Tackling history: How rugby shaped South Africa
I would like to share the story of three rugby matches over a period of forty years. One in 1981, one in 1995 and one in 2019 and the profound impact these matches had on me personally and on the beautiful, remarkable but deeply flawed country I call home, South Africa.
... but first 300 years of history in 30 seconds.
The Dutch arrived in the Cape in 1652 aboard three ships with 82 men and 8 women to set up a refreshment outpost for the lucrative Spice Route. Two centuries later, when the British colonised the Cape, descendants of these Dutch settlers, called the Voortrekkers, set off in ox wagons into the harsh unknown interior to seek freedom. They fought bloody and gruesome battles against both the Indigenous people and against the British. Those who survived were amongst the strongest physically and mentally.
These Afrikaners or “Boers” chose rugby as their national sport and their natural physical strength and toughness meant they were ideally suited. Their beloved national team, the Springboks in green and gold was a close to a religion as one could get.
The first match in our story is 12 September 1981. The scene is Eden Park, in Auckland New Zealand. It is the third and deciding test between two of rugby’s greatest nations, the All Blacks from New Zealand and the Springboks from South Africa. I was a rugby and sports mad 10-year-old. My alarm buzzed at 5am on a cold winter’s morning and I jumped under the blankets with my father glued to the small black and white television.
In 1981, South Africa was a pariah nation, ruled by the Afrikaner’s Nationalist Party who were the architects of apartheid, a system of institutionalised racial segregation. Increasingly isolated by the world, test match rugby was one of the few outlets for a sport obsessed nation.
The series in New Zealand was bitterly divisive and controversial. Many did not think it should happen and anti-apartheid protestors had tried to disrupt the game. 2100 police, 40% of New Zealand’s entire force were mobilised onto Auckland’s streets with 67 protestors hospitalised. In a stroke of genius, the protestors had a cunning plan. Suddenly on the small TV, we spotted a single-engine Cessna plane fly slowly and low over the stadium dropping flour bombs.
While the protestors were unsuccessful in stopping the match and lost the battle, they won the war in that the Springboks didn’t play another major rugby playing nation until apartheid was dismantled in 1992. The story goes that when Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners found out about it on Robben Island, they grabbed the bars of their cell doors and rattled them in celebration.
As a young White South African, I was devastated partly by the events and partly by the 22-25 injury time loss, but I was awakened to the harsh reality of the atrocity of the political regime we lived in.
Fast forward fourteen years to the second match in our story. Nelson Mandela had been released from prison after serving 27 years for “conspiring to overthrow the state”, the country had held its first democratic elections and the world welcomed back South Africa, the miracle nation, with open arms. Mandela, one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, chose forgiveness and reconciliation over bitterness and revenge: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies. Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That’s why it is such a powerful weapon.”
Old Apartheid symbols like the orange, white and blue flag, the national anthem “Die Stem” and names of national sports teams were changed to reflect the new democratic nation. In a stroke of genius and real understanding of his former enemy the Afrikaner, against the will of his own African National Congress Party, Mandela fought for the retention of the Springbok symbol to heal deep racial divides.
South Africa hosted the 1995 World Cup and on 24th June 1995 at Ellis Park in Johannesburg made it through to the finals to play once again against their arch-rivals, the All Blacks. As the Springboks led by blonde Afrikaner Francois Pienaar sang the new national anthem, the old struggle song of the liberation movement, Nkosi Sikeli iAfrika (God Bless Africa), a Boeing 747 flew low and slowly over the stadium. 63,000 mainly White South Africans broke out in unison “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson” as their President Mandela walked onto the pitch to greet the players wearing the green and gold jersey with the same number 6, as flanker and captain Francois Pienaar.
In a tense final, the scores were deadlocked after 80 minutes, and the game went to extra time. Joel Stransky kicked a drop goal to win the game 15-12 and the nation celebrated in unison. When a journalist asked captain Pienaar what it was like to have the support of 60,000 South African fans in the stadium, he replied “We didn’t have 60,000 South Africans, we had 43 million South Africans”.
I watched this match on a colour TV in our family room and celebrated in the streets until the early hours. As a graduate, working my first job I was inspired by the potential of the miracle of the Rainbow Nation.
The third story happens 24 years later, four years ago in 2019. The dream of the Rainbow Nation had faded as the country was engulfed in challenges of unemployment, corruption, and inequality.
A year earlier, the once mighty Springboks had dropped to 8th, their lowest World rating ever. A new coach, a maverick Afrikaner called Rassie Erasmus was appointed to rebuild the pride.
In a stroke of genius, he appointed Siya Kolisi as captain, the first ever Black captain of the Springboks. Siya, born at the dawn of the new South Africa in an impoverished township, Zwide, to a 16-year-old mother. She died when he was a teenager. Food was scarce, life was hard and being scouted at a junior tournament probably saved his life.
Together they created a team that combined the best of the nation, taught them that “pressure is privilege” and that before being able to inspire and bring hope to the country they needed to play good rugby and make sure “the main thing was the main thing”.
On 2 November 2019 at Yokohoma Stadium in Tokyo, the Springboks pulverised the English to win 32-12 and lift the William Webb Ellis trophy. Almost 40 years on, I had flown with my 76-year-old father to be there to watch our team made up of South Africans of all backgrounds be crowned World Champions once again.
The team showed that, by celebrating and embracing the differences and diversity within a group, how much more powerful the collective can be.
1981, 1995, 2019. Three matches over 40 years in three different continents. In the first Mandela was in prison, in the second he was President and the third he was in heaven. In the first South Africa was divided, in the second it was a hopeful infant and in the third it was a troubled youth. Three strokes of genius – anti-apartheid protestors and a single engine Cessna, Mandela’s gesture to retain the enemy’s Springbok emblem and Rassie Erasmus’s decision to appoint Siya Kolisi.
In the first I was a wide-eyed 10-year-old, in the second a hopeful graduate and in the third a grateful 40 something sharing a special moment with my father.
Rugby is just a sport, but it can affect individuals and countries in profound ways. In the words of Mandela, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire and the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”
Viva South Africa Viva. Go Bokke!