With the euphoria arising from Springboks victory over England in the final of the Rugby World Cup final tailing off, now would be an appropriate time to reflect on the reaction to the victory and what it tells us about the complex issue of race. To recap, on 2 November 2019, the South African rugby team defeated England 32-12 to capture its third rugby world cup trophy. As the Webb Ellis Cup was handed to Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, the significance of the victory reverberated throughout the four corners of the world. In lifting the trophy, Kolisi became the first black captain to lead a South African rugby team to world cup success. This feat was monumental considering the racist legacy of rugby in apartheid South Africa.
Some have described the trophy presentation to Kolisi as a Mandela-like-postgame moment mirroring the time when Nelson Mandela handed the Webb Ellis trophy in 1995 to South Africa’s captain Francois Pienaar while wearing a Number 6 engraved Springboks jersey. South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa joked that he was pleased it was not election time as Kolisi would have been elected president. The victory has been framed as a significant milestone in ushering racial unity in the country. Voice of America wrote that the win showed the power of unity in a divided nation. Samuel Lovett of the Independent argued that Kolisi’s Springboks brought hope to a troubled South Africa. John Smit, the captain of the 2007 World Cup-winning Springbok said before the match that a victory against England would, “Change the trajectory of our country,” while Kolisi said the victory would make a huge difference to the country.
The suggestion that Springboks recent victory will contribute to racial harmony needs to be scrutinised. South Africa has a long history with racism and has been the epicentre of some of the world’s most brutal racist policies. It is a tall order to expect a black captain of a team of fifteen men emerging victorious in sports with a racist legacy changing the trajectory of racism, which is embedded in South Africa.
In 1995 when Mandela wore the Springbok jersey and presented the trophy to the victorious Bok side, there was a similar expectation that the racial wounds inflicted over the past 200 years would be healed in an instance. From the time Mandela wore the Springboks jersey to the present, not much has changed racially in South Africa. According to the World Bank, South Africa is the world’s most unequal society. The top 10% (a majority of whom are white) control 70% of the country’s assets while the bottom 60% (predominately black) own 7% of the nation’s wealth. White people, who make up 9% of the population, own 72% of the country’s private farmland. In December 2018, it was revealed that black visitors to the Clifton beach in Cape Town were ordered to leave the beach by private security guards. While there is nothing odd in millions of a country’s citizens rejoicing at triumphing at a sporting event, there is something strange when such feat is framed as a racism-ending moment.
Very often, when blackness makes its mark in white spaces, there is an overreaction on both sides of the colour line. This overreaction is partly because we have a tendency to focus on the symbolism of the achievement rather than identifying and dismantling the underlying structural causes that make it difficult for blackness to exist within white spaces. Racial tokenism and the maintenance of the asymmetric racial status quo are two sides of the same coin.
Despite the fact that the Springbok team which triumphed over England contained six black players, most of the discussion centred around a black captain lifting the cup. On the black side of the colour line, token gestures are celebrated because for so long blacks have been excluded from the table, so the moment someone is able to get a seat, it is cause for joy for the collective group. On the white side of the colour line, tokenism is the easy way out of avoiding uncomfortable discussions about racial inequality as one can easily point to the token as evidence of racial progress. The mere fact we are celebrating the first black world cup winning captain in a country where 76% of the population is black is very disturbing.
Tokenism is one of the most potent tools available to the white power structure against racial progress. First, as explained earlier, it projects an image that things are not as bad as it seems. Second, it excuses the white power structure from its complicity in the maintenance of the racial status quo. Third, the token figure can be used to castigate victims of racism. The logic goes, “If Kolisi can overcome not knowing where his next meal would come from and then mount the summit on a global stage, why can’t the millions of poor black South Africans do likewise.” In an article published in the Independent, the author wrote Kolisi’s, “Ascent to this rarefied pinnacle speaks volume of the realities of life in South Africa – but also points to what can be achieved in the face of adversity and tragedy.”
Fourth, it serves as an effective pacifier to tame the agitation for racial justice and acts as a smokescreen to move away from structural issues causing racial inequality. In the case of South Africa, issues like racial land ownership disparity, wealth redistribution, high levels of unemployment, over-financialisation of the economy were pushed to the backseat in the aftermath of the Springboks victory. Fifth, it helps erase past racial incidents.
With the emergence of a first world cup winning Springbok black captain, we have conveniently forgotten how last year during a run of bad results, there were calls to end the quota system put in place to ensure that black players constituted half of the team during the World Cup ; we have conveniently forgotten how the Springboks World Cup campaign was overshadowed by accusations of racial and physical abuse levelled at one of its star players which prompted an inquiry by the South African Human Rights Commission ; we have conveniently forgotten how early in the tournament, a black player was ignored during a “‘whites-only’ Springbok hug after the match against Italy.
Besides Kolisi lifting the trophy, there are other recent instances where black faces in white spaces were highlighted as a panacea for promoting racial harmony. When Barack Obama was elected the first black American president in 2008, the world was ecstatic. Commentators predicted his victory will usher the end of racism in America. New York Times headlined its article on the historic feat, “Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls.” Radio host Lou Dobbs said, “We are now in a 21st-century post-partisan, post-racial society.” Chris Matthews of MSNBC, in discussing Obama said, “He is post-racial by all appearances. You know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour.” Even the bug caught me as I embarked on a photo documentary project to examine how Obama’s victory would make the world a better place.
When Meghan Markle married Prince Harry in 2018, the world celebrated how Britain had shifted positively in the area of racial justice. The royal wedding featured many firsts including the first black royal wedding preacher, the first black royal wedding cellist, the first black royal wedding choir and the first multiple black royal wedding guest list. We were greeted with headlines like, ” How Meghan Markle’s Race Marks a Turning Point for Britain” and “A woman of color joining the royal family is a big moment for Britain.” David Lammy, the British MP tweeted, “Making my beautiful mixed heritage family’s shoulders stand a little taller. Against the odds a great new symbol of all that is still possible and hopeful in modern Britain.” Likewise, when Tidjane Thiam was appointed the first black CEO of a FTSE 100 company in Britain, it was hailed as a significant milestone in the City of London.
But one thing we can learn from the above is that token gestures do not necessarily solve the race question. Even though Obama spent eight years as president, little has changed in terms of racial inequality and racial justice in America. One and a half years after the royal wedding, the hostile racial climate in Britain remains unchanged while Meghan Markle is now facing the full wrath of the British media, which borders on racism. Ten years after Thiam’s appointment, there has been no black FTSE 100 CEO or executive director. It would appear unrealistic to expect racial unity as a result of Kolisi’s historic feat.
Under normal circumstances, at 6.2 feet tall and weighing 105 kg, Kolisi would have attracted cold stares and he would have noticed people holding to their purses and pockets if he mistakenly found himself in a white space without wearing a Springbok jersey. However, thanks to captaining the Springboks to world cup glory, Kolisi has been transformed from a threatening big black man into the quintessential black role model. It is easier to celebrate a token black role model than dismantling the structures that make he/her a token.
A quintessential black model is someone who projects hope as opposed to disrupting the racial status quo. He should avoid controversy and if he comes from a humble background, it is easier to use him to negate the grievances of victims of racial oppression. As long as Kolisi sticks to serving as a role model to young black boys in the townships who want to escape poverty by playing rugby he will be fine. But should he start talking about land redistribution and racial wealth disparity, he will be dismissed as a populist.
There are a few lonely voices crying in the racial wilderness, which have not bought into the euphoria of the Springboks victory. Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, the EFF spokesman argued that Kolisi lifting the trophy was an example of black excellence and not racial unity. However, those who buck the trend have been dismissed as party poppers and Grinch who stole Christmas.
In his book, the Racial Contract, Charles Mills defines the racial contract as a set of formal or informal agreements, which ensures, “Differential privileging of the whites as a group with respect to the nonwhites as a group, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources, and the denial of equal socioeconomic opportunities to them.” Racism is South Africa’s original sin and it will take more than a rugby team emerging victorious to solve the problem. For racial unity to become a reality, beneficiaries of South Africa’s racial contract would have to give up their privileges instead of a Springbok captain band.
Ahmed Sule is a writer and social critic, with a focus on politics, racism and sports.