before the Rugby World Cup quarter-final match between South Africa and Australia at the Wellington Regional Stadium in 2011. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

The Rugby World Cup is upon us and rugby fever is gripping South Africa. South Africans don’t agree on many things politically and socially but, like most countries, they agree that they like to win in the sporting arena.

The nation goes into mourning on a regular basis when its cricket and football teams perform badly, which is often the case. However, rugby is the shining star in the galaxy. South Africans all know that if the “Springboks” lose, it is because of poor coaching and poor team selection. It certainly isn’t the fault of the “infallible” rugby heroes.

They were elevated into the realm of “Jungian Gods” or archetypal figures during the presidency of national icon Nelson Mandela, who in 1995 donned then-captain Francois Pienaar’s number six Springbok shirt when watching the gladiators at play.

The country had experienced a sea-change into democracy, and then conquered the world in rugby. South Africa was united, and things looked very promising. This inspired the nation and rugby icons became veritable lobbyists for political change and the normalisation and deracialisation of the society, known locally as transformation. Rugby fields became a virtual Colosseum of dreams.

Lack of transformation

In 1995, South Africa had the opportunity to build on the feeling of national unity motivated by winning the Rugby World Cup. However, this opportunity was squandered as rugby leadership failed to make transformation in the sport a reality. If it had occurred, the society may well have mirrored the transformation in other life arenas.

Today, acrimony and aggression are the order of the day. The young feel that the playing fields have not been levelled and symbolically vent their anger on statues of erstwhile colonial leaders. Students at universities across the country have been campaigning to have statues of colonial leaders removed from places of prominence, the most notable being the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.

This year, a court appeal to stop the Springboks playing in the World Cup transpired because it was argued that Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula and the South African Rugby Union had not ensured true transformation as the team demographics do not reflect those of the country.

The judge denied the appeal but noted that after the World Cup a broader conversation on proper transformation must take place. He warned that people were losing patience and noted that this was reflected in the problems experienced at, for instance, universities.

The whistle for full time has been blown. We have to transform and give opportunities to everyone, not just those belonging to the so-called white rugby elite. It is time to end their reign and for a new guard to take the reins.

This will not be easy. For the old guard it is not just letting go of rugby’s capitalist base, but its association with the very heart of Afrikanerdom. They need to reflect on what makes South Africa great. Simply stated, it is diversity.

South Africa has not won a world cup in any sport since 2007 when it achieved its second rugby victory. But this did not seem to unite the country like the first win, possibly because of a lack of transformation. This is why it is important for South Africa to win, and then to transform the sport to achieve proper unity. This will hopefully have a snowball effect and help achieve unity and transformation elsewhere.

Performances on the international arena in many sports is inconsistent at best. I would suggest that this unpredictability reflects both the country’s individual and collective inner turmoil. As a nation, South Africans do not reflect adequately on who they are and where they came from. Whites, in particular, seem utterly unable to reflect on why the majority of the population still feels excluded from economic and other resources.

Flaws in the plan

Nearly two years ago now the world mourned the death of sage Nelson Mandela. This is the first Rugby World Cup since his death. Mandela’s enthusiasm and belief in sport acted as the glue which united the nation’s psyche. It must be revived.

There has been some dissatisfaction with the current coach Heynke Meyer, and the selections he has made. Some do not understand the choice of Rudy Paige, according to one of South Africa’s leading rugby writers Hugh Godwin.

However, I question the choice of the ageing white players Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger (both playing in their third World Cup) and Jean de Villiers, who is arguably still not 100% match fit. Why has South Africa not developed other locks, flanks and centres? An obvious omission to the squad is Elton Jantjies, a black player whose performance is arguably good enough.

Rugby’s one saving grace is that it has not been involved in much of the corruption that has tarnished other sports, such as allegations of match-fixing in cricket.

We can liken the state of the nation to the state of its rugby team. This sounds banal but has a basis in how we perceive things both literally and metaphorically. In recent times South Africa has seen xenophobia, racism, populism and widespread corruption, and it needs something to believe in.

When South Africans hear the national anthem and watch and cheer their metaphorical gladiators on their way to victory, they feel omnipotent, confident and secure in collective unconscious. They want to do better and want Nelson Mandela to hear the cheers in his resting place. South Africans still feel that this sport has a purity that will unite everyone.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.