Defend Truth


Forget race: This rugby triumph was a win for all South Africans


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Siya Kolisi did not struggle to play rugby in the township of Zwide, make his way to Grey High School, get into the Bok team and win the World Cup for white South Africans. He did all this for us all as South Africans.

We are the rugby world champions again, and this for a third time nogal since our democratic breakthrough in 1994. Nelson Mandela knew why he chose the sport of rugby as a reconciliatory tool in his mission to bring us as South Africans closer together immediately following the first democratic general elections.

He knew we needed to identify with a symbol, a national pride, an emblem which would (albeit for 80 minutes) make us realise that we can stand together and have pride in a team that represents us as a nation. Some of you might not agree with it and that’s OK. After all, we live in a free country now. Others will identify with what I’m saying just like they knew what Mandela was attempting to do in those days.

But in case you don’t, allow me to explain, please. Among the vexed questions in the evolution of humanity’s systems of social organisation are issues of nation formation and social cohesion.

A learned friend of mine, Joel Netshitenzhe writes that “the organisation of humanity into nations provides a functional utility to human relations. Yet, the notions of nation-states, nationhood, and citizenship – conferring a sense of belonging and exclusion, representing organisational forms around which endowments are appropriated, and reflecting markers of collective identities – do evoke much emotion. Indeed, in most parts of the world, blood was shed in building nations and in asserting their rights in relation to other nations”.

Joel goes further and indicates that “this is even more acutely manifest in postcolonial polities, straddling the very acts of conquests and dispossession, the imposition of geographic entities, enforcement of discriminatory policies, mobilisation for national emancipation, and building of new societies. Contained within these processes are the ebbs and flows in self-definition and the evolution of identities”.

In other words, he says, “mobilisation for a sense of nationhood contains within it a homogenising tendency, pride in the roots from which a variety of identities originate, and the ordering of social status within a nation, (and) can have a centrifugal effect”. Mandela understood this. He knew how dear this particular sport was in the psyche of the Afrikaner people and hence he chose it to be the enabler towards our nation formation.

This begs the question: besides geography, as well as economic and political systems, to what extent do South Africa’s people constitute a nation?

Do the erstwhile colonial settlers – who, unlike in most other parts of the postcolonial world have decided in large numbers to make the country their permanent home – deserve equal recognition as members of the emergent nation? These are questions some in our beloved country still invoke to this day.

I’m sure you would agree that the Rugby World Cup win in 1995 was not just about reconciliation for us South Africans but also about being welcomed back into the international community of nations Now, I am the first to state that of course the then-team was not representative of our country, with only one player of colour in the team, Chester Williams and everyone knew that we still had to go a long way in addressing such matters. Just like we knew much still had to be done with regards to the ownership patterns of the economy, the unequal social strata in our society and so much more. We have, however, come a long way since the days of Errol Tobias, you must agree?

In 2007 the team was obviously more representative, and we saw a larger number of black players in the team – I seem to recall four black players. Some might call this steady progress: needs more work but getting there slowly. The current (2019) team that just won the coveted Webb Ellis trophy a few days ago, comprises even more black players. Has transformation been slow I hear some of you ask – I personally don’t think so. I am of the opinion that there has been a steady move towards integration, and the selection of black players happens apace. And now with more and more black role models in the sport, I can only imagine that our youth out there will be getting involved in the sport in large numbers.

This win for me suggests the enterprise will now put more money and investment into the sport especially in the black townships around our country. Local rugby leagues will mushroom, and we are all encouraged to get involved and make our children realise their sporting dreams, just like captain Siya Kolisi did.

We must always strive to narrow the race and gender gap in our society wherever it rears its head, in the private sector through affirmative action, the ownership patterns of capital on the JSE, in school choirs, sporting teams and so much more. Why? Because of our racist, exclusionary and exploitative past. It’s that simple, folks.

Joel Netshitenze concludes this very complex matter with some pertinent questions, given the many languages, sets of culture, the legacy of racism and socioeconomic deprivation, and varying political interests: how strong are the centripetal impulses, how have they played themselves out in the past 25 years, and what are the prospects for the future? In other words, the many complexities that characterise the challenge of nation formation find acute expression in South Africa. Mandela understood this.

We still have a journey to travel on this road of repairing our ugly past, no doubt, but conjuring up this vexed question of race whenever we celebrate something unique is unhelpful. Siya Kolisi did not struggle to play rugby in the township of Zwide, make his way to Grey High School, get into the Bok team and win the World Cup for white South Africans. He did all this for us all as South Africans.

So, before you want to criticise and talk of how representative the team is, remember, thanks to Kolisi and his team, we are all rugby world champions this day. Our nation is taking shape, slowly, and we will be socially cohesive over time. Of this I’m certain.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll.
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”

Invictus, by William Ernest Henley

Thank you to the men in green and gold. Go Bokke! DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted