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What the Springboks’ real gift to South Africa is

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Songezo Zibi is the national leader of Rise Mzansi.

Today it feels really good to be a South African because the Springboks beat all the top rugby nations in the world to become rugby world champions for the fourth time.

I do not think I can ever find the right words to say “thank you” enough to Siya Kolisi, Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and all the members of the team. I am saying “thank you” rather than “congratulations” because our country is going through a long, rough patch. Joyous moments such as this are so rare and emotional, and when one arrives in this way it goes very deep. 

And so I have been crying.

I shed a tear when the final whistle came, and again when Siya lifted the cup and the country erupted in joy. I also cried a little when I saw a clip of Siya sprinting all the way to the touchline to hug Cheslin Kolbe. Then I nearly wailed like a child when I watched a portion of the press conference where Siya Kolisi spoke about his team and the coaches, and the years and years it took to reach this level of performance. He spoke about how they cared for one another as human beings first, and then as professionals.

But this post is not just to say thank you to our heroes, but to explain why the Springboks and SA rugby give us a huge moment of reflection, and then to move forward with more purpose to build the country we all deserve.

Winning matters

First, winning matters. No political speech, however powerful the orator, can deliver the deep satisfaction and pride that comes from getting something you deserve. South Africans watched this team play very tough matches, make it to the final and secure a gritty victory. It is uplifting and inspiring to millions of people in ways that words cannot do.

I have for a long time felt that we no longer have a national culture of hunger for success, of winning in any area outside sport. The same fans of my team, Kaizer Chiefs, who will hound a failing coach out of his job, as happened this month, will not be as passionate about the people who ruin the lives of millions of South Africans.

Yet, national intolerance of needless failure is so important. I am not a big rugby fan, but I like watching the Springboks because they fight for every ball and inch. Even when they lose, I almost never doubt their willingness to proverbially die in battle. Although disappointed, my sense of loyalty remains strong because I am primarily proud of their fighting spirit, not just their victories.

Leadership matters

Second, leadership matters. The most frequent comments I have seen and heard about our captain, Siya Kolisi, are about what an amazing leader and human being he is. The same is said about Rassie Erasmus, director of rugby. Beyond that, Siya Kolisi named a few other players who take the initiative to lead even without formal roles, such as Handré Pollard.

Mature leadership means the captain does not feel undermined when other people step forward to pull the team up and forward. In fact, it is a mark of good leadership when many more in the team decide to lead anyway, for the sake of achieving the team’s common objectives.  Oh, how I wish the same was true of politics, where the national impact is profound, but the self-absorption and egotism are on steroids.

Third, South Africa really can come right. I remember a time when there was just one player who was not white in the starting fifteen, the late Chester Williams, a left wing. Over time, it became generally accepted that black players could only play on the wing and backline, not anywhere else.

It was almost unthinkable to have a black front row, or flank. Yet, today the feared Bomb Squad has black players, and our captain is a blindside flanker. Our imagination of what is possible has expanded since 1995 when we won our first Rugby World Cup. Nicknames such as “Beast” and “Ox” are replicated by kids all over the country.

We have come such a long way that we have almost forgotten the intense political fight for the team to no longer be called the Springboks in favour of the Protea. It was a divisive fight that the late former minister of sport, Steve Tshwete and Nelson Mandela handled with careful balance, and they have been proven right. The Springbok name has undergone a complete transformation from divisiveness to unity.

It proves that it is much less the talk of non-racialism that matters, but the effort we put in to deliver the fruits of that project. Rugby is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the makeup of the squad and starting fifteen shows what happens when we put in the work to give effect to what we say we believe in.

Rassie Erasmus has almost as big a black fan club as Siya Kolisi because people can see he has put in the work, taken the risks of criticism from the “quota player” critics, and has been proven right. He is now a de facto honorary resident of every township and village where rugby matters. People can see he is genuine and therefore never question his selection of white players, or dropping a black player from the squad.

Fourth, the Springboks’ feat must cause us to question why we cannot be just as successful in cricket, soccer and athletics, among others. We must reflect on why we tolerate political and corporate failure of leadership when we have such a good example that success can be achieved even with imperfections if we choose success over ambivalence.

Everyone matters

By far one of the most outstanding lessons for me, personally, has been that every centimetre gained, every tackle and ankle tap matter, from the first minute to the last. Every member of the team matters, all the way to the person who prepares the team kit for the day, or the team physician. All these people did their absolute best, and that is why today we are proud to be South African, and to be African.

We love our captain Siyamthanda Kolisi because in his comments you can tell he sees them and does his best to recognise them publicly. His humility achieves what he himself does not covet, and that is for his name to be lifted higher and higher by the rest of us who watch his character in action.

Finally, I understand there was a feeble political attempt on social media to undermine the efforts of the Springboks in the final. It failed because South Africans are not naïve. They know we have many problems and unresolved issues, but they will not forsake moments of progress that encourage us to redouble our efforts in those areas.

The role of leadership is not to destroy unity when it arises, but to use the few smidgens of unity we achieve to unite us behind solving the many difficult issues we still face. Therefore it is no longer the win that matters, that was last week and Saturday until we lifted the World Cup; from here onwards it is what leaders choose to do with it.

For me, I am more determined than ever that South Africa comes right, that every South African has the opportunity to succeed in life, and does. That needs those of us engaged in politics to learn every lesson from the Springbok victory, and then emulate their example. Hard work, consistency, humility and choosing the right and best people for roles are just some of those. DM

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  • Steve Davidson says:

    Brilliant article, Songeso. Many thanks. Sums up everything superbly. And your opening paragraph is probably the finest one I’ve seen out of everything written by anyone. It brings tears to MY eyes so let me copy and paste it here ‘just because’:

    “I shed a tear when the final whistle came, and again when Siya lifted the cup and the country erupted in joy. I also cried a little when I saw a clip of Siya sprinting all the way to the touchline to hug Cheslin Kolbe. Then I nearly wailed like a child when I watched a portion of the press conference where Siya Kolisi spoke about his team and the coaches, and the years and years it took to reach this level of performance. He spoke about how they cared for one another as human beings first, and then as professionals.”
    Fantastic.

    • Richard Taylor says:

      Wonderful article, I agree. If only the politicians would understand and apply what’s written here, what a great country this could be.

  • Mark Bishop says:

    Wonderful article and written with such passion and conviction – pity the president tried to politically leverage the outstanding victory.
    My question is simply, how long can we as South Africans hang our coats on the shoulders of these wonderful rugby warriors to generate unity, hope and passion for an incredible country that is fast sliding into the abyss?
    We really do need meaningful, respectful, humble and committed political change – if that is at all possible.

  • Roberto Donadoni says:

    Brilliant article Mr. Zibi. Great insight and analysis. There is a telling post on social media about 2 types of leaders that we witnessed at the handing of the trophy in Paris. In the photo, there was our President beaming in front of the cameras, getting in on the action barely 10 seconds after Siya had lifted the trophy. The fact that he inserted himself into the frame and grabbed the trophy from Siya speaks volumes. In the same photo, there is Rassie, standing at the very back looking inconspicuous and quietly celebrating his team. That is a real leader. One that does not look for the limelight and lets the players get their just reward.

    It reminds me of something a professor said at university many years ago, about how a good leader should be like a shepherd. You never see shepherds charging from the front, but they are there in the background, guiding and providing direction and if the need arises then they take action from the front. Open your eyes South Africa…

  • Brian Doyle says:

    A really great and well balanced article that reflects what most South Africans, no matter what their colour or creed is, do feel. If only the politicians acted in the same way we would all be better off. Unfortunately they do not!!

  • Yagyanand Maharaj says:

    Great article. Equally impressive is that the author did not punt his own political party, which has excellent credentials, anywhere in this piece. Others would have jumped on the bandwagon at the first opportunity.

  • Louis Botha says:

    Dear Mr Zibi

    Thank you for your excellent articulate post. It was a joy to read. You eloquently transform the thoughts of many South Africans to words. In these dark times, with so much mediocracy surrounding us, the Springboks have spotlighted local excellence to once again make us feel proud. What a great feeling!

  • Grumpy Old Man says:

    Yup, winning is important, but it’s just as important how you win! I think it was Coach Jacques who said ‘ we didn’t pick the best players, we picked the right players’. To me that means it’s not just about talent it’s also about charachter.
    What was different about this triumph as opposed to 2019 (even though it contained many of the same players & personnel) was that they were able to unite more South Africans behind them. This didn’t just happen – it had to be deliberate. There were movies made about Rassie & Siya. They got some great corporate sponsors behind them – but more than that they decided (or figured) they were playing for a higher purpose. They were playing for Us & the Soul of our Country.
    It would have been very easy, following 2019, for the players & staff to have said ‘OK, mission accomplished, it don’t get better than this’ – but they didn’t. What they essentially decided was they needed to take us all along on the ride & make us feel a part of that success!
    So whereas I agree with you Songezo – the significance is far greater & profound than which you suggest. Siya and the team showed us not only what it feels like to win – but how we can all win & contribute

    • Bob Dubery says:

      I agree, Kolisi is a different sort of Captain, and a very good role model for lots of folks, not just kids who want to play rugby.

      When the racist slander allegations were all over the paper, many a team and many a captain (and I don’t just mean South African teams and captains) would have put the barriers up, demanded justice and so on. Kolisi reached out to the English player, treated him like a human being and in doing so showed us his caliber as a human being. After the final when there was a suggestion that one of the All Blacks had refused to shake the Presidential hand, Kolisi did it again: validating the accused player’s integrity and showing that you can be opponents without being enemies. In press conferences he has often spoken about the players who are not in the 15 or the 23.

      Here’s hoping we get some leaders of that caliber emerging into our politics. There are few inspiring choices at present.

    • Johann Olivier says:

      Nienaber’s comment about picking ‘the right players’ for the final had nothing to do with ‘character’. He picked the right players from the excellent squad, who were RIGHT for the opponents & conditions. Under different circumstances, other players may have been selected.

  • Pierre Strydom says:

    “Thanks, Songezo. You articulated what we all now feel in a masterful way. It’s also heartwarming to read, for once, the positive and uplifting comments below.
    How much has changed in rugby since 1995. Today, we are at the top of the rugby world, and rightfully so. It was a hard-fought battle to the final. Ireland, the best team in the world just a few weeks ago and who had a similar path, just couldn’t make it. We can’t say it’s our black players who did it, or our white players who did it; it was the team. Period. How did it happen? Quotas, severely criticized as discriminatory, played a critical, critical role. Sport development, in rugby’s case, in the black community, is a long, hard process that takes decades of work and financing before results show. For rugby, this took 28 years. We have a better team now because our talent base has broadened exponentially.
    The same is true for our economy. Broaden the base of expertise (yes, BEE is one way, educational opportunities another), and the end result will be better for all. Rugby took 28 years. The economy will take so much longer.”

  • Arnold Muscat says:

    Congrats to you Songezo Zibi for an unbiased non-racial open-minded article. If rugby inspired you to take up the challenge and voice your OWN opinion without thoughts of retribution or reward you are my MAN OF THE MATCH.

    The image that I will remember forever and epitomised the desire to win and not let a Nation down was Chelsin hiding his face for 8+ minutes. Please may our leaders share the same humility and empathy for our fellow South Africans, however in a Churchillian way, “Never have so few destroyed the future of so many” and to the Boks “Never have so few given hope and a few minutes of happiness in extremely bad times.

    During a tournament presser, it was mentioned that Ethiopians “Good grief, they have never played rugby, but Siya is extremely well-liked for his exceptional leadership. Can any of our esteemed politicians please try to emulate…..electioneering aside on the back of this victory that belongs to nation and Africa.

    • Janet Sully says:

      None of our politicians have the strength of character (or anywhere near a decent level of fitness) to ever be able to match the calibre of the Springboks. But, as you say, perhaps the closest the politicians can get is to try to emulate the commitment, hard work, ethics, honesty and just plain grit and determination of our Springbok rugby players. If only the politicians would try.

  • Darryl Accone says:

    All the politicians – and would-be politicians like Zibi – are jumping on the Springbok bandwagon, which now more resembles a juggernaut. First, distastefully, Ramaphosa gave a half-hour election campaign speech under the pretext of announcing a public holiday on 15 December in honour of the Springboks (and, to a degree, the Proteas). Just as the President desperately tried to associate the Springbok triumph with the ANC, so too did the DA’s John Steenhuisen in a video message reeking of opportunism and neoliberal virtue-signalling. Now we have Zibi brandishing faux humility contradicted by the liberal use of “I” in his graspingly expedient “reflection” on the Boks’ triumph. Next year at election time we will have politicians clad in Protea and Springbok jerseys pressing the flesh, kissing babies and lying through their teeth as they try to swindle people into voting for them and their parties. By contrast, there is a tough honesty to snake-oil sellers.

  • Betsy Kuhn says:

    nicely said

  • George Watson says:

    All of us know that the govt and all the politicians are climbing on to the Springbok bandwagon as a cover for their abject performance, and when I say “all of us” I mean every South African of whatever place or station in life regardless of race or economic circumstance. The last paragraph of this outstanding article says it all but it has to apply not just to “those of us enganged in politics” but to all of us. If we follow the last sentence and do something useful to this end, however small it may be, then South Africa will come right and the politicians will suffer the irrelevance they deserve.

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