South Africa: It’s Never Just About Rugby

I have never described myself as a “sporty” person. I was a small skinny kid growing up and preferred reading, playing chess, and the general world of geekdom enjoyed by the non-jock. Not having grown up with it, I never saw the appeal of football (particularly the fanaticism of club allegiance which I found a little baffling), and struggled to adapt to the ubiquity of it in English culture when I moved countries. But rugby is an exception. With its division between front and backline, there was a place for those with a smaller frame. At school I was a passable winger with a decent sprint (until a disagreement with a shaky concrete pillar broke my legs and put an end to any grander ambitions in the sport). I was lucky enough to be in South Africa for our epoch-making 1995 World Cup debut (a year before I left the country) and, though I was only 11 at the time, remember vividly the transcendent power of that moment – that it was about more than a sport, it was about a fractured country riven by hatred taking its first steps on a path of healing and unity. 

Of course one shouldn’t be a Pollyanna about the significance of individual events and peak experiences, we still have a long way to go. Madiba knew this and it informed the title of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Indeed, in it he closes this exceptionally powerful read with:

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

That is not to say we haven’t continued to move forward since then, though there have certainly been some dark valleys in between. It has been a rough few years for South Africa. We managed to shake free of the squalid and cynical Zuma years, with our coffers looted by a mafia government, having narrowly avoided being sold off wholesale to sinister foreign interests. We have pockets of tawdry self-enriching fake revolutionaries in our parliament who seek power by whipping up hatred and division, trying to send us tumbling back from the incremental progress we have made. And just this year, South Africa made the headlines again for the worst of reasons, a spate of gender-based violence.

…a kind of raw physical sensation of hope, of possibility, of strength…

While it is surely cold comfort to those most directly affected by these events, there is something resilient in the South African national spirit that has managed to wrench positive forward momentum from these dark times. Something about South Africa simply refuses to be defeated. This, I believe, is one of the reasons rugby can be so powerful. And it always seems to come through when we need it most. And this is why we won the World Cup in 2019. With the greatest respect, England went into that final expecting to win, we went in needing to win. For our captain, our coach and our team, failure was not an option. As coach, Rassie Erasmus put it,

“We talked about what pressure is, In South Africa pressure is not having a job. Pressure is one of your close relatives being murdered – there are a lot of problems in South Africa – which are real pressure. Rugby shouldn’t be something that creates pressure, rugby should be something that creates hope. We’ve got the privilege of giving people hope, not the burden of giving hope.”

Aside from sheer elation (and, I must confess, the warm tears), that is what I felt most vividly, from the beginning of the second half, to our captain, Siyamthanda Kolisi triumphantly lifting the Webb Ellis cup at the helm of the most diverse Springbok team in history, a kind of raw physical sensation of hope, of possibility, of strength.

This is why sport has such talismanic power for our people. There are so many times throughout our history that this country “should” have failed, that we were told we would not make it. And somehow, we always manage to prevail with a resilient smile and, quite often, a victory to tell our children about. Back in the early 90s we were on the brink of civil war with inter-racial and inter-tribal violence threatening to tear us from one another. Two years later we were World Cup champions, led by one of the most noble and humble people ever to have graced the world stage. 

Our long walk most certainly continues. But then, like now, we can take a moment to steal a view of that glorious vista. 

Robin has a background in the UK, South Africa, and the Middle-East. A keen follower of international current affairs, he holds a Masters degree in Global and Comparative Politics. He is a contributing editor to On Netflix Now. Follow him on Twitter @Robin_GJ