Prior to the passage of apartheid laws both Black and White South Africans played rugby, albeit separately. After the onset of apartheid Black South Africans were segregated from their White countrymen and denied access to rugby pitches and training facilities. During South Africa's hosting of the Rugby World Cup in 1995 Nelson Mandela used the sport and the Springbok symbol to help overcome the legacy of apartheid. This article traces how race relations in South Africa influenced the trajectory of the sport from its inception in 1862 to the present.
On 21 August 1862 the headmaster of Bishop's College Canon George Ogilvie organized the first official rugby match in South Africa. The match took place at Green Point in Cape Town and was played between the Army and the Civil service. Only White South Africans participated that day - both British and Afrikaners.
In 1906-1907 South Africa fielded its first national rugby team on a tour of the British Isles. The all-White team was composed of Afrikaners and British colonial South Africans. The tour helped erase ill-will that had existed between the two groups since the bloody Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902. The English media referred to the team as the Springboks - an anglicized version of the team's self entitled Afrikaans nickname, the Springbokken.
Participation in rugby was not limited to White South Africans for long. By the late nineteenth century some Blacks had adopted rugby as an element of their identity. In 1896 a celebration was held in honour of H.C. Msikinya for his acceptance into Wilberforce University. At the party Msikinya listed his membership in the Rovers Rugby Football club amongst his various social accomplishments.
Soon after White South Africans formed rugby's first official governing bodies Black South Africans followed suit. In 1889 the Whites-only South African Rugby Board was founded. Eight years later the South African Coloured Rugby Football Board was founded to organize and oversee club matches between Black South Africans at the regional level.
Rugby played an important role in weakening the divisions between various Black religious groups in the Cape. Matches drew women, men and children from different religious backgrounds as spectators. Community members collaborated with one another and raised money for their respective clubs through activities such as dances. Matches also engendered a sense of mutual respect amongst players for the toughness and bravery of their opponents, even though club membership was strictly divided along religious lines.
From the outset rugby brought South Africans together. Just half a decade after the British had thrown Afrikaners into concentration camps - during the Anglo-Boer War - the two groups played alongside one another under the Springbok banner. The sport also facilitated social interaction amongst the various religious groups of the country's Black inhabitants. Early on rugby demonstrated a capacity to heal wounds and establish commonalities amongst South Africans.
However at times rugby's unifying capacity was ignored and South Africans chose instead to use the sport as an instrument of oppression. During much of the twentieth century rugby in South Africa was hi-jacked and the sport's healing powers were forgotten. Racist ideology and legislation prevented White and Black South Africans from playing the game together until 1976, when the apartheid regime took its reluctant first steps toward sporting reform. Even after the reforms of 1976 Black South Africans faced unofficial barriers to sporting equality such as limited access to training facilities and inadequate nutrition.
Rugby’s role in early South African history was ambiguous. At times the sport brought seemingly disparate South Africans together. At other times the sport reinforced barriers between South Africans, necessitating the formation of two racially segregated governing bodies. One thing about rugby in South Africa would become clear throughout the course of its history. Rugby did not unify or divide the country's inhabitants so much as the meanings attached to it. And no group attached more meaning to rugby than the Afrikaners.
Rugby and the Springbok Symbol in Afrikaner Identity and Politics
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century rugby and the Springbok symbol became linked to Afrikaner nationalism and politics. Afrikaners viewed the success of the Springboks in international test play as a reflection of their accomplishments as a civilization. The Afrikaner love of the team enabled former players to use their sporting stature to launch into politics, and nearly all former Springboks supported the National Party – the eventual architects of apartheid.
Many Springboks and National Party members were also associated with an organization called the Broederbond. The Broederbond was a secret brotherhood of male Afrikaners whose sole aim was to advance the well being of their people. The group played a crucial role in mobilizing Afrikaners during the months leading up to the National Party's victory in the national elections of 1948.
Upon their election the National Party - with the unofficial support of the Broederbond - extended the exclusive policies of apartheid into the Springbok program. In 1950 the National Party passed the Group Areas Act defining the separate geographic areas within which different South African racial groups could reside. Three years later they passed the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, effectively segregating all public areas in South Africa – including rugby pitches.