South African Rugby players

June 28, 2015
Prop Tendai Mtawarira was the

Heyneke Meyer and Patrick Lambie of South AfricaHeyneke Meyer, the South Africa head coach with Patrick Lambie at Ellis Park Stadium. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

A glossy TV advert for the Rugby World Cup shows South African celebrities standing with hand on heart. They include the 1995 winning captain Francois Pienaar (white), team-mate Chester Williams (black), Miss World Rolene Strauss (white), Ladysmith Black Mambazo (black) and comedian Trevor Noah (mixed race).

It is a vision of the rainbow nation at ease with itself. It is also an illusion. Twenty years after the country’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, pulled on the Springboks jersey, then the symbol of white sporting pride, and presented Pienaar with the World Cup in a moment of harmony and hope, the sport remains lacking in racial diversity.

“A lot of the good things that were done in 1995 were destroyed over the years by wrong decision making, ” said Williams, who was the sole black player on the winning team in the final against New Zealand. “We were hoping things would get better and better and more [black] people would come through. More did come through but they were not consistently selected for the team.”

The former winger, now 45, continued: “They give a black player a chance but then they don’t give him another chance to get better. At this stage they give a black player one opportunity and if he doesn’t make it he doesn’t play again. Clearly we can’t only have two black players in the Springbok team. It’s unacceptable.”

In the most recent match against Argentina, Williams complained, a black player was brought on as a substitute with only two minutes left and the game already lost. “That’s window dressing, ” he complained.

South Africa won the World Cup again in 2007 with two black players in the team (whites make up about 9% of the South African population). The race debate cropped up before the 2011 tournament and now in 2015, with much soul searching over the teaching of rugby in schools, the role of institutional racism and if racial quotas should be imposed.

Mondli Makhanya, a columnist at City Press newspaper, said: “It’s how we warm up for the World Cup. We have not moved. It’s not because there are not black players. There are black kids at former white schools who are damn good players; a significant number outshine the white players. You hear, ‘He’s a future Springbok’ and then he disappears in the system. Where the blockage is, I don’t know. The rugby authorities should know and should unblock it. It has to change for the sake of normality.” He added: “The making of the national selections also has to change. The white mentality of the corporate world, that the white guy is better, is still there.”

The chaotic, frustrating, wonderful patchwork of South Africa’s democratic compromise is well illustrated by the national anthem, a hybrid combining extracts of the hymn “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa) and “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” (The Call of South Africa) with new English lyrics. But it doesn’t always work at a Springboks match, Makhanya added.

“The crowd is pretty quiet during ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ but when they get to “Die Stem”, the roof gets blown off. It tells you a lot. Rugby is the one thing Afrikaners [the descendants of Dutch and German settlers] want to hang on to as their own culturally. Rugby says Afrikaner power.”

There are historical and cultural reasons for the sporting divide. Rugby came to South Africa from England in the 19th century and was adopted by Afrikaners. Black people in townships generally embraced another English import, football, though rugby has a strong black following in Eastern and Western Cape provinces. Steve Biko, the founder of black consciousness, was a flanker, though by all accounts not a good one.

Frans Cronje, chief executive of the Institute of Race Relations thinktank, said: “There is a problem and we think its a problem of rugby development. It’s taken very long for a crop of young black players to appear on the scene who have a chance of Springbok selection. That’s not unexpected if you consider that a relatively small number of high schools produce a large proportion of Springbok players. I think far too little has been done on the part of rugby authorities in the country.”

In areas where black people play rugby the facilities are poor, he added: “The long term solution is to give more black kids at school level more access to the resources and culture that bred so many excellent white Springboks over the last hundred years. If you did give that access, I have no doubt the team would reflect that in the years ahead.”

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