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The Rugby World Cup puts a fake happy face on a weeping nation

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Picture: Peter Cziborra/REUTERS/September 10, 2023 – South Africa’s Siya Kolisi celebrates with fans after the South Africa v Scotland rugby match, Orange Velodrome, Marseille, France.

By Kim Heller

The past few weeks saw a festive flamboyance of South African flags joyfully dancing through many of the nation’s potholed streets. It was as if the nation had finally been freed from its everyday ache of hopeless poverty and inscribed inequality.

Given the rouse of the loud celebratory cheers and the delightfully evocative spell of excitement, one would have thought that something miraculous had occurred. Had black South Africans finally got their stolen land back? Had the seemingly endless bouts of energy blackouts come to a decisive end?

Sadly not. All the fuss and fanfare had little to do with an end to the everyday suffering of ordinary South Africans, or a sudden overflow of justice and equity in the world’s most unequal country. Rather it was but the start of a rugby world cup in another land.

In South Africa, which has become a notorious Neverland of true unity and reconciliation, the 2023 rugby world cup has seen black and white people came together in a national swell of pride and patriotism. In South Africa, the land of plenty and un-plenty, of white privilege and black poverty, white and black seem to have been colour blinded by the Springbok green and gold.

Posh hot spots have been transformed into places of religious rugby worship, as black and white South Africans stand shoulder by shoulder singing the national anthem. As always, the loud English and Afrikaans prose is the main verse.

With practiced fluency, black South Africans belted out a chorus of ‘GO Bokke Go’ in tune with their fellow white South Africans who have hardly bothered to learn an African language or apologise for the grave historical injustice of apartheid.

True reconciliation and unity are precious and priceless. But fake unity is both dishonest and dangerous. It obscures the lack of transformation and equality in both sport and society and hides resident racism. It puts a fake happy face on a weeping nation. It may be an ecstatic moment for rugby fans, both black and white but it is but a fleeting embrace.

The images of white and black South Africans in such extravaganzas of unity, sends misleading and false images to the world on the true state of race relations and reconciliation in South Africa. In many respects, it mocks the real work that needs to be done in the country to deliver the elusive democratic goal of justice and equity. Hard work needs to be done not on the easy scrum of sport events but on the back of fundamental economic and societal reconstruction.

While rugby in current day South Africa, is no longer the terrifying carnival of white male dominance, and frontline symbol of a highly oppressive racist yesteryear that fractured the dreams and hopes of generations of black South Africans, it remains like the rest of South Africa inadequately transformed and unrepentant.

Today our democracy, including the sports fields are yet to be free and transformed zones. Mushtak Parker wrote in the New African in 2018 that “despite cosmetic changes a deeply ingrained culture based on racism continues to distort South African sport. It is bolstered by the stony-faced strategy of denial often proffered by the privileged minority.”

The Guardian newspaper covered the 1995 rugby world cup moment which took place in South Africa a year after democracy. In his article entitled, ‘Nelson Mandela unites a nation with his choice of jersey,’ John Carlin wrote, “To black South Africans, the Springbok rugby jersey was always one of the most hated symbols of apartheid.

“Rugby was a sport that the Afrikaner, ‘the oppressor’, regarded with at least as much fervour as the Old Testament God of (another old racist symbol) the Dutch Reformed Church. When the Springboks played at home, there was always a small area of the stadium where the blacks were penned in. It was always full. And they always supported the visiting team.”

The article sets out the scene at the Ellis Park sports ground on that historical day beautifully, “Of the 63,000 people in the stadium, 62,000 were white, most of them Afrikaners. They had been conditioned to believe that the President, for whom barely a handful of them would have voted a year earlier, was not only a dangerous terrorist, but less than fully human. And what did they do when they saw him? They rose as if one and chorused – bayed – his name.”

Carlin continued, “On that day, that night, South Africa scaled the Martin Luther King Mountain top. Such is the emotional power sport releases that the country not only glimpsed, but savoured, felt with its hands, the ‘non-racial’ dream for which Mandela and so many others had sacrificed so much…’Quite unbelievable, quite incredible, what happened,’ said Desmond Tutu. ‘It had the effect of just … turning around the country. It was an incredible transformation. An extraordinary thing. It said, yes, it is actually possible for us to become one nation.”

But a nation is not made on the back of such grand gestures. Mandela’s generosity to the white community remains unrequited today by white South Africans, eighteen years later.

In a 2008 thought piece in ‘Africa Is A Country,’ Derek Charles Catsam, a Professor of History at the University of Texas-Permian Basin and Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University wrote, “In what many believe to have been the most arrogant act on the part of SA Rugby officials, President Nelson Mandela was dragged before the country’s High Court in 1998 to justify his decision to establish a commission of inquiry to look into racism in South African rugby.

On the stand he justified the decision for the simple reason that he believed there was racism (and nepotism) in the country’s rugby hierarchies.” Professor Catsam continued, “The very figure, who had almost single-handedly provided cover for the legitimacy of South African rugby beyond the laager just three years earlier through his strategic embrace of the Boks, became a target of the ire of some of the sport’s leadership when he would no longer carry their water.”

Mark Fredericks, a sports activist and academic wrote how “Rugby has manipulated its image to brainwash black South Africans into supporting the very system that they are excluded from.”

There were two social media posts from young black South Africans this week that sum it all up:

“I love how the white ones will use this superficial rugby togetherness to say “we should be this united”…. but when real issues of landlessness, poverty, racism due to an evil white history arise, suddenly the white unity side glitches” @unmovedLee

Back to reality. For most whites this means reconciliation with privilege. For most blacks it is reconciliation with poverty. Go Bokke Go!

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.