I never really know where to start with the Springboks. I’m not really a rugger bugger, young children, a busy life and a wonderful wife who knows it’s my job to do bath time mean I’ve never really got into provincial rugby, or watching endless matches in the Super 10 , or Super 12 or whatever it’s called now. But when the Boks are playing, it’s different. Everything else must stop. And, amazingly, it does. It’s the one time when I absolutely insist on being in front of the TV. When we recently decided to experiment with pausing our DStv subscription, we did it on the strict proviso that no matter what happened, we’d have it back for this World Cup. It was a rare example of me winning an argument in my household.
Last year, when my son was four, he asked, one Saturday afternoon, to watch rugby. Grabbing the opportunity, I withstood a wifely glare, and switched it on. After about two minutes, he suddenly jumped up and down shouting “run, run, go man go”. It took me a moment to realise nothing was happening in the game, he was just doing what his dad does when the Boks are playing. Sometimes, your children reveal who you really are.
It wasn’t always like this for me.
If ever one needed proof that the South Africa of the past was indeed another country, simply ask people old enough to remember if they were proud to be South African in the 1980s. I certainly wasn’t. As a teenager, at my all-white, all-boy Johannesburg school, I just didn’t get the sense that there was anything to be proud of. While political change was happening around me, and I was certainly interested in it, it was still hard to find something to be proud of. The past was summed up in my textbooks as the Great Trek, repeated through most years of high school; two years in the army loomed in the future.
Once, on a family trip to the UK, I was overheard explaining to the teenage son of our hosts, how crap South Africa was, how it was just shit. I was rebuked, more for the message than the word choice.
It may seem strange to say so now, just before Heritage Day, but I tried instead to find meaning in my English/Scottish and Dutch family history. I spent the 1990 Football World Cup (they weren’t always called Fifa World Cups back then) backing first the Dutch, and then when they went out, the English. Eventually they were knocked out by a country that doesn’t even exist anymore; West Germany (also at that tournament were the teams representing other soon-to-be-vanquished entities, Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia & Yugoslavia).
In short, South Africa was nothing to be proud of.
But then, really quite quickly, rugby changed all of that.
It was 1992, and suddenly we were playing the All Blacks. It seemed as if all of the people I knew (and yes, they were almost all white, this was still a segregated society) were excited, there was passion and discussion, and talk of tactics, and of how Naas Botha would really show them he was still the best kicker in the world, how Uli Schmidt was the best hooker (and he’s a medical doctor too, you know!), and of a man I’d never heard of called Danie Gerber (who I think I mixed up with Craven once). At my rugby-mad school, even the nerds like me were excited, teachers stopped teaching just to talk about the upcoming game.
As a 17-year-old, my priorities started to change almost overnight: instead of studying for my learner’s licence, and wondering wistfully if I would ever … ever meet a member of the opposite sex, there was this other thing going on. I’d played rugby of course; KES (King Edward VII School) had so many teams that I’d even played for the Under-14 G team. That’s seven teams in one age group, and I played for the worst of them. But I’d lost the mojo a bit, and was concentrating on things like the Computer Club, and yes, the Debating Society (shocked to hear that, aren’t you?).
When the game started, it didn’t seem possible that it could possibly live up to the hype. And yet, amazingly, it did. We came incredibly close to beating New Zealand, the team everyone said was the best in the world. Gerber scored two tries, and we lost 24-27.
As the final whistle blew, I ran outside with my brothers and we spent the next two hours kicking a ball around. It was probably the first time in my life I’d shown any interest in physical exercise, ever. Previously, I’d had to be forced to do it.
For days afterwards, there was a kind of glow around me, and around everyone else I knew, there was something to proud about. I couldn’t understand it then, and 23 years later, I still don’t really get it. But it must have been the first stirrings of what it could be like to be part of a ‘normal’ nation, of feeling happy to be a part of something bigger than just ‘us’. Of having a symbol that I could associate with that represented the country I was from.
As I got older, and got into university, and started to learn to think just a little, there was still a nagging problem: there was still something wrong with the Boks. I realised that they weren’t really South African, they were white South Africa, but not South Africa. The 1995 Rugby World Cup changed all that. It wasn’t that the Springboks had changed, obviously they hadn’t. Some would say, they still haven’t. But Nelson Mandela came out and said it was okay, he was the person who said these young men represented the entire nation. That made all the difference.
I can still tell you where I was sitting in the university residence room for each of the major games, I remember exactly where I was and who I was with, and what I drank, on the afternoon of our epic victory. I remember the commentator Don Clarke, who had kicked the Boks into oblivion playing for the All Blacks decades earlier, becoming so overcome before kick-off that he actually had to apologise, as the moment had got the better of him. And then there was that incredible, amazing moment, when Madiba came out wearing Francois Pienaar’s jersey. It just couldn’t get any better. The tension was so huge that the Durban-born Andrew Mehrtens cocked up the kick-off, and then there was extra-time, James Small going for Jonah Lomu every chance he got, and finally, Joel Stransky.
I probably shouldn’t say this, but whenever I speak to Stransky on the Midday Report, I still have to pinch myself. And I make sure everyone I see that weekend is well aware of it.
I still think it was that moment that made my pride as a South African irrevocable. It was a moment that said so much, meant so much, it meant it was okay to be a white South African, that one did not have to be ashamed to admit it, that while the country was changing and while so many people were scared of that, and while schools and businesses and society were never going to be the same again, it was actually going to be better than it was before. It said that we were all in this together, and I was part of it.
It meant that a few short years later, when I went to live in London for a bit, I was always proud to say where I was from. People were used to South Africans there of course, many of them told me I was the first one they’d ever met who said he was South African proudly.
Since then, my relationship with the Boks hasn’t really changed. I am frustrated that they are still so white, no matter what you think of Tony Ehrenreich, his point that in 1995 there was one Springbok who wasn’t white, and now there are only two, is unanswerable. I wish it were different.
But for me, they will always have a special place, if just because it was the Springboks who first instilled pride in my country. DM
The Hindenburg had a smoking room.