Today, we are all walking a little taller – even the petrol attendants are humming, “Hie kommie Bokke!’ (Leon Schuster persists in the DNA of South Africa in so many ways). Never in the history of sport in our country has a team captured the imagination of South Africans like this Springbok rugby team. Led by the talismanic Siya Kolisi, this team is buoyed by us all and it is trite to say represents the very best of who we are. It is the character and nerve of Handré Pollard, the sheer chutzpah of young Kurt-Lee Arendse, the meat-eating brawn of Pieter-Steph du Toit, Frans Malherbe and the menace that is Eben Etzebeth. It is also the skill and speed of Cheslin Kolbe, the cunning strength of Ox Nché, the bloodied face of Jesse Kriel and Faf De Klerk’s pure grit.
Never give up. Never say die.
But as we who live in these parts know, this is about more than a game. It is about finding hope and unbridled joy in a country where both are often in short supply. It is also about trademarking excellence in a sea of mediocrity driven by political opportunism and corruption.
As usual, the Springboks’ success has nothing to do with the politicians. In fact, when President Ramaphosa called coach Jacques Nienaber before the quarter final clash, irritatingly bungling the name of the Paris venue, he appeared almost as if to insert himself into the country’s excitement like a stranger. This Springbok team has its own microculture which is about merit, honesty, selflessness, leadership and respect – traits mostly foreign to the government Ramaphosa heads up. What the Bok team (or any sporting team for that matter) achieves it does in spite of the government and not because of it.
But happily we have no need to dwell on Ramaphosa’s clumsy call because as South Africans we know that we are so much more than our President and our hapless government. (Doubtless many cabinet ministers and hangers-on will be planning their trips to Paris at our expense this morning).
Our country is fraught, complex and often a very difficult place in which to live. It has been nearly 30 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”.
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.
The “rainbow myth” or “Madiba magic” then became 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. In these fraught political times, with bloody conflict raging unabated in the Middle East, it provides a timely reminder too of what South Africa might have been had we not negotiated our future, imperfect as that process was. We came to the edge of the abyss and we pulled ourselves out of that mutually hurting stalemate. That is part of the South African psyche and key to understanding how we deal with adversity.
The “rainbow myth” has, however, slowly but surely dissipated as the cleavages of race and class often find us adrift. South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, our unemployment rate is at a staggering 32.9% and millions go to bed hungry every night. We somehow survived 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.
So, when captain Siya Kolisi says they do it “for the people back at home. That’s who we play for – a nation. It’s not about us … That’s what’s driving us,” we know what he means.
The Surinamese poet, Michaël Slory, was right when he said:
un sa brasa dan dara
di tergi wi kra”
Or, as translated by Vernon February (1984):
can we come to terms
with what nibbles at our souls”
Much nibbles at our souls in this beautiful place. So to the naysayers amongst us: of course it would be naive 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 the poor and marginalized face. But what our march to 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 (and so many others in this special team) in and of itself demonstrates this. Surely that is the “stuff of life”, which so often eludes us amid the heaviness of South Africa?
We now brace ourselves for a southern hemisphere final on Saturday (sorry, Clive Woodward and Mike Tindall).
As ever, Kolisi and his team will carry our hopes and dreams with them. New Zealand, also three-time World Cup winners, will throw everything at us, that we know. But in reply, we will say as on-field captain Bongi Mbonambi said to Handré Pollard before that 51m kick in the quarterfinal, “For South Africa!” – or, as the players themselves have said in the beautifully moving “For South Africa” clips:
“Vir die kranse and for the call
For Nkosi sikelel’a
For the laaities with the hot step
Vir die tannies wat trots is
Vir Humansdorp en die mense op die straat
For those singing gwijos
For Zwide yam
For joy, for hope, for my country, for Mzansi.”
That’s about the sum of it all, really. DM