No event speaks to the concept of being South African more than a Rugby World Cup Final. I discovered this again as I spent the last weekend watching the game in the south of France with colleagues of various nationalities. Among them were the French, New Zealanders, Irish, Indians, Welsh, Scots and our opponents – the English. The English were gracious in defeat and congratulated me on our victory. They showed good sportsmanship and played well during the tournament. On the day, South Africa was just the better team. The Springboks’ victory made me reflect again, on what rugby means to me, what it means to be a South African and what the future of the country might hold.
I am in general agnostic when there is a rugby game on the TV. Despite growing up in an Afrikaner household, and my parents naming me after a rugby player, I have never lived up to the stereotype of being a big rugby supporter or player. I never understood the senselessness of playing rugby. I still hold the controversial view that if South Africans would spend the energy that we put in funerals and sports into science, technology and building the country then perhaps we would be much more developed
In school, they taught us that being a man means that we should build muscle and physically charge into each other. Then, in the same breath, we would hear how it is not bad for our mental development. No one could answer me when I asked if rugby would not give me an injury that would stay with me until old age. Furthermore, a rugby supporter always gave me the impression of a Roman senator that is not prepared to go into the ring himself. He is not a coward, but someone that is wise enough to know the limit of his own size and own abilities.
I like rugby as a sport in the abstract, but I practice the rugby religion as much as I practice the Christian one. I only attend Church during baptisms, funerals and marriages. In Rugby terms, that means that I only watch the game when there is a World Cup on the TV and I will only make an effort not to miss it when the Springboks are in the finals. Historically rugby was the faith of white South Africans and Afrikaners in particular, but in recent years, it is safe to say that the sport has expanded to all corners of the country. Rugby has managed to brand itself in South Africa in a way that would make the old missionaries with their gospels envious. I would bet that only New Zealand and perhaps Georgia could rival South Africa in having rugby so deeply tied to our national identity.
The Springboks’ victory demonstrates again that the South African identity is complex and plural. It always opens those questions that every South African should answer for himself: what does it mean to be a South African? What does it mean to live in a country with so many tribes, languages, traditions, cultures and historical narratives? The identity is so complex that we will probably never have an acceptable answer to satisfy everyone in the country, because there are far too many dimensions to our social order.
I suspect that most South Africans will have various complex identities and belong to various groups. At times, we will change our minds as to who and what we are. Occasionally, we will retreat to the comfort of the homes that we grew up in, only to find that they have also changed beyond recognition in the last 25 years. South Africans should also not be naïve to think that we are the only ones asking these questions, because we are living in a modern connected world with some of the highest migrations in human history. The social forces that were unleashed at the end of Apartheid and with the birth of the internet guarantees a more pluralistic and cosmopolitan future.
So, what does rugby, in this context, mean for South Africans? My view is that Rugby is not just about being a passionate sportsman. Rugby is the symbolism that speaks to our collective honour and our highest ideals. Rugby is that one area of human endeavour that South Africans can constantly rely on to show the world how the Rainbow Nation works. After a tough 2019, the World Cup victory was exactly what South Africans needed: “as a symbol of Hope”.
Rassie Erasmus spoke to this hope in his post-match interview when he was asked how the team deals with pressure. His response hit a sensitive cord with me:
“Pressure in SA is not having a job, it’s having friends or family murdered. Rugby is not about pressure, it’s about hope. Hope is watching the game and feeling good after. No matter religious or political differences, for 80 min you agree”.
Hope is that awkward and yet strangely good feeling that you get when you find out that your family or friends just died. It is a feeling that many South Africans in recent times had to personally deal with. When briefed with the news of the loss of your loved ones, you just do not how to respond to the situation and you do not know if what you are going to say is going to make anything any better.
At least that is how I feel each time that South Africa achieves something on the international stage. We know that there are some people in the country that makes us damn proud, but when the euphoria sets, we know that the achievements are always a temporary distraction to our real issues. Victory can make us joyful, but it should also make us realistic.
In the coming weeks our politicians will exploit our hope for themselves. Just like the Roman senators who used the gladiatorial fights to distract the population from the corruption in the empire, they are going to climb on the “unity” bandwagon. We are going to hear statements from every part of the political spectrum. The story of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar to Cyril Ramaphosa and Siya Kolisi will be on repeat like a broken record. The media is going to ride the event until there is no more profit left. They will make comparable historical examples and emphasize that the nation is on the right track. We might even hear ridiculous statements that South Africa’s victory is the will of God, but I cannot help and wonder why he works in a 12-year cycle.
My view is that this time we should be skeptical to this grand narrative and we should not be so naïve to delude ourselves. The celebrations should make us feel South African, but not let us forget about the realities of South Africa.
The Rugby World Cup should give us hope that the politicians might listen to us, but we should not let them get away with exploiting he occasion for their own benefit and pretending that they are not the cause of the country’s social problems. Rugby shows South Africans how we can work together, but it does not put bread on the table. The fact is that the country is in deep trouble and a Rugby match is not going to make the problems go away.
South Africa has for a high unemployment and crime rate. The problems compound with the continual blackouts as Eskom keeps running out of money. Then, I am personally, scared of the coming water crises, because the civil war in Syria started when the Assad regime faced a water scarcity. These facts are falling on deaf ears and to add insult to injury, South Africa is on the verge of bankruptcy. The country needs serious, but painful, reforms to avoid a credit downgrade and an IMF bailout. South Africa needs sensible policies to steer it on the right path and land redistribution is not one of them. Toying with such policies risk ripping the country’s social fabric against itself and our politicians are naïve if they think that they can control the forces that they are about to unleash.
We should be aware of these problems and not let the Springboks’ victory turn into a political narrative to promote revolutionary ideology and fanaticism over a sensible pragmatism. The moment of victory belongs to the South Africans and the Springboks – not the political class.