From All Black to green and gold

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iol news pic Madiba and Francois 1995 AP Bok captain Francios Pienaar, right, receives the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela, left, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in Johannesburg, in this June 1995 photo. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)

Lindiz van Zilla considers pride in national teams, political activism and the damaging legacy of apartheid.

Cape Town - I am South African and I support the Springboks. And I will shout for the Springboks when they line up against the All Blacks at Ellis Park today. But this wasn’t always the case.

I used to be an All Black supporter. Back in 1995 when the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup for the first time, sparking delirious scenes of celebration among white and black South Africans, I was one of thousands of so-called coloured rugby fans caught up in a state of despair.

It was a crushing blow to our hopes, our dreams, to our beloved All Blacks.

I was a 22-year-old watching the final at a friend’s home in Ravensmead. Some supported the Boks and some the All Blacks.

After the game, won 15-12 by a Joel Stransky drop goal in extra time, I walked home alone along Voortrekker Road in Bellville, tears streaming down my face as cars roared past, hooters blaring and people screaming in jubilation.

All I had were tears of heartache that our mythical All Blacks had lost... against the old guard South Africa.

South African Rugby Union president Louis Luyt’s crass comments at the post-final gala dinner afterwards that the victory merely showed that the Springboks would probably have won the two preceding editions of the tournament had we been allowed to participate, only served as a reminder of all that was still wrong in South Africa.

And all that was so very wrong in South African rugby.

A year earlier, our country had celebrated the birth of our democracy.

Nelson Mandela was our president and the future was filled with bright hope and endless possibilities. Except in rugby, which still embodied everything that apartheid had so calculatingly deprived us of and where it had so callously belittled our aspirations.

There was Chester Williams, darling of white South Africa, the four-try hero against Samoa in the quarter-finals, but for coloured rugby supporters it was a slap in the face. We were only good enough to play on the wing. One token black face among a sea of white.

It was not that Williams was not good enough. On the contrary, knowing our rugby history and the depth of talent, we felt deeply wronged that SA Rugby saw fit to only select one player of colour in a World Cup squad of 28 players.

The famous slogan of “One team, one country” rang hollow for many coloured rugby supporters.

Our heroes wore black. And the silver fern, rather than the Springbok, was the emblem of our affection.

Os du Randt, Francois Pienaar, Ruben Kruger, Joost van der Westhuizen, James Small, Andre Joubert, Stransky and Chester would go on to form part of South African folklore.

My heroes, our heroes, were Jeff Wilson, Andrew Mehrtens, Josh Kronfeld and Sean Fitzpatrick. Those with Maori or other South Sea island heritage were held in even greater esteem. Glen Osborne, Jonah Lomu, the centre pairing of Frank Bunce and Walter Little, Graeme Bachop, Ian Jones and Zinzan Brooke were idolised like no Springbok star ever could be.

We were being represented by men from New Zealand. In them lay our pride, our dreams, our resistance to the racist dinosaur that was South African rugby.

All we could think of was how apartheid had denied our greatest talents like Eric Majola, Millin Petersen, Cassiem Jabaar, Peter Makata, Charlie Davids and Salie Fredericks the opportunity to play for the country of their birth. Simply because of the colour of their skin.

For years, nay generations, the All Blacks had been our chosen ones. Our instrument of opposition. Ask any long-standing South African All Black supporter and the answer will invariably be “for as long as I can remember”.

Apartheid officially came into being only in 1948 but as far back as 1919 South African authorities had exerted pressure on New Zealand to drop the non-white Ranji Wilson from a touring team. Nine years later it was the turn of George Nepia and Jimmy Mill to be excluded from an All Blacks tour to this country.

A Maori-less All Blacks toured South Africa in 1960 despite growing international condemnation and finally in 1967 the New Zealand rugby union cancelled a tour due to the South African government’s insistence on a no-Maori policy.

South Africa, starved of the opportunity to do battle against the fabled All Blacks, finally conceded to allow Maoris to tour the republic by granting them the status of “honorary whites”. White South Africa celebrated 3-1 Test series victories in 1970 and again in 1976, but for the coloured anti-Bok brigade all the talk was of the young Bryan Williams, of Samoan descent, who defied the apartheid beast to score a series of scintillating tries (14 tries in 13 appearances on tour) to enter into our own rugby folklore.

In a perverse way this long-held support for the New Zealand rugby union team among a large sector of the coloured populace is a legacy of apartheid. Perhaps not how the architects of that system quite imagined it, but a legacy that nevertheless persists to this day.

There are oddities though.

Prior to 1995 we had the New Zealand Cavaliers, who in defiance of sporting sanctions, toured here to play against the Springboks in 1986. Regardless of their tacit “support” of the apartheid regime, there was great enthusiasm down in the Cape for the well-paid rebels which featured the likes of Grant Fox, Murray Mexted, Wayne Shelford, Andy Haden, Craig Green and Robbie Deans, who would later go on to be a hugely successful coach at Super Rugby level. It was a case of ABTS (Anybody But The Springboks).

Cape Town is the epicentre of this unusual allegiance. And for that sin SA Rugby has long decreed that Newlands will not host a Test match between the Springboks and the All Blacks. A seething hostility towards the Springboks and ugly clashes between South Africa fans and South African New Zealand fans at Super Rugby level in recent seasons have seen to that.

A sizeable contingent of these New Zealand-supporting fans and like-minded fan groupings, mainly from Port Elizabeth, therefore make it their business every year to follow the All Blacks to whichever Test venue in South Africa the team is playing at. Last year it was the FNB Stadium, today Ellis Park.

The uniqueness and peculiarity of this phenomenon is something that even the All Black players and management have over the years found a little odd. Where else in the world do you find a people, be they indigenous or from a colonial background, who so vociferously support a team from another country?

Most South Africans find this anomaly disturbing and perhaps it is this extreme notion of nationality and patriotism that exacerbates the levels of ill-feeling between local Springbok and All Blacks supporters.

And why does this anti-Springbok sentiment run so deep in large sections of the coloured community and not in the black African rugby fraternity, which also boasted a wonderful and rich history in the heartland of the Eastern Cape and which also suffered – and still suffers – the ravages of apartheid?

And why only rugby? Surely cricket has as racially divisive a past as the 15-man sports code.

More than two decades on from unification in cricket and Cricket South Africa is considering anew quotas for black African players in domestic cricket. Why then is there no such fervent support in the Cape for cricket teams from other countries?

I know a generation of South African All Black fans whose love for their team has seen them pass this torch on to their children (and in some cases even naming their offspring in honour of their antipodean heroes). In some cases the political and historical attachment has been dulled with the passing of time and in its place is a bond born out of a deep appreciation for the high octane brand of rugby the All Blacks subscribe to.

My own love affair with the All Blacks ended some years ago. I cannot tell you exactly when. By the 1999 World Cup I was torn between my love for the All Blacks and the desire to support my own country, although the infamous Kamp Staaldraad ahead of the 2003 World Cup so very nearly sent me into a tailspin, the boorishness and archaic attitudes on display being particularly gut-wrenching.

But somewhere along the way I found my Springbok heart and it bleeds green and gold. I rejoiced with not a hint of regret when John Smit lifted the Webb Ellis trophy in 2007 and I raged when four years later our title defence floundered on the whimsical refereeing of Bryce Lawrence.

Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel went from sporting an All Blacks jersey at a Test match at Newlands to handing out the Springbok jerseys to the players ahead of a 2009 Test match against the All Blacks in Bloemfontein. Times change. People change.

Not all is forgiven though. While Mandela displayed a generosity of spirit far beyond most men when he memorably donned the Springbok No 6 jersey of Pienaar in 1995 and later when he stepped in to save the Springbok emblem, I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch Invictus, the movie based on the 1995 rugby World Cup.

Some things are better left consigned to the filing cabinet of history.

Yet today I am proudly South African. And a proud Springbok supporter. That is not to say that all is well in our rugby. We still have a long way to go to achieve real transformation at all levels of rugby, on the playing field, in the boardroom and in terms of resources, and there is still distrust, racism, hostility and even violence at club level, especially in the Western Cape.

But those are no longer valid reasons for me to support the All Blacks. There was a time and a place when those warriors from the Land of the Long White Cloud served a higher purpose. Those days are long gone for me.

* Van Zilla is assistant editor on the Weekend Argus.

Weekend Argus



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