South Africa: Rugby win unites a divided nation

Africa

Once more, winning Rugby World Cuphas become a symbol of hope and reconciliation for the perennially troubled ‘Rainbow nation’. On Tuesday night, when the Springboks arrived with the Webb Ellis trophy at OR Tambo international airport in Johannesburg, for a moment it seemed the nation had reconciled.

Thousands of supporters received springbok captain Siya Kolisi and his team. The victory crossed color lines as all South Africans sang in unison to welcome the Springboks. The victory crossed color lines as all South Africans sang in unison to welcome the Springboks. Has South Africa’s found new hope at a time when the country is grappling with effects of recent xenophobic attacks, high unemployment rates, and rampant corruption? And could it be a repetition of what the South African government called “the uniting and nation-building effect the 1995 crop brought about to our nation”” a reference to the South African victory 25 years ago?

More unity for South Africa?

Upon arrival, team captain Siya Kolisi pointed at the player’s unity as the source of their win. “We get through a lot of challenges as a country and we always find a way to get through this, especially when we get together and we start fighting for something. We had to fight every single game like it was a play off so, we gave it everything we could.”

Siya Kolisi, captain of South Africa during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Semi-Final match between Wales and South Africa

Siya Kolisi is the first black captain of South Africa”s national rugby team

Mamelo Maka, a Springboks supporter, was among those waiting for the Springboks to arrive back home. “We are proud of what the Bokke did to South Africans because after this, and maybe we will be more united in South Africa. We love each other, and they showed us, love.” She is especially proud that the Springboks’ captain is black.

Kolisi, who grew up in poverty in Eastern Cape Province and who is the first black captain of the South African rugby team, attributed the victory right after the match to the “people in the taverns, in the shebeens, farms, homeless people … and people in the rural areas.” His team has been described as the most representative ever seen. In South Africa, rugby was considered whites’ sport, even now, the Sprinboks are yet to meet the prescribed transformation in terms of representation of black and white players.

Japan | Südafrika gewinnt die Rugy Weltmeisterschaft gegen England (Imago Images/Kyodo News)

President Cyril Ramaphosa raised the Webb Ellis Cup after the team beat England 32-12

Sports – a tool to divide and unite

Back in 1995, when South Africa won the Cup for the first time, it was flanker Francois Pienaar who spoke about how the trophy was for “all 44-million South Africans”. During that time, the country was slowly transforming itself to a democratic state, after many years of apartheid.

And before the apartheid are, sports was restricted in ways. John Vorster, the Prime Minister of South Africa from 1966 to 1978, said: “I want to make it quite clear that from South Africa’s point of view no mixed sport between Whites and non-Whites will be practiced locally”. However, sports also became a form of resistance. It was the non-racial South African Council on Sport (Sacos) and the exiled South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (San-Roc) that organized protests against the racist sports policies. Because of those organizations South African had been banned and suspended from multiple international sports competitions, including the Olympics in 1970. A poll from 1977 among white South Africans cited exclusion from international sports in the top three damages caused by apartheid.

Japan Rugby World Cup Finale England v Südafrika (Reuters/M. Hutchings)

Could the rugby victory be a foretaste of an unified South Africa?

A break from the problems

President Cyril Ramaphosa, described this year’s victory as a historic moment. “This is a powerful indicator of what we can achieve when we set goals for ourselves, and we work together to achieve success. It is a moment that is embedded forever in our national memory.” However, one local publication described the victory unity as a ‘holiday from problems that plug us.’ When the Springboks first won the world cup in 1995, all team members were white, and the country is still bleeding from the impact of apartheid that had ended in 1994.

Now, the country is facing a mountain of challenges: The economy is ailing, South Africa’s unemployment rate rose to 29 percent, the highest level in eleven years. The Progress of South Africa’s economy has been limited and uneven. The country is suffering from widespread corruption and xenophobic attacks that have caught the whole world’s attention over the past months. Besides, South Africa is struggling to deal with a rise in murder and rape crimes. According to South African police data, more than 21,000 murders were reported in the whole country between April 2018 and March 2019.

Division in a moment of joy

These and other challenges existed before the match, and they still exist now. The event has also been used by politicians to cause division. Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, the spokesperson of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), tweeted after the match:

Mzwandile Masina, the Mayor of Ekurhuleni, had before posted a picture of white Springbok supporters at the semi-final in Japan, claiming that one of them was wearing the old apartheid flag around his shoulders. After a storm of outrage on Twitter, it was becoming clear that the man was wearing the current flag. The shading of colors had come out oddly in the picture.

Focus on the future

But despite the division-attempts, David Hogg, a South African national, says the collaboration between the Springboks’ black and white players provided a clue on how the country’s problems can be solved. “When different people from different areas come together with a similar goal, see what they can achieve. For South Africans, for the rainbow nation, we are so proud and so excited. This [win]  is in the spirit of unity and ubuntu, and we have got a bright year ahead of us. Despite all of the troubles, I think we’re brave and ready to face them.”

The Springboks have encouraged South Africans to talk about what their unity can achieve. Sports minister Nathi Mthethwa is now asking all South Africans irrespectively to take advantage of the Springbok win: “They made us come closer to each other as South Africans. We should not be distracted by anybody. We should use as a firm base as we did in 1995, in 2007 and now in 2019 as a firm base to unite our people.” With the springboks having lined up celebration tours across the country, only time will tell if the unity will last beyond the victory celebrations.

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