The long short history of post-apartheid South African rugby

The long short history of post-apartheid South African rugby


The compromises and conciliations of South African rugby mirror the unfinished transition from apartheid racism in the broader society.


Ireland vs. South Africa in Dublin, 2009. Image credit Martin Dobey via Flickr CC.

It is now history that all the warnings issued by the South African Council on Sport (SACOS), which dominated anti-apartheid sports protests inside South Africa, were ignored by the incoming ANC government after 1994. In every part of the country we are paying a heavy price for the ANC government’s mistaken belief that leaving apartheid sports structures relatively intact would earn them both brownie points and votes from the white electorate. In May 1990, the National Sports Congress (NSC) was launched as the sports wing of the ANC and soon the SACOS mantra: “No normal sport in an abnormal society” was turned on its head.

About a year or two ago, I delivered a paper at a sports conference at Stellenbosch University. I called it “Mande|a’s Sports Legacy Revisited.” I spoke about a fallacy that had taken root just before and after the 1995 Rugby World Cup tournament.

It was a fallacy, I said, that ceded control of a game, in which only white players could aspire to play for their country, to the very people who devised the segregation and the rigid apartheid rules that governed who could play where. This has led to the betrayal of thousands of black rugby players who had fought so hard for non-racialism, and against a regime that was prepared to torture and kill its opponents.

I described South Africa’s sports policy as having been built on something that wasn’t real—the “Rainbow Nation”—and on mumbo-jumbo, called “Madiba Magic.” Nelson Mandela did many good things for South Africa, his attempts to guide South Africans towards reconciliation being an example. But he also made some terrible errors of judgement. In this respect, one of his worst decisions was to agree, with his inner circle of advisors, to pick up the tab for South Africa’s apartheid debt.

Another mistake was to give white South Africans a free pass into international sport without asking them to make a single sacrifice. Black South Africans are still paying the price for this largesse today.

Let’s be quite clear about this: apartheid, and its predecessor, segregation, were wonderful policies for white people. They were even better for those who played a sport, such as rugby. Both formed part of the ultimate quota system—at different times. Playing under the emblem of the Springbok, life could not have been better for white South African sportsmen and women, and spectators.

Mandela erred badly by supporting appeals by white administrators to allow the Springbok emblem to be retained, and by allowing the white South African Rugby Board to maintain control of the game in South Africa. These are key reasons why transformation has not taken place in South Africa. A small number of black players being pushed through a narrow pipeline of so-called “traditional” rugby schools can never be described as transformation. It is assimilation.

Today, black players, whether they like it or not, are part of a national body that glorifies a history of the Springbok that is tied to apartheid, to players who supported apartheid, and to officials who for a long time arrogantly told their counterparts in other countries who could and who could not be chosen in their touring sides to South Africa.

To be part of this structure is to be at one with people who even today admire the 1960s Springbok Centre, Mannetjies Roux, for kicking an anti-apartheid protester during a pitch invasion of a match in the Springbok tour of the UK. It is to be at one with the fawning comments of Supersport commentators relating to the wonderful rivalry between white Springboks and the All Blacks over many decades. I feel sick when these same commentators say things such as “since our return to international sport.”

Have the sports media in this country even mentioned in passing the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Halt All Racist Tours (HART) that fought so hard to get New Zealand authorities to cut ties with the “Springbok”?

Has Peter Hain’s fight against apartheid sport ever been mentioned?

Has white sports’ despicable history ever been highlighted? The truth is that even the conservative old farts who ran the game in countries such as England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, Australia and New Zealand, who supported the Springboks through thick and thin, were eventually forced to join the rest of the world in isolating South Africa.

The ANC’s record in fighting apartheid sport has been laughable.

Soon after then-President FW de Klerk unbanned the ANC, the PAC and the South African Communist Party, on February 2, 1990, the ANC began lifting the sports ban on various codes, provided they participated in matches that were “non-racial.” This, rightly, infuriated members of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, and those who supported them. A Labour Party MP, Bob Hughes, told Aziz Pahad, then-ANC’s deputy secretary of international affairs that “ambiguities and inconsistencies over the sports boycott had helped to confuse the public.” He begged the ANC to be patient. If any problems arose later, it would be very difficult to revert to the situation as it stood.

But the ANC wouldn’t listen.

Pahad denied the public was being confused. Instead, he asked the British Anti-Apartheid Movement to consider lifting the boycott as far as it affected “non-racial” bodies. An angry Hughes wrote back to him, caustically stating it was a pity the ANC had not consulted the anti-apartheid movement about its change in policy.

But the writing had long been on the wall. In 1990, Oliver Tambo, then-ANC President, returned to South Africa after three decades in exile, to attend an ANC consultative conference, and called on the organization to re-evaluate its sanctions policies.

It was a signal to open the gates. The rush into international sport quickly became a tidal wave. South Africa sent a team to the Barcelona Olympics without even a flag. There was a cricket tour to the West Indies. And India toured South Africa. In 1992, South Africa sent a cricket team to the World Cup in Australia.

The ANC’s sports policy was badly constructed and executed. At best it was naive. This naivety had all the hallmarks of the involvement of Mandela and his dream of reconciliation. White South African sportsmen and women were not asked to make a single sacrifice, nor did they offer to make any. All they wanted was to play international sport, and they got their wish.

The way rugby is administered is beyond abnormal. Somehow or other, the South African Rugby Union has managed to get the country to accept a “qualified” merit system for rugby—very much like the “qualified” franchise for black voters that the old Progressive Party used to punt.

The sad thing is that the ANC government has been complicit in selling this system to the public.

In August 1992, white South African rugby spectators were given their first chance to show they were prepared to buy into the new order. New Zealand and Australia arrived in the country for matches against the national side. It was at the time of the Boipatong massacre in which 44 people had died in decidedly suspicious circumstances. Many suspected the South African security services of having been involved in the killings. The ANC’s request to the South African Rugby Football Union was simple: hold a minute’s silence for the dead of Boipatong before the game against the All Blacks, don’t sing the old national anthem and don’t wave old South African flags at the match.

These requests were ignored.

When a minute’s silence was requested, the crowd sang Die Stem as loudly as they could—and egged on by the Afrikaans press throughout the week, hundreds of Apartheid flags were brandished at the match. It was obvious that tens of thousands of White South Africans, perhaps, even more, yearned for the good old days of apartheid. Before the World Cup tournament in South Africa in 1995, many prominent South Africans wanted the Springbok emblem to be dumped.

Horrified officials went straight to the man they knew would support them: Mandela. Mandela suggested that the emblem be retained for the World Cup, and that talks be held afterwards to decide on its future. When Mandela spoke, everyone listened, and so the emblem was granted a stay of execution. South Africa won the World Cup, Mandela wore Francois Pienaar’s spare number 6 jersey at the trophy-handover. And everyone was drunk on Rainbowism, “Shozaloza” and “for he’s a jolly good fellow.”

This didn’t last long. It couldn’t last long.

Almost 300 years of segregation, followed by apartheid was never going to be wiped away just like that. Reconciliation was an admirable ideal, but surely Mandela must have known that more stick than carrot was going to be needed to build a new country.

About a year ago, I interviewed anti-apartheid cleric and political leader, Allan Boesak, about the state of our nation. Boesak told me he had three major differences with democratic South Africa’s first president:

The first was, that in coming out of prison, he reintroduced the language of racial categorization. He spoke openly about whites, coloureds and Indians. But even more problematic was his response to Black Consciousness in an essay in a book compiled by another struggle veteran, Mac Maharaj. ln that essay, Mandela takes issue with Black Consciousness and with the Black Consciousness’ contention that race is a deceitful category that has no scientific basis and that it is a political and social construct… Arising from this, therefore, is that it is one’s humanity that counts more than the question of race or ethnicity, or any of that.

But, Boesak said, Mandela disagreed. “lnstead, he made the stunning statement that one could not deny the reality of the texture of your hair, the shape of your nose or the color of your skin.” Boesak said that when Mandela introduced racial categorization, it became the language of the ANC. He continued:

Why would you want to make these distinctions in terms of skin color or ethnicity if it has not attached itself to some privilege—social, economic or racial privilege? What was that necessary for? Why would the ANC be interested? But now, of course, we’ve seen where they’ve gone. You can see how easily the ANC, not only in its leadership, but as an organization and then in its policies and language has embraced the language of apartheid, and all those things we considered the pillars of apartheid. It is no wonder that we have no idea what non-racialism actually means.

It is no wonder that something as fundamentally good in principle as affirmative action becomes a contentious issue because they refuse to apply it to all those who were disadvantaged. What, of course, I did not know then, and what the leadership of the ANC did not share with us, was that this had already been discussed and agreed upon in their series of secret talks—unofficial negotiations—pre-negotiations, I call it, since 1985.

Last month, the South African lock forward and occasional captain of the national side, Eben Etzebeth, was accused of racist behavior during a late-night brawl outside a bar in Langebaan. In the aftermath, all the old divisions came to the fore once more. Sammy Claassen, a local activist who laid a criminal charge of assault against Etzebeth and his entourage, and followed this with a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, said the brawl had split the town on racial grounds: “Coloured people wanted Etzebeth charged, but white people were supporting him.” Claassen said he had been called a “hotnot”, a troublemaker and an All Black supporter. It seems likely that in addition to a possible criminal charge, Etzebeth is likely to face a charge of hate speech in the Equality Court.


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