Politics and sport are inseparable. To paraphrase the famous military thinker Carl von Clausewitz, sport could be politics – or even warfare – by other means. This is even truer of sport at a national level: teams represent the political entity of a nation-state. This close relationship between sport and politics has always been apparent in South Africa, during apartheid and after.
An example with its roots in apartheid still plays itself out during every southern hemisphere rugby season. It occurs during Super Rugby when South African club/ provincial teams play against their New Zealand, Australian, Argentinian and Japanese counterparts, and also when the former three teams’ national teams play against South Africa’s Springboks.
It happens specifically when New Zealand’s Canterbury Crusaders or its national team, the All Blacks, play against their local opposition at Cape Town’s Newlands Stadium. These matches invariably scratch open old political wounds as the so-called “Cape Crusaders” – wearing the Crusaders’ red or All Blacks’ black replica shirts – support the Kiwi team.
The debate around the Cape Crusaders prominently came into the public eye in 1996 when Trevor Manuel, then South Africa’s Finance Minister, said he supported the All Blacks when they play the Springboks.
Political and personal choice
The Cape Crusaders are a sub-culture of South Africans of mixed race, also called coloureds, mainly in the Western Cape province. They started supporting the Springboks’ opposition during apartheid: a deeply political and personal choice.
The apartheid government treated coloured people as inferior human beings. The white government brutally evicted them from neighbourhoods around the country, moving them far afield from the white areas.
This policy of apartheid manifested in a number of other hurtful, discriminatory ways. At Newlands for example, coloured people were not allowed to sit with whites. They were allocated their own stand behind the poles; the worst seats at the field.
Some started to support the opposition of the white and mostly Afrikaans-speaking Springboks, who represented and resembled their oppressors. This started with tours by the British and Irish Lions in the 1960s and 1970s. But ultimately the main team to support were the All Blacks, who came to be the Springboks’ big foes in the latter half of the twentieth century.
The support for the All Blacks and also the Crusaders (with eight titles the most successful team in Super Rugby) still remains to this day for many coloured people, despite apartheid officially ending in 1994 with South Africa’s first democratic election.
Talk to Cape Crusaders at an All Blacks vs Springboks test match – as I did during the Soweto test in 2012 – and you will hear that their decision is rooted in a personal history of discrimination and oppression. Their decision to support the Crusaders or All Blacks is more often than not rooted in past trauma, such as violence or intense racism perpetrated against their family or community by big, burly white Afrikaans policemen.
The fatherland begins at home
The Cape Crusaders’ choice is therefore usually rooted in two reasons: Firstly, because their father or grandfather supports them. The support of a national team is about patriotism for many; but for others, loyalty to your father is more important. This is a motivation for support of sport teams in general. The fatherland begins at home.
Secondly, the Springboks still carry the same symbolic baggage of white Afrikaans oppression to Cape Crusaders. The racial composition of the Springbok squad has changed. But the rub of the matter is that most men in the team still resemble the former oppressors, even if only physically.
The political but especially the psychological import of this baggage brings back painful memories: of the policemen who came to your door during apartheid and dragged a bloodied family member away in handcuffs, or of the government bulldozers that came to flatten your house.
There is usually a public outcry in the media about the Cape Crusaders’ continuing support of Kiwi teams. The main gripe is that they are being unpatriotic by not supporting the South African team involved. They are even branded as traitors; some say that they should put the past behind them and just move on.
Statements like these reveal ignorance of the Cape Crusaders’ choice being rooted in a violent and unjust past. It is also too convenient to make such a statement if you or your kin was the former oppressor. And the idea that being South African means you support South African sport teams is far too thin a definition. This kind of talk also treats history as a series of stops and starts, with the view that the end of apartheid in 1994 brought an end to oppression and injustice.
History is a process that continues in the present and many facets of apartheid still continue albeit in a different guise. The past that people speak of is still very much with South Africans, especially in terms of the poverty and domestic trauma found in many coloured communities. A hasty judgement about the Cape Crusaders reveals historical amnesia and simply reinforces racial prejudices.