In the last week, the Springboks took to the world stage, flying South Africa’s flag high as the final whistle signalled yet another victory, cementing South Africa’s status as the only country whose national team has won the Rugby World Cup four times. A truly remarkable feat worthy of celebration by the nation.
The French capital, Paris, was temporarily transformed into a South African stage, an image completed by the donning of the colours of the South African flag at the Eiffel Tower, with none other than President Cyril Ramaphosa himself leading the celebrations.
The presence of the President at the stadium during the final was an important morale booster and demonstration that the whole nation was behind the Springbok team, despite what naysayers would have us believe.
The negativity generated by some sections of our population is nothing more than ill-informed rhetoric that does nothing for our national project to build a united society, free of the bondages of the past, that forced us to see each other through the prism of race.
A certain Ivo Vegter, a self-proclaimed advocate for classical liberalism and his ilk, cannot resist to spew hogwash, insulting President Ramaphosa while singing praises for the DA’s John Steenhuisen. This is the negativity we have come to expect from those like him who continue to subscribe to the racist dogma that perceives black people as subhuman who are not worthy of respect. His delusion of grandeur exposes his level of ignorance in suggesting that the state had no role to play in the development of our sports, with specific reference to rugby.
Once again, sport continues to play a pivotal role in nation-building and demonstrating the ability of South Africans from all walks of life to embrace each other as fellow citizens of our beautiful nation. The celebrations that characterised the national mood when the Springboks lifted the Webb Ellis Cup transcended racial boundaries and brought South Africans together, celebrating a moment of triumph for the nation.
This was a moment in time when we became each other’s keepers. It was equally a moment that reminded us of the role of sport in our liberation struggle, leading to the ushering in of democracy in 1994.
Sport played an extremely important role in moulding the modern-day democratic society despite the odds. Segregated sport was meant to polarise society, and the government of the day pitted sportsmen and sportswomen against each other, using race as a propaganda tool to instil an ideology of racial supremacy which underpinned the apartheid system.
Rugby was at the centre of this polarisation with the name Springbok associated with all-white rugby that refused to recognise legends who have showcased their skill on the rugby field, because of their race. It is equally important to acknowledge that black rugby was a frontrunner in advocating non-racial sports, going back to the turn of the century.
The colourful history of rugby in South Africa was the microcosm of our society, the most powerful symbol of racial reconciliation and a seedbed for a non-racial society. When President Nelson Mandela chose rugby and the Springbok symbol as the embodiment of unity and reconciliation, much to the chagrin of his comrades, he demonstrated visionary leadership with foresight and placed the interests of his people above all else. This is despite the humiliation that he endured at the hands of the race-based sports apologist, Louis Luyt.
The unity that enveloped the country in celebration of the Springbok victory is a manifestation of Mandela’s vision and a demonstration that we have come a long way to make his vision a lived reality. The naysayers would have us believe otherwise, but South Africans have stayed the course and continue to manifest the dream of a society united in its purpose, transcending narrow racial perspectives that seek to divide rather than unite.
The first minister of sports of democratic South Africa, Minister Steve Tshwete, was unapologetic in his determination to drive the transformation of rugby, himself having been one of the many unsung rugby activists in the heyday of apartheid. His vision to transform the sport and unwavering commitment to the broader transformation of sport set the agenda for those of us who were to follow in his footsteps.
Indeed, when I became the minister of sport in 2010, I picked up the baton and continued on the path Cde Steve had set before me. Our vision of transformation was not to allow our people to be used as tokens while the levers of power in sports remained untransformed.
In 2014, when we were briefing the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Sport and Recreation, we made it clear that the moral justification for transformation had been ineffective as bean counting of black faces on the field was counterproductive.
We believed that it was not correct to have a demographically representative, unprofessional, non-winning team from an irregularly administered sporting body with challenges in accessing that sport. We therefore added an additional six dimensions to the Charter, which then spoke to a multidimensional approach that was to set us on a path to meritocracy. This was informed by the pilot study done by the Eminent Persons Group in 2013.
It was on this premise that I outlined a firm vision in 2016 that would deliver tangible outcomes in the form of black players emerging through the ranks based on their skill on the field, having been given an equal opportunity to compete.
We had done work that demonstrated that quotas were not advancing the cause of transformation and proved to be counterproductive. Selecting someone as a quota player was an affront to their integrity. We drove a hard bargain in ensuring that players would participate in a national team on merit.
We were under no illusion about the abundance of talent among black South Africans who never had the opportunity to compete on equal terms with their white counterparts. We therefore implemented this policy underpinned by a strong belief that merit and transformation are not mutually exclusive.
We therefore did away with quotas and set rugby on a path to encourage the emergence of raw talent from young South Africans, premised on an equal opportunity to compete on the field of play. We had no doubt that such an approach would enable an integrated society that would foster a process to get the national teams across sports codes to where they should be.
Indeed, the Springbok team that flew South Africa’s flag high in France in 2023 was a product of that policy that gave all players an opportunity to emerge head above shoulders of their peers, irrespective of race.
The naysayers, who want society to believe that this squad was not a product of a deliberate and focused policy intervention that was allowed to mature over time have their heads buried in the sand and want to hoodwink society to believe in falsehoods.
The South Africa of yesteryear that Vegter yearns for will never come to pass again. It is a relic that has been relegated to the rubbish bin of history. The sooner he accepts that reality, the sooner he will be able to make peace with a democracy that thrives under majority rule.
History has no blank pages and we must celebrate our successes and the path we have traversed and gains we have made towards the realisation of a truly non-racial, non-sexist and emancipated society. This is the vision of the National Democratic Revolution that continues to inform our forward momentum as a nation. DM