The rise of the Springboks: SA’s inspirational team carries the hopes of a nation on its broad shoulders
The Springboks have captured the hearts and minds of South Africans of all races, languages and cultures. They are a symbol of excellence and unity, and show us just how great this country can be.
There are hopefully two more matches remaining for the Springboks at Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2023, including a final at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis on 28 October, because it would be a fitting tribute to a team that carries more weight and expectation than any other on the planet.
Few countries need heroes more than South Africa. It’s a creaking, breaking and, in some cases, broken nation. Where politicians fail, the Springboks offer some respite.
They present a piece of a country that is a little sliver of a peek into another world – a world where South Africa leads and is respected, where it is feared but also revered. The Springboks epitomise those traits and their reward is to carry the hopes of a nation on their broad, beefy shoulders.
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Perhaps too much self-worth as South Africans is intertwined with the Boks’ fortunes. But it’s because they are a symbol of success, of a path that broader society could have chosen, and could still choose.
It’s a heavy burden for those 33 young men to carry, but they carry it proudly and with purpose.
It’s almost unfathomable that the greatest emblem of the best of South Africa was once a badge that represented the worst of the country.
Springbok rugby has always been an important symbol in South African society, for better or for worse. There was a time when it certainly was for worse, when it was used to somehow portray the “best” of an abhorrent political system.
Thankfully, those days are a long way in the past, although the journey to the Springboks being universally loved by all South Africans hasn’t happened overnight.
It’s been a process, an arduous and winding trek that’s still continuing, but it’s safe to say that the current Springboks are the most loved of any iteration and any era.
There are many reasons for that – some tangible, some less obvious – but they all add up to a sports team that has captured the hearts and the minds of South Africans across every conceivable divide.
They are winners, they are innovators, they are world leaders, they are fierce yet kind. They are hard-working and they are humble. The individual is never greater than the collective.
It might sound like some sort of socialist utopian dream, but the Boks really do embody the best of South Africa, and give us all a glimpse of how great this country really could be.
In captain Siya Kolisi they have a leader whose greatness has been revealed with every passing year. He was thrust into the captaincy at the Stormers by Robbie Fleck and then again by Rassie Erasmus with the Springboks.
Kolisi has come to represent all that is good about South Africa because he is the symbol of hope for the country.
Born into poverty, he has risen – as he always reminds people – with the help and guidance of others to become one of the most recognisable faces in the country.
Fame isn’t what he strove for; it’s just a by-product of his and the team’s success, and his natural charisma.
He and the team always carry South Africa and South Africans with them. They play for a purpose that is far greater than striving to win for their own personal glory.
It may come across as some sort of corporate team-building mumbo-jumbo, but the Springboks understand their role in society. They are not going to solve child starvation and rolling blackouts, but they can offer hope and a tangible vision of what success really looks and feels like. They are real people, to whom real people relate.
This group of Springboks, from the masseurs to director of rugby Erasmus, all have uniquely South African stories of how they got there.
Some came through traditional rugby schools and relative comfort; others had to fight their way out of desperate personal circumstances. Yet they have all been forged together into an unbreakable human alloy.
Through their increasing diversity, which the Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber era has advanced more than any post-isolation Bok coaches, players have gained an understanding of who they represent.
It’s no longer about playing just for your family and your tribe, because South Africa is a vast mix of cultures and languages, of rich and poor, and of educated and uneducated.
“I don’t shy away from where I have come from and I’m aware that my story is a typical South African story in some ways. It’s my motivation,” Kolisi told this writer in 2018 soon after he was made Bok captain.
“Yes, being a professional sportsman can be tough, and occasionally you question if it’s all worth it. But then I just think about where I’ve come from and about the people who look up to me. For me to be able to help people inspired by me, I have to play every week. That is my duty.
“I’m not only trying to inspire black kids, but people from all races. When I’m on the field and I look into the crowd, I see people of all races and social classes. We as players represent the whole country.
“I tell my teammates that you should never play just to represent one group. You can’t play to be the best black player or to be the best white player to appeal to a community. You have to play to be the best for every South African.
“We represent something much bigger than we can imagine.”
And, if anything, that message and those sentiments have just grown over the past five and a half years with Kolisi and RasNaber leading the Boks.
Last week, when Handré Pollard was considering whether to go for a penalty of 50-plus metres, which ultimately won the game against France, skipper-on-the-field Bongi Mbonambi tossed the ball to the flyhalf and shouted in his ear: “This is for South Africa!” Not “do it for us”, but rather, do it for the country. Pollard did. The Boks did, and we all celebrated.
The Boks are a symbol of excellence and unity that has sadly evaded many parts of South African life for a wide range of reasons, from the legacy of apartheid to blatant corruption and criminality.
The Boks transcend this because they have truly embraced what high performance is and they operate in a “no excuses” environment. So, although they have lofty ideals and genuinely want to play for the country and its people, the only way to do it is with honesty.
It’s the honesty in putting in the work, of striving to be better, of doing that little bit of extra analysis or fitness and of being accountable to each another. They are tough on each another and themselves, but they are also fair and open.
Questions and debate are encouraged, ideas welcomed and feedback demanded. It takes complete trust to get those things right and that trust has been built with genuinely honest leadership from RasNaber and Kolisi.
The job is not complete; there is more work to be done. They won’t veer away from the script. As Erasmus has always told the team: “Get into 80 battles and win 60, rather than get into 40 battles and win 35.”
When you distil that request, it’s really about effort, about work rate and about honesty. They always have a plan and always prepare well, but underpinning everything they do is graft, born from a sense of purpose to the larger South African community.
Their French campaign might end in glory or it might not, but the journey with this group is coming to an end soon. Let’s enjoy them while we can because they have given us so much happiness and fun. And, above all, hope. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.