Ancient score to be settled in Boks “arm wrestle” with England

Whether you watch a singing competition, a match at a local school or are in line for a job; “wanting it more” is a phrase that props up frequently and it is often the winning recipe. It is a bulletproof mindset where the hunger to achieve can beat talent and ability. For the Springbok team who “arm wrestled”, a term used by many English newspapers, their way into the final of the Rugby World Cup in Japan, the need or want to win is overwhelming. There is a general sense and many journalists have written about it, that “we need to win this.” In a week, when we do not expect much good news to come from the economy and Moody’s, and a general slump in the country’s expectations and outlook on the future; we place our expectations on Bok captain Siya Kolisi and his diversified team, and hope that they can help with the healing of the large rifts in our society and that we can again taste a bit of that rainbow nation feeling we had after 1994. In England, commentators hint at a return of glory days hoping to complete a quartet of wins against the southern hemisphere’s big four. Judith February writes in the Daily Maverick republished here with permission that “the once colonised will take on the coloniser” a reminder of ancient battles of the Boers and the Zulus that took on the might of the British empire. Not only do the Boks have old scores to settle, the need to win may once again pull us through as it did with Francois Pienaar’s team in 1995. – Linda van Tilburg

South Africa needs a win – and all eyes are on the Boks

By Judith February*

‘You’re doing this for all of us.’ Those were the words from President Ramaphosa to Springbok rugby captain Siya Kolisi before their semi-final against Wales this weekend.

If Springbok captain Siya Kolisi did not already feel the weight of expectation on his shoulders, then he must have in that moment. And now the Boks have made (kicked?) their way into the Rugby World Cup final and in an uncanny repeat of 2007, we find ourselves needing to beat England.

The overwhelming sentiment is that we “need” this win. When people say this, as South Africans, we know instinctively what that means. We also know what Kolisi meant when he said in his post-match interview:

“This is a team from diverse backgrounds.”

Our country is fraught, complex and often a very difficult place in which to live. It is 25 years since 1994 when Desmond Tutu proclaimed us “the rainbow nation”. What has happened in the intervening years has been hopeful, deeply disappointing, frustrating and then also joyful. We have run the gamut of emotions in this country which “is held bleeding between us” as Antjie Krog says in her poem, Country of Grief and Grace.

South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, our unemployment rate is at a staggering 29% and millions go to bed hungry every night. We are coming out of nearly a decade of State Capture, facilitated by a ruling ANC which has lost its ethical moorings, and the Zuma years which brought only fiscal disaster and a deep sense of hopelessness. It seems appropriate that no Rugby World Cup was won during Zuma’s tenure.

If a country lives by its myths, then the myth of post-apartheid South Africa must be that it had become “the rainbow nation”. That is, an image of different people living together in one country, despite the legacy of apartheid that legally shunned such community.

Coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (in the face of renewed attempts by the apartheid state to renew and entrench race divisions in the late 1980s and the negotiation phase in the early 1990s) and fostered by former president Nelson Mandela, it was this rich imagery and myth that held a divided country together both through negotiations at Codesa and the uncertainty of power-sharing in the initial years of the new democratic political system.

At a popular level, Mandela often appeared as the architect of nation-building post-1994. This “rainbow myth” or “Madiba magic” had not only become a talisman, but had also become part of the dominant political discourse. Critics on the (black) left felt the African National Congress-led government had unfairly prioritised the “fears” and interests of the privileged, white community. In effect, the rainbow had unintentionally become a means to gloss over the vast economic inequalities in favour of an opportunistic unity.

It can, however, be argued that the “rainbow myth” was a necessary ingredient for change to be effected. Without it, the transition to democracy would have been a bloody one, resulting in civil war and conflict as we have seen in, for instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The government was also keen to avoid the post-independence white exodus experienced in neighbouring Zimbabwe (1980) and Mozambique (1975).

The “rainbow myth” has, however, slowly but surely dissipated as the cleavages of race and class often find us adrift. And of course, we know now how deep the rot of the Zuma years was and how much longer it will take to rebuild the institutions which have been hollowed out by almost a decade of State Capture. This has made any attempts at social justice even more fraught. Then, too, there are weeks like “That Week” in September when we simply had to utter the name “Uyinene” and everyone knew what was meant. A pall of grief and anger hung over our country for the victims of femicide and random blood-curdling violence. It still does.

So when people say, “we need this”, we know what that means.

It is trite to say that nothing can divide as much as sport can while it can be equally healing and build the necessary bridges. There is much to be said about how opinion on Hansie Cronje has divided us ever since his “the devil made me do it” comment or the uniting effect of Joel Stransky’s drop goal in 1995. And who can forget the Mandela-Pienaar moment and the cries of “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!” as Ellis Park stadium erupted when Madiba walked onto the field in a No 6 jersey?

The symbolism is etched in our collective memory.

The Twitterati and others, for whom the ease of access to social media also means the ease of an unaccountable opinion, have predictably thrown slurs at the Boks and slurs at the president for cheering them on. They point to a supporter waving an old flag, which turned out to be fake news and then to Bok Eben Etzebeth and the allegations of racism swirling over his head.

The fake news “old flag” story is not worth commenting on, but the Etzebeth matter must play itself out in whichever legal forum is appropriate. No one would excuse that conduct and if proven true, there should be a price to pay. There can be no condonation of racist behaviour.

Yet, how these same people then tar the entire team with the same brush seems illogical and somewhat small. Supporting the Boks does not mean those who support Kolisi and his teammates believe South Africa is a non-racial Utopia or that lifting the Webb Ellis trophy will somehow be a panacea for all our societal ills and will eradicate inequality. That would be naïve.

It would also be naïve to suggest that a World Cup win would level the inequality of access to sport in our country and the many other systemic barriers to inclusion of the poor and marginalised face. But what our making the final suggests is that this complex, crazy country can compete at the highest level, that we can send other teams packing and that lo and behold, it can be fun, heart-warming, frustrating and deeply moving to watch our team win. It also suggests that another narrative is possible. Kolisi’s life in and of itself demonstrates this. Surely that is the “stuff of life”, which so often eludes us amid the heaviness of South Africa?

It is also not insignificant that for the first time we have a black captain leading us to a Rugby World Cup final. Do the naysayers presume Kolisi is somehow not a South African worthy of our support? Do they believe the same of Bongi Mbonambi, Makazole Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am or Cheslin Kolbe when they disavow this team? Shame on them, really, for they rob the next generation of their dreams.

What this Rugby World Cup has shown is that grit and determination count, that a proper coaching staff counts (Proteas, take note), that yes, our country is diverse and complex, but we are as the slogan goes, “Stronger together”.

Ramaphosa is right. If the Boks manage to hold the Web Ellis trophy aloft on Saturday, this will truly be for all of us.

The once colonised will take on the coloniser on Saturday. England will enter the park as the favourites, but Kolisi and his team will carry our hopes, fears and dreams with them.

As our anthem is sung in far-off Japan on Saturday, we also echo Antjie Krog’s words again,

deepest heart of my heart
heart that can only come from this soil…

No matter how fraught and difficult, this is where we belong and it is in this place that we live, work and dream.

And in this place of the heart, we are truly “Stronger together”. DM

  • Judith February is a governance specialist, columnist and lawyer. She is currently based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the WITS School of Governance. She was previously executive director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance unit and also head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme for 12 years. Judith is also a conflict dynamics accredited commercial mediator. Her book, Turning and Turning: Exploring the Complexities of South Africa’s Democracy (PanMacmillan) is available.