South Africa came into the Rugby World Cup zealous for total victory and grinding their way all through to the final. At the end, it was a good story, one that moved the globe, in essence. Because there is something about rugby in South Africa that comes attached with a plethora of connotations, especially in a negative light.
The Southern African country has now won the Rugby World Cup three times- in 1995, 2007 and 2019. That is truly an impressive record. Rugby is a loved sport in South Africa, but also an ugly reminder of the deep divisions that exist between races in South Africa, divisions that prevent formation of a united society that strives to see each human being live to their best.
Rugby is a sport that originated from England and was exported to those parts of the world where English settlers decided to ruthlessly and mercilessly colonize, enforcing strict and cruel segregation policies that were devoid of any humanity at all. In South Africa, this venomous serpent called colonization took an even nastier, uglier twist than in other colonies as the conflation of Boers and English settlers joined forces to effect the apartheid system - which could probably qualify as the most evil and callous in the whole world. Because sport conveys strong messages about culture and how people love to define themselves, rugby was an exclusive preserve of the whites. It was a sport not meant for the blacks.
The apartheid system was so blatantly and shamelessly evil that South Africa did not participate at the first two World Cups. When they won the final of the Rugby World Cup in 1995, the then captain, Francois Pienaar, lifted the World Cup trophy with Nelson Mandela - a very powerful gesture that sent shockwaves across the world, a symbol of a new epoch in South Africa where multi-raciality could be embraced. It was a moment of unbridled euphoria that could potentially usher a new era of unity.
Still, that did little to heal South Africa's wounds resulting from a very brutal and dark history. Racial tensions always simmered, and very much alive. Nothing fundamentally changed in the ordinary lives of the black man. The black was still at a disadvantage, as all his capabilities could never match the massive wealth possessed by the white section of the population, which is a minority. Rugby still remained a privilege for the white kids. And it is like that.
But such assertions would be overboard, for South Africa has made enormous strides in improving her economy and the lives of the black people. Much has changed, and optimism always remains in the air despite the thick clouds of uncertainty.
This time around, when South Africa crushed England 32-12 in Japan, the prestigious Webb Ellis Cup was lifted by President Cyril Ramaphosa and Siya Kolisi, the Springboks' first-ever black captain. When they won in 2007, the captain was John Smit, a white player. So this time there were heavy undertones and overtones of black victory when Siya Kolisi lifted the trophy. It was a moment where the nation rallied together and threw off the shackles of racial differences for a common universal goal. The celebratory mood that took over South Africa bridged all races.
Rugby has always been an embodiment of white privilege and supremacy, in the strictest of the terms. But such a victory created ample space for such differences to be left. There is now a greater number of black players in the South Africa team, a sign of much improvement. Quota systems still raise controversial debates, with some advocating for it and some in overwhelming disapproval of it - saying that it overlooks the merits of players and some players end getting on the team simply because they are black and the rules say that must be black players in the squad.
Be that as it may, one may not ignore the fact that South African rugby has improved vastly in terms of inclusivity. There is still a long way to go, obliviously, but rugby has done some good in bringing the people of South Africa together. Not only South Africa, but the rest of the continent as well.
Header image credit - FOX Sports