NEW ZEALAND rugby teams have long regarded games at Newlands as the next best thing to playing on their home grounds – and when the All Blacks run onto the field this evening, they will see why some local fans regard Cape Town as ‘Little New Zealand’.

Kieran Reid and his team will receive a welcome reserved for returning heroes.

Their army of black-clad local supporters will stand up as one when the announcer asks spectators to “please rise for the playing of the New Zealand national anthem”. Thousands of right fists will be placed over hearts as the first strains of ‘God Defend New Zealand” sweep across the ground. Then they’ll start singing, ‘God of Nations at thy feet, in the bonds of love we meet’, with all the passion of New Zealand supporters in Waikato, Wellington, Wanganui and a host of other cities and towns of the small Pacific nation.

During the match, they’ll cheer every All Black manoeuvre and jeer every Springbok mistake.

The question is: Why? There are three main reasons for this.

Some South African fans support the New Zealanders for playing rugby that is fast, skilful and exciting – and because they know how to win. A second group support the All Blacks and teams from other countries because they have never forgotten and, indeed, they never want to forget what so-called international rugby meant to them during the apartheid era.

To them, these ‘tests’ matches were played by white supremacists. And for this reason, they held – and continue to hold – the Springboks in utter contempt, even though national teams have no longer been all-white for a number of years. Strangely enough, during the apartheid era, these fans supported visiting teams, even though these visitors were more than happy to play against all-white Springboks. The third group believe that black players and, in fact, black South Africans were betrayed by the politicians during the run-up to the first democratic elections in 1994 – and even more so since.

They have been able to back up their views with compelling arguments.

Their premise is that the South African Rugby Union (Saru) can never be a credible agent for the promotion of non-racial sport, and particularly non-racial rugby, in this country.

They point out that South African rugby in the era of democracy has a sad history of promises made … and quickly and casually broken.
They argue that, despite the by-now tiresomely regular hands-on-heart commitment to transformation and the promise of new opportunities for black players, far too few black players have been given these opportunities.

Of course, Saru is not exclusively to blame for this. 

Government – at national, provincial and local level – are the biggest culprits for sporting codes such as rugby not having gone through a genuine process of transformation. The ANC, which became the governing party in 1994, dragged, especially, the non-racial sporting codes to the negotiating table – even before one-person-one-vote elections.

Far too many issues that were of genuine concern to the non-racial sports fraternity were blithely ignored. These were matters, it was said, that could be discussed at another time. Far too much was given up by those representing the non-racial codes in these negotiations. The racist sports codes, represented in many cases by apartheid supporters, sat back – and with very little effort were allowed almost immediate entry into international sport.

It was far too easy for them. They gave up nothing. They made no real effort to help build a new South Africa via sport. Due mainly to the commitment of the ‘Father of the Nation’, Nelson Mandela, to reconciliation, the national rugby body, the SA Rugby Football Union (Sarfu), which later became Saru, was allowed to keep the Springbok as its national symbol.

During South African democracy’s honeymoon period, a massive feelgood factor, coupled with what some people described as “Madiba Magic”, saw the Springboks sweep to victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. But even then, ominous warning signs were emerging. The most significant of these was that just one black player – Chester Williams – was deemed good enough for the Springbok run-on team.

Over the years, the administration of the game in South Africa has proved to be hugely problematical. Because of political and social issues, which have seen the yawning gap between rich and poor – and in this context, see it as the gap between “white and black” – grow even wider, it has become difficult to build a reservoir of black players to play at the highest level.

The demographics are much better in the age groups – but somewhere between schools and provincial levels, far too many black players are lost to the game. Other problems have also emerged…

During the SA Council on Sport (Sacos) era, impressive numbers of black players – from schools level right up to club and provincial level – were drawn to the game. But unity strangled rugby in the townships. Far too little attention was paid to this type of development. Sadly, this is still the case today.

Clubs with histories covering many decades, and in some instances, stretching over more than 100 years, became defunct or were forced to amalgamate with other clubs. Previously white clubs, desperate to prove they were “transforming”, used their financial clout to “buy” some of the best black players.
Financial clout was still retained by white clubs. Many black administrators and former players believe that the Springbok should not have been retained as the national rugby emblem. They argue that it is an apartheid symbol that continues to promote an apartheid mindset among white supporters.

Many white supporters and former white players, moreover, see black players in representative sides, including the Springboks, as irritating intruders at worst and necessary evils (to avoid the threat of government action) at best. And yet, beyond the occasional threat, the government has done nothing to ensure a level playing field for black players. 

The consequence of this is that every time the Springboks or other representative sides lose, a chorus of “quota” rings out from the lips and pens of white supporters. If the coach is black, his tactics will invariably be blamed for a team losing. Where coaches are white, the black players in the team, who they were forced to select are blamed for any defeats. And yet, until the collapse of apartheid, the white South African Rugby Board employed the biggest quota policy ever: whites-only team. This must not be forgotten.

Rugby in this country has become an elitist sport. A narrow pipeline to traditional white rugby schools has been created to bring in elite groups of black players, and to move them through the age groups, and eventually (if everything goes according to plan) into provincial, Super and Springbok teams.
The effect of this, though, is that rugby will remain a predominantly white sport at the highest level.

It is little wonder then that so many black South Africans support teams such as the All Blacks – and that the South African national team seems stuck with a playing style far behind their opponents. Black clubs, where they still exist, labour under the burden of poor facilities, threats from gangsters in townships, poor diets, poverty, and a lack of gym facilities for their players.

In the days of apartheid, rugby was seen as the vehicle that would get promising white players out of rural districts of South Africa, and into glittering sporting and, later, working careers in the big cities. Generally, this is not true of black players. In fact, some black Springboks have ended up living in dire circumstances within a short time of their playing careers coming to an end. What needs to be done – urgently – is the creation of a level playing field for all players. How can this be achieved?

Firstly, for poverty to be properly tackled at a political level. What government is doing to narrow the poverty gap is simply not good enough. At a rugby level, the Springbok symbol should be put out to pasture. It has become so divisive that it serves no useful purpose. It encourages triumphalism and a hankering for the past from those who played and watched the game during the apartheid era. Also, the records of apartheid Springboks should be purged from official statistics. These should be placed in an apartheid museum. They are certainly not needed in a rugby museum.

Records should begin in 1994 – and there should be a commitment from Saru to work out of the box, to work harder and to strive to create proper opportunities for every youngster who is interested in playing the game. Failure to do this will damn the national team to a state of mediocrity for many years to come.

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