What SA’s politicians can learn from the Springboks – Sean McLaughlin

Sean McLaughlin recounts the Springboks’ victory at the 2023 Rugby World Cup and outlines what South Africa’s politicians can learn from the teamwork of our rugby team.

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South Africa’s Long Walk to Victory: What can the Springboks teach their politicians?  

By Sean McLaughlin*

Do the springboks represent what SA could achieve if the right pieces fell into place?  

Or is that to give it too much credence?   

Perhaps.  

Perhaps not.  

At one level, a handful of factors suggest that the Springboks’ success is independent of the good that could come out of SA: a temperate climate; huge popularity for the sport and a diverse gene pool. 

At another level, world class sports teams do not come out of Venezuela or North Korea. So, whilst winning sports teams do not necessarily represent a nation’s stability and progress, their success may be indicative of its potential. 

Analysts unpicked the success of the Argentinian football team, who won the 2022 World Cup, with around 1.5 billion people watching. That is not insignificant. Meanwhile, the country’s political elite cannot get macroeconomic policy right and the country’s unlimited potential goes unrealised.

Space prevents a deep dive here, yet I seek to offer some takeouts beyond what is already out there.  

Read more: Sean McLaughlin: South Africa’s long walk to prosperity

1) Experiment. Innovate. Have a back-up plan. And another one  

“’n Boer maak ‘n plan,” goes an old SA proverb – “The farmer makes a plan”.  

SA endured numerous, serious setbacks throughout the World Cup campaign. Injuries to Makazole Mapimpi, Lukanyo Am and Malcolm Marx, tested the team’s depth, with Kurt-Lee Arendse, Jesse Kriel, and Handre Pollard filling the void.  

And so, the abject failures of the SA government to deliver basic services has seen an entire economy emerge to take its place, whether in companies providing bore holes, rooftop solar panels, or private security guards, to mining companies providing health care. 

To be world number one also requires experimentation. Well known director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has given new players opportunities in lesser games and developed a light bulb system in communication with the touchline. Calling a forward-back bench split of 7:1 twice was a first and resulted in double victory. 

And so SA’s politicians should set this entrepreneurial spirit free. With a change of policy centre of gravity to embrace the drive of SA’s entrepreneurs, SA could be the most exciting emerging market in the world bar none. Granting new mineral exploration licenses would boost the exchequer, partial privatisation of the power utility would provide much needed sector investment.

Rassie Erasmus and Felix Jones communicate with the touchline: Rugbypass

2) Work together and not against each other. Embrace diversity.  

Everyone has a part to play in sporting success. Think fans. Think coaches who volunteer years of their lives. Think Jesse Kriel’s headmaster – giving the then teenager a key to the school gym, to work out after hours, in the dark. 

The fabric of a flourishing free societyis no different. On the political scene, the African National Congress (ANC) faces defeat for the first time since 1994 in next year’s general election.   

A ‘Multi-Party-Charter’ (MPC), a broad coalition of smaller parties who have agreed in principle to work together, has arisen. It currently consists of eight parties, from the regional ethno-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), to the Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus) – which protects the rights of white farmers. Few young democracies elsewhere in the world have anything similar.  

SA’s diversity could be a stabilising factor in the long run. The country is too ethnically, politically, and socially diverse to splinter, with no party dominant enough to impose its ideology. 

The Boks are the only team in the global top five whose players are both first- and second-generation South Africans. From the far corners of Potchefstroom Afrikanerdom, to the neglected townships of the Eastern Cape, some from privilege, some from nothing, the country is right behind them. Xhosa language commentary further surged the sport’s popularity. 

Working together means embracing what was deemed a sport of the privileged post-1995 (as Nelson Mandela did to global acclaim). This means the difficult task of forming coalitions, at all levels of government, from next year.

As post-Apartheid SA established a world-renowned truth and reconciliation commission, I agree with analyst Frans Cronje, that post-ANC SA should not chastise and stigmatise the ANC for their failure to deliver, damaging societal fabric. Inevitably, coalitions will bring new ideas to the table, representing the diverse interests of the diverse country.  

Read more: Following in the Boks’ footsteps: The Proteas can go all the way

3) Tap into talent from abroad.  

How diaspora networks can contribute to their homeland is very powerful and understudied.  

In 2018, Erasmus abolished a policy permitting only SA players based abroad who had 30 test caps or more for national selection. 

Talent abroad harnessed the next year the country won the World Cup. “In SA, if we use all our skills and backgrounds, we will be unstoppable,” Erasmus states.

Should SA capture the experience, capital, and thrift of its 1 million first generation citizens living abroad, I see parallel success in politics, business and administration.

Think concerted efforts to garner funding for promising start ups or transparency NGOs, exposing  corruption networks in government. The reduced value of the Rand ensures foreign currency contributions go further.  

Think efforts by sensible political parties to capture votes from abroad. In a step forward for African democracy, SA citizens abroad were given the right to vote in national elections from 2014. Votes on paper can ensure brain drain does not become vote drain and political apathy.   

On Saturday the world watched the culmination of a superhuman effort we are all privileged to have witnessed.

The Boks did not play post-pandemic for over a year. Injuries blighted the team leading in, for RG Snyman and Siya Kolisi it was the Anterior Cruciate Ligament, for Pieter Steph Du Toit a freakish leg injury, for Handre Pollard it was the calf. 

The narrowest, hardest route to the trophy was presented, with Ireland and Scotland in the group. Three weeks of knock out rugby followed, beating the best French team in modern era on home soil in the quarter final and a resurgent England in the semi-final. 

Ahead lay only New Zealand, a team of world class players, who had a much easier run to the final and an extra rest day. 

At this point it is about why. 

Erasmus is motivated by creating something special and sees real ‘pressure’ as unemployment, or loved ones murdered. This is not hyperbole. Carrying the weight of nation, with rural school children sending the team singing videos, no other team is motivated by such purpose. This has players dig into dark places, producing what they did not think they could. 

In the final, Pieter Steph Du Toit prevented through balls to the New Zealand backs, making an astounding 28 tackles, to his opposite number’s 14.

The three knock out victories were narrow, but perhaps they happened too often to be luck or coincidence. Chinks were mindfully found in opposition armour.

SA is now the most successful World Cup team in history (despite being banned in the first two editions), and the first time the trophy has been won back-to-back away from home.

Of course, other factors have played a role, luck, gumption and bravery, as Cheslin Kolbi splendidly charges down a conversion, as Faf De Klerk tap tackles Dalton Papali’i to prevent a breakthrough.

But the biggest lesson of all is that like sport, the path of a nation is not always a linear trajectory.  Given the county’s ferocious history and complicated sociology, it is not surprising that it is currently struggling.  

Playing a part, working as a team, embracing diversity, tapping into funding abroad and giving everyone, regardless of race, gender and faith, the opportunity to succeed, South Africa can turn a corner. 

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*Sean McLaughlin has worked in market intelligence on Latin America and Spain between 2016 and 2020. He writes extensively on the issue of Northern Ireland in the EU-UK Brexit negotiations for think tank VoteWatch Europe. Since 2021, he has been working as a data analyst for a data provider in the energy industry, in Edinburgh, Scotland. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

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