Friday, September 18, 2015

Remembering the impact of rugby in South Africa

Tonight sees the start of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, with England preparing to square off against Fiji at Twickenham at 8 o'clock. Over the next 6 weeks, 20 teams will be competing for the prestigious trophy, culminating in the final match on 31st October. European teams such as England, Ireland and France have a long history with rugby, but how what effect has the game had on the African teams? 

Only 2 of the teams that qualified are from Africa: South Africa and Namibia. South Africa are well known as a force to be reckoned with in the rugby world, and the Springboks have won the World Cup twice, in both 1995 and 2007. They are currently ranked the third in the world, only behind New Zealand and Australia. As well as being a great game to watch, rugby's popularity had a momentous effect 20 years ago in post-apartheid South Africa during the 1995 tournament, as anyone who has seen the brilliant 2009 film Invictus will know. It is the International Day of Peace on Monday (21st September), which seems like an apt time to celebrate the 20th anniversary of one of the most defining moments in the history of rugby.

Rugby has been popular in South Africa since the 19th century when the colonial British brought the game there, but was seen exclusively as a sport for rich white Afrikaners by the native black South Africans, which the apartheid helped to exacerbate. In 1981 the country's team, the Springboks, were banned from playing international rugby until such a time when apartheid was ended. Apartheid was abolished in 1994, and Nelson Mandela became the country’s first ever black President 4 years after his release from prison. At this time South Africa was still a country divided by racial tension, and rugby was still seen as a white man's sport. Black South Africans would often cheer on the opposition in favour of the Springboks, as the emblem was seen as a symbol of the apartheid. Nelson Mandela realised this when he became President, and made it his mission to unite the people of South Africa through rugby. 

The initial reaction to the idea of the whole country getting behind the Springboks seemed alien to many, but the quiet dignity of their President who had wrongly spent 27 years of his life in prison inspired his people. Nelson Mandela had every right to want revenge of the white Afrikaners who had discriminated against him all his life, but instead he demanded peace: not more conflict. This attitude spread throughout the country, and as the Springboks made it further and further through the competition the feeling in South Africa was electric.

Francois Pienaar, the white Afrikaner captain of the Springboks at the time, described how the mood of the whole country changed during that tournament: 
 “In six weeks, I saw the country change. At our hotel in Cape Town, the lady who checked us in was wearing a Springbok jumper. The gentleman who served us breakfast would say we must eat because we needed to be strong. The morning of the final [in Johannesburg], we went for a run, and four black kids selling newspapers chased after us, shouting the names of the players. After the match, when an interviewer asked me how it felt to win in front of 65,000 people, I replied, “We didn't have 65,000. We had 43 million.” 

When the Springboks eventually defeated New Zealand in the World Cup final in Johannesburg on the 24th June 1995, Nelson Mandela made a point of wearing the Springboks jersey whilst presenting the trophy to Francois Pienaar. The photo above captured that historic moment, and became a defining image of racial unity in post-apartheid South Africa. 

In the grand scheme of things, sport isn't exactly the most important thing in the world. However it does have the power to unite communities to support a common cause, and in South Africa's case, start to mend a fractured country. As Mandela himself said: 
"Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination."
So let's get behind our teams in the coming weeks and have another tournament to remember!

Top photo from:
Alysha Bennett Web Developer

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