When Nelson Mandela presented the Webb Ellis trophy to Francois Pienaar after South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph, what had traditionally been seen as a white man’s sport briefly seemed to have the power to unite the Rainbow Nation.
In reality, rugby union in South Africa has been something of a political football ever since, with the game’s custodians under constant pressure to make the national team more representative of the country’s post-apartheid society.
Staying in the top five of the world rankings for years on end, winning the 2007 Rugby World Cup and making the semi-finals in 2015 was all well and good.
But powerful voices in South Africa criticised the Springboks’ continuing failure to reflect and connect with the black majority.
Currently, the team is struggling badly under head coach Allister Coetzee, beaten in recent weeks by England, Wales and even – for the first time in their history – Italy.
What many are seeing as an ailing squad, a team without leadership and or direction is in fact the manifestation of a country going through an identity crisis.
Just this year alone, there was a protest held by the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) outside the South African Rugby Union (SARU) HQ regarding the lack of visible transition in the Springbok team.
According to Sport24: “Chaos erupted outside SARU. Protesters were carrying placards with phrases such as ‘Cricket, Netball and Tennis are next. White Supremacy must fall’.”
Do they have a point? Does white supremacy still exist in South African sport?
In September 2015, Siya Mnyanda writing for the Guardian Africa network said: “Rugby’s reluctance to grapple with its past and take concrete steps to mirror the country’s demographic make-up reflects how black South Africans remain spectacularly sidelined in many aspects of life.”
This was in the wake of then-head coach Heyneke Meyer selecting an overwhelmingly white squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
“Although much has been done to transform the country, the national team’s rugby selection criteria are racially exclusionary and biased in favour of whites. Fikile Mbalula [the sports minister] has failed to transform rugby, and any argument SARU represents to justify it’s failure to do so should be treated with disdain.
“It has betrayed the trust of millions of South Africans, continues to resist change and should attract the severest sanctions possible.”
“A scholarship here and there to a few non-white players isn’t going to cut it”
These were the words of the ANA’s president, Edward Mahlomola Mokhoanatse. Despite their case being eventually thrown out, the fact that such a situations developed shows how bad race relations are in South Africa, and how much worse they could get.
Coetzee has been the scapegoat many have chosen to point their frustrated fingers at. To some it’s the fact that he has never actually coached an international side, having been an assistant to Jake White in 2007.
Others are calling for the entire system to be brought down. Just recently, a petition was started in the name of overhauling the entire Springbok coaching staff.
A quick scroll down the comments section and it doesn’t take long before you run into the interesting comments that have dominated this issue, ever since the government decided to turn its attention to SARU.
Loyal fans may cry over poor form and losses, but the sad truth is that the issue is bigger than that.
Rugby union’s grassroots transformation in South Africa has been great, it has yielded results.
“If organic means have failed to bring about this change, it must be engineered to bring about a Springbok team that represents all of South Africa”
But unfortunately that transformation has failed to reach the highest tier of SA Rugby which is their national team.
In order to aid the transformation going on below national level, it too has to transform. Rugby will remain a white sport if the country is to depend on grassroots transformation alone.
A scholarship here and there to a few non-white players isn’t going to cut it.
They say seeing is believing. What is going to motivate young black boys to pursue a career in rugby when year after year they watch a predominantly white Springbok team?
How is the seed going to be planted in their minds when their parents, their families either despise the team or at, best, don’t identify with it?
To South Africa’s black majority, the Springboks have never represented them.
Instead, they have been a constant reminder of the old South Africa that many wish to bury in the depths of their memories.
The old regime of racial segregation and white-minority oppression may have been dismantled many years ago.
But, sadly, and despite the efforts of SARU and the Ministry of Sports, the Springboks have failed to refresh and update themselves to be more representative of today’s South Africa.
If achieving this means taking 10 steps back, appointing a coach who has never held international credentials or enforcing an aggressive quota system, then so be it.
Yes, sport should be kept separate from politics, but if the sport cannot govern itself well enough to fall in line with the new South Africa, then politics must intervene.
If organic means have failed to bring about this change, it must be engineered to bring about a Springbok team that represents all of South Africa. Not a team made up of old boys from predominantly ten white schools.