SA’s World Cup bid raises a number of flags

Picture: Phando Jikelo

THE SA Rugby Union (Saru) believes it has come up with a compelling case to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

World Rugby officials seem to agree and have named South Africa as the preferred host nation for the tournament. But Saru’s bid should have set alarm bells ringing in this country. Its guarantees and promises have been pasted together with gobs of opportunism, drawing heavily on the mass euphoria and the feel-good mood that engulfed the country in 1995, when South Africa last hosted the World Cup, but which ultimately proved to be a mirage.

It’s easy to mouth sweet nothings about how rugby’s premier tournament will ‘unite South Africans’ – like it did in 1995. It’s easy to promise how it will promote macroeconomic growth. And it’s easy to predict a cash bonanza for small businesses – among other things.
But scratch the surface, and a different story emerges.

The 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa is said to have united South Africans as never before. Under the baton of Nelson Mandela in a Number 6 Springbok jersey, hundreds of thousands of South Africans chanted “Nelson, Nelson” and coo-ed to the concept of a “Rainbow Nation” and a message of reconciliation as the “Springboks” beat New Zealand to become world champions on home soil.

In the aftermath of that victory, former Progressive Federal Party leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert gushed: “This was one of the final blows to exclusive right-wing Afrikaner nationalism. I saw and heard one of the pot-bellied brigade whisper through his tears: ‘That [Mandela] is my president.” But like so many other politicians, Van Zyl Slabbert’s prediction proved to be naïve.

In the weeks and months that followed, a major book was written, a movie was made and millions of words were churned out all over the world about how Mandela went to the “enemy” and charmed all the racism out of them. Everyone was giddy with excitement. But it was liking wearing new jeans over a soiled underpants.

The honeymoon was short-lived. Normal business quickly resumed. The reasons for this were simple.

For white South Africans, loving Mandela at Ellis Park was one thing. Seeing their black compatriots as equals in a new South Africa was a bridge too far to cross for too many. And as for Saru (or the SA Rugby Football Union, Sarfu, as it was known then), the majority of its promises turned out to be, well, just promises. One of these – a public commitment in March 1993, a full two years before the World Cup – was to pump R13-million in one year into a general fund for rugby development in black, underdeveloped areas. Another part of this plan was to employ 6 000 coaches across the country to take rugby to the masses.

Then there was “Operation Rugby”, of which the key was to use 40 percent of the profits of the 1995 World Cup to upgrade more than 40 grounds in disadvantaged areas across the country. From these initiatives, said Sarfu, a solid base of black rugby players would be created. All these were empty promises.

The reality is that the combination of professional rugby, transformation targets at club rugby level and acute socio-economic problems such as gangsterism, drugs and drugs turf wars, have virtually destroyed club and schools rugby in the townships. Saru, as the national body is now called, changed tack. It now seeks to identify black players at schools level who it deems talented enough to play provincial, Super or international rugby.

The best players are now given bursaries to attend the traditional (formerly, but still predominantly white) rugby-playing schools. This means that just a few elite black players are being co-opted into the highest echelons of rugby through the narrow pipeline of these top schools. At club level, cash-strapped black clubs (those that are still in existence) have their best players poached by formerly white clubs.

One of South Africa’s great ironies is that the biggest beneficiaries of democracy have been sporting bodies who openly connived with, and supported the sports policies, of the previous apartheid regime. The “look, Ma, no apartheid” and “our blacks support us” pictures that were painted in 1995 were part of a massive marketing campaign. And like all marketing campaigns, it had a limited shelf life.

If Mandela believed that the 1995 World Cup would bring about reconciliation – and there is no reason to think that he did not – he was betrayed.
The majority of white South Africans were prepared to give him honorary “white Springbok” status – a status that signified a way of life, a white way of life. So they drew their line in the sand aimed at their black compatriots. It said: “This far and no further.”

If South Africa is named the host nation for the 2023 tournament, international rugby supporters will need to find other sources to read about a country in which 30-million black people are living in dire poverty, and where the Gini coefficient – the gap between rich and poor – is widest in the world.
International supporters will also need other sources to find out about the frightening crime rate – the murders, the rapes and ubiquitous corruption.
As in 1995, these will be Photoshopped out of the South African picture.

In their place will be a host of adverts showing young black boys in shiny boots being given tips by current and past Springboks. But the sad reality is that the minds of the millions living in poverty will be concentrated on survival rather than up-and-unders. The rugby world cup tournament in this country will be a month-long celebration for the middle-classes, thanks to the billions of rands put up as guarantees by the government.

It’s hard not to be angry when thinking about who benefits most from this type of state generosity.

Let’s be blunt about this: the biggest beneficiaries of a World Cup will be those who prefer to keep their feet and their affections in a different time: in the good old pre-1994 days. You’ll hear these pathetic supporters whenever the national team loses, blaming “quotas” and “transformation” for the side’s woeful performances. Their ill-disguised message is: “rugby is a sport for white people – and in any case, blacks are not really interested in rugby.”

Why should such woeful ignorance be rewarded in this way?

Why is the SA government happy to support the “Springbok”, which over more than a century has been the epitome of white supremacy?

Players and administrators, some of whom were the biggest supporters of apartheid, are lionized in a national rugby museum. As thoughts turn to the 2023 tournament, and if as expected, South Africa wins the bid, it is time for anti-racist citizens of this country to make up for their tardiness in not questioning what Saru was putting out to the world in their name.

It is time for them to campaign vigorously for the removal of the “Springbok” as rugby’s national symbol and for the removal of all the apartheid exhibits in the SA Rugby Museum. Most of all, when the haves of South Africa fork out their R1000+ for tickets for the World Cup, they must be reminded that more than 30 million South Africans live in abject poverty.

Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising here and in the UK in sports writing, politics and features