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United In Sport - Maybe?

Coen van Wyk

Posted on November 8, 2019 12:34

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South Africa has won the 2019 Rugby World Cup. This victory echoes that of 1995, the year of Democracy when a similar tide of joy swept the nation. But many ugly cracks appeared as well.

The Rugby World Cup is back in South Africa! 

Proud Captain, Proud Nation. Photo Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images 

In 1995, South Africa, then newly admitted to international Rugby, won the cup. The popular sentiment of that victory helped Nelson Mandela to build a Rainbow nation. 


Rugby is a deeply popular game in South Africa and was long seen as the preserve of the Afrikaner people, who grudgingly admitted that ‘die engelse’ delivered a few passable players. Played at a local level, many a match saw some scores settled between teachers and pupils, business and romantic rivals. All in the name of amateur sportsmanship.

There were a few pockets of black rugby, although matches between white and black were unthinkable back then. But the 1994 team included colored players and many more have joined the game since. The Nationalists believed that there was not sufficient common ground between South Africa’s different races to create a united nation. Mandela set out to prove them wrong.

The game became professionalized. Controversy raged about the name of the national team: for a century and more, national athletic teams bore the name Springbok, a lovely gazelle endemic to our region, known for its spectacular leaps and mating displays. Despite two Zulu long-distance runners participating as Springboks in the 1904 Olympics, it was felt that the name should change. The national cricket team was called after the national flower, the Protea. But the rugby team remained the Springbok team.

During the Zuma years, South African rugby endured a drought, being beaten in 2015 by Japan. What ignominy! The buildup to the 2019 match was intense. President Ramaphose forewent the inauguration of neighboring President Masisi of Botswana and jetted out to Japan to support the ‘Bokke. Fans quoted the famous Boer War Siener van Rensburg as having predicted a victory over the colonizers, England. Traffic came to a standstill, predicted power cuts were canceled.

A hard game. Photo Sankei Shimbun



The 2019 Springbok team was led to victory by its first black captain, Siya Kolisi, in a match that saw the perfect team play. White coach Erasmus declined to lift the trophy with Kolisi, saying: “It’s your moment.”

President Ramaphosa Celebrating With the Team. Photo Twitter, @Springbokke

For a moment the nation was united again. Politicians rushed to share the glory, forgetting to warn their constituents of water supply crises and breakdown of power grids. Then the political fallout began: Ex-president Zuma’s daughter echoed the white supremacists: 'There will never be a united South Africa.’ Economic Freedom Fighters praised the black players, demeaning the white team members.

I have my reservations about professional sport. The players deserve praise and recognition. But the critics show up the divisions we still have to overcome. After all, nature celebrated with us!

Coen van Wyk

Posted on November 8, 2019 12:34

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